Duluth considers next steps after parks referendum fails

The narrow defeat leaves city officials wondering how best to fund local parks.

Hartley Park
Sun shines through conifers along the cross-country ski trail at Hartley Park in Duluth.
2015 File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — City leaders sought to unpack the failure of a city parks referendum and consider new strategies to fund local trails and recreational amenities Wednesday, one day after voters narrowly rejected a plan to boost local property taxes. The measure fell 203 votes short of passage, or a margin of just 0.56%.

While Mayor Emily Larson expressed her disappointment with the outcome, she said, “I am so incredibly proud of us, as a community, for asking this important question and asking it when it was needed, not when it was politically convenient.”

She said, “We are all still recovering and hurting and struggling with the effects of the pandemic and many variables that are changing how we get through our daily lives. And I do think it’s important to recognize there are a lot of people financially hurting, and this wasn’t a commitment they could make at this time. And that’s OK.”

Duluth already has a dedicated property tax that raises $2.6 million annually to support city parks and trails, but Larson announced in August her hope to change that fixed revenue stream into one that grows with the increasing value of the local property base, putting the proposal to a public referendum vote in November.

At large City Councilor Noah Hobbs said supporters of the idea were hard pressed to make the case for a tax change so swiftly.


“Not having a lot of time to educate folks of this modest investment that could significantly improve parks worked against us. I also think having everything be so loud on the state and federal levels makes it really hard to really get local things through,” he said. “So, I think it was just a product of bad timing and a late start.”

Follow along with major races in the Northland

At large City Councilor Terese Tomanek also acknowledged the timing of the request was tough.

“I’m really grateful that people were willing to consider it, because this is a difficult time for folks, senior citizens and people who are on fixed budgets and people in general. There’s so much we’re unsure of — the inflation rate, the fed raising interest rates — that when people looked at their budgets, they really had to consider whether they would be able to find room for this increase,” she said.

Nevertheless, Tomanek said she remained hopeful the parks levy would be approved, especially in light of strong support the proposal received from the Duluth Area Outdoor Alliance, and the educational campaign charge led by Councilor Hobbs.

Despite the outcome, she believes the referendum has started a valuable conversation.

“Let’s continue to have our parks be a place where we’re proud and feel safe to bring our children and grandchildren,” Tomanek said.

Hobbs said he believes the referendum could well have passed with the benefit of a few more weeks additional time to educate voters, especially in light of the complicated nature of the question put to the public Tuesday.

“It doesn’t help when you have the longest question on the ballot,” he said, referring to the referendum question, riddled with confusing legalese out of necessity.


Larson said the cumbersome nature of the language on the ballot made the level of support the referendum received that much more remarkable.

Despite the referendum’s recent defeat, Larson said it could be reintroduced in some form in the future. She pointed to the example of a referendum to allow sales of liquor in Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood that passed only with the benefit of repeat votes.

“It’s not unusual to ask the same question at a different time or in a different way,” she said.

In the meantime, Tomanek said residents will need to adjust their expectations to conform with the park department’s stretched financial resources.

“It’s really hard for people to accept both principles, that we want to continue to have the services and the facilities we’ve always had, but we don’t want to pay more for them. It just doesn’t work that way,” Tomanek said. “So, there are unfortunately going to be changes.”

Larson said she hopes local stakeholders will continue to explore their options for funding Duluth’s park system.

“I still know and believe that this community loves and values their parks. So, we’re just going to keep working the problem, and the right answer will emerge. Or several right answers may emerge,” she said.

“But you don’t find that right answer and you don’t find that right landing point unless you actually start asking the honest question. And I’m so proud of this community for asking it, and for 36,000 people weighing in. That’s amazing.”

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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