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Duluth City Council will be asked to authorize park levy referendum

The proposed tax increase could help launch a $15 million Spirit Valley center for youth and community wellness.

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Duluth's Memorial Park could become the home of a proposed Spirit Valley community center.
File 2017 / City of Duluth
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DULUTH — Mayor Emily Larson launched a campaign Thursday to generate support for a proposal that could provide more funding for city parks.

“Today, we are here to talk about an exciting announcement and opportunity for the community to revisit their investment in the park system,” said Larson at a Thursday morning news conference.

She noted that city residents voted in 2012 to support a dedicated park fund capped at $2.6 million, but those dollars don’t stretch as far a decade later.

“We are asking the question again 10 years later to see if the community remains committed to investing in parks and to give them an opportunity to adjust the investment in parks to match the tax rate that was equivalent in 2011,” Larson said.

She explained that as the value of Duluth’s property base has grown, the tax rate charged to provide city parks with a fixed $2.6 million in funding actually has declined from .047% to .029%. As a consequence, the owner of a $200,000 home in 2012 would have paid $94.53, but the owner of an equal value home today pays just $58.01.

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If Larson’s proposal is approved, the dedicated tax charged to support city parks would snap back to .04%, boosting anticipated collections from $2.6 million to about $4.1 million. If approved, the new parks levy would remain in effect for the next 25 years.

The Duluth City Council is expected to be asked Monday if it supports the mayor’s plan to put the question as to whether the city should adjust the parks levy to a public vote in November.

The council also will take up a resolution in support of plans to help build a $15 million Spirit Valley center for youth and community wellness. The proposed center would be built on city land at Memorial Park, next door to the Laura McArthur Elementary School following a city/nonprofit collaboration model along the lines of Hartley Nature Center and the Gary-New Duluth Development Alliance.

As envisioned, the Spirit Valley center could offer a range of services, including daycare, school readiness programs, after-school activities, senior programming, nutrition guidance and other events to promote community health and wellness.

At large city councilor and parks commission liaison Terese Tomanek noted that a recent inventory and assessment of the city’s 160 parks found “only 8% of those parks can be considered to be in good condition.”

She called the situation “disheartening” and said: “We need to be able to bring that level up.”

Parks Manager Jessica Peterson said, “We’ve heard that our levels of service don’t always stack up to expectations. While we must live within our means, that does mean there are resource challenges and limitations that cause us to, at times, fall short of those community expectations.”

Peterson told city councilors Thursday night that a readjusted parks levy could be a game-changer, because “our consultants have informed us that we are underfunded to meet the expectations of our community.”

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The City Council also will vote on another resolution Monday stipulating its intent for the city to expend future park funding in a way that is geographically equitable, with comparable funding of projects in western, central and eastern Duluth.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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