Duluth parks vote affects more than recreationVoters in Duluth will decide Tuesday whether they value city parks and recreational programs enough to reach into their pockets and pay more in property taxes.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
Voters in Duluth will decide Tuesday whether they value city parks and recreational programs enough to reach into their pockets and pay more in property taxes.
If passed, a proposed parks referendum would raise local property taxes by $2.6 million. For the owner of an average-priced home, worth $158,100, this would boost the bill by just under $5 per month, about $60 annually.
Proceeds from the levy would go into a dedicated fund earmarked to improve and maintain local parks and to provide recreational programming. Mayor Don Ness has pledged to earmark $250,000 of the money to support organizations that offer after-school and summer programs for young people.
“The question is: Do we pay for these services or go without them?” said Duluth Mayor Don Ness. “We don’t have the option of any more accounting tricks or gimmicks.”
In the face of continued state funding cuts, Duluth has reduced its parks and recreation department budget steadily since 2003, shrinking annual spending from $2.5 million to $800,000 today.
Ness noted that the city of Rochester, Minn., spends more than $14 million per year on parks and recreation.
At Large City Councilor Jim Stauber said he values city parks but worries about adding to anyone’s financial burden during these difficult economic times.
“This doesn’t seem to be the year to hike property taxes by double digits,” he said. “A lot of Duluthians are struggling, and we don’t want businesses or residents to pack up and move out. I certainly don’t want to see any more foreclosures, either.”
Stauber pointed out that homeowners and other property owners already are facing a significant tax increase during 2012, due to the Minnesota Legislature’s elimination of the Homestead Tax Credit.
State compensation related to that credit was to pump $1.17 million into Duluth’s coffers this year. The disappearing credit payment represented 6.6 percent of Duluth’s $17.8 million budget this year.
Ness said he believes Duluthians are weighing the pros and cons of establishing a dedicated parks fund.
“People love their parks, but they also have legitimate concerns about their property taxes and other incremental costs,” he said, explaining that’s why voters should decide the issue.
To put the parks and recreation referendum in perspective, if passed, it would amount to a 14.6 percent increase in the amount of property tax the city now collects.
But in terms of your total tax bill, the referendum would amount to about a 3.2 percent increase.
The new parks levy would be on top of a 1.3 percent bump in property taxes already built into the 2012 city budget to cover all operations plus the financing for a new law enforcement center. For the owner of an average priced home, worth $158,100, city property taxes already are poised to grow by $23 in 2012, regardless of what happens with the parks and recreation referendum.
School levy proposals also may drive up local property taxes, depending on how voters cast their ballots Tuesday.
Stauber hopes voters realize the implications of their vote Tuesday.
“Some folks seem to think this is a one-time referendum,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize this levy would be forever.”
Ness said creating a dedicated fund with its own defined funding stream would provide a stable base the city can use to invest in parks and programming. And that money could not be diverted for other uses.
Although the referendum on Tuesday’s ballot applies solely to funding for Duluth’s parks and recreation programs, it also could have big implications for the city’s library system.
The current budget calls for the closing of two branch libraries in Mount Royal and West Duluth, which would leave the city with only its main downtown library in 2012.
But Ness has pledged publicly that if voters approve the parks referendum he will use money freed up in the city’s general fund to not only keep the branch libraries open but to expand their hours of operation from three to five days per week.
He said about $500,000 of the $800,000 formerly budgeted for parks would go to the library system, and the remaining $300,000 would go to cover the city’s health-care costs, which are poised to rise in 2012.
While the mayor has his own plans for the money, Stauber said it’s the City Council that ultimately approves a budget.
“I think it’s disingenuous to assume the council will approve funding for the libraries if this passes,” Stauber said.
He suggested some councilors may prefer to see the freed-up money used to pay for other core city services, such as public safety.
“A whole bunch of people think the libraries will be able to stay open if this referendum passes, when in reality, we have no idea how the money will be spent. That’s a council decision,” he said.
But City Council President Sharla Gardner said she believes voters can be confident that the mayor’s promise regarding libraries will be kept if voters pass the parks referendum.
“I’m convinced the majority of people on the council are committed to make sure library hours are extended,” she said.
The 2012 final budget will be approved in December by sitting members of the City Council, before any newly elected councilors are appointed.
If residents decide to support the parks and recreation referendum, Ness predicts multiple benefits, in terms of public safety, economic development and overall quality of life.
The Boys and Girls Club of Duluth would be one of the groups to receive increased funding at a critical juncture.
“As we face difficult economic times, the need for services continues to grow,” said Todd Johnson, the club’s chief professional officer. “This would provide an opportunity for us to provide support for more kids at a time when we’re facing cuts from other funding sources.”
The Boys and Girls Club is serving an ever-broader cross-section of the community, Johnson said.
“We’re seeing more and more middle-class kids, as parents are forced to work longer hours and sometimes more than one job to make ends meet,” he said.
Ness said the services organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club provide help make the community safer.
“Kids with too much time on their hands can get into trouble and fall in with the wrong crowd,” Ness said. “I think this is about our responsibility to kids.”
“It benefits the entire community when kids get involved with us,” Johnson said. “We provide a safe, positive place where young people will find good adult role models.”
By partnering with organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, instead of hiring new city recreational staff, Ness believes the Duluth can stretch its money further.
Ness contends investing Duluth’s neglected parks also could help the city grow.
“I do think our parks, trails and green space are one of the primary reasons people choose to live in Duluth. Our success with economic development and growing our population will be based in large part on that competitive advantage,” he said. “The question is: Do we want to enhance this advantage or are we satisfied with the status quo?”