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Duluth mayor calls for hefty levy increase to support city parks

The proposed change would boost dedicated park funding by 63%.

Bayfront Festival Park file
Blues fans fill the amphitheater at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth for the 2012 Bayfront Blues Festival.
File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Mayor Emily Larson has proposed a big bump in funding for city parks and hopes residents will get behind the idea, supporting it in a November referendum vote she has asked the City Council to authorize.

This isn't the first time Duluth residents have been asked to pony up additional funds to maintain and improve the city's sprawling park system.

In 2011, 57% of voters approved a plan to levy $2.6 million annually for a dedicated park fund. But in an email sent to councilors Tuesday, Larson noted the sum collected has remained frozen, even as costs have mounted.

Emily Larson_6_0.jpg
Mayor Emily Larson

"Today that flat $2.6 million does not go as far as it did in 2011. While property values have risen and the cost of supporting the parks has increased, this funding has not, nor does it help us get to the core of parks maintenance and facility upkeep," she wrote.

Larson said the effects of diminished financial resources are evident in the waning condition of the city's park system.

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In her letter to the council, she wrote: "I know you understand the issue in many of our neighborhoods — the parks buildings are not to community standards or those of our professional staff. We lack adequate garbage removal funding, and our grounds need more attention than we can afford to provide."

Terese Tomanek
Terese Tomanek

Terese Tomanek, councilor at large, agreed the issue of park system funding needs to be revisited.

"I absolutely think we need to fund our parks more, both for our residents to enjoy and for our tourists to enjoy. You know, we talk about Duluth being a really green city, a wonderful place to come to enjoy the outdoors, and we need to be able to maintain those outdoor spaces," she said.

The original levy equated to a tax rate increase of 0.0472654% at the time, according to a draft ordinance headed to the council. But due to Duluth's growing tax base, that 2023 rate will dwindle to 0.0290052% if the city continues on its current course.

She will represent the 4th District.

Larson proposes to stop collecting a fixed $2.6 million annually and switch to a tax percentage that would generate more funding as the city's tax base grows in value over time. Such a shift to a rate-based system at the 0.0472654% level would generate more than $4.2 million in 2023. That would represent about a 63% increase compared to the $2.6 million currently collected to support city parks.

Hartley Park
Sun shines through conifers along the cross-country ski trail at Hartley Park in Duluth.
File / Duluth News Tribune

While the owner of a $200,000 home paid $94.53 in additional property taxes to support the dedicated park fund in 2012, that sum collected for the parks would slip to $58.01 in 2023 for a residence of equal value without a change of course. Larson's plan would return that park charge to the original $94.53 level for a $200,000 property.

Tomanek said the proposed change would create a natural escalating revenue mechanism that's sorely lacking under the current regimen, "so we can have parks that are something to be really proud of."

And putting the matter to a public vote makes sense to Tomanek, as well. "The council will vote on it first, as to putting a referendum question on the ballot. Then, the people of Duluth can decide," she said.

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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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