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Duluth mayor, parks department heads answer levy questions

Should Duluth change its parks fund from a fixed amount to a percentage?

five people sit at a table on a stage
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, center, speaks about a parks fund ballot question during a forum Monday at the Garden, organized by the News Tribune and Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. Also present were, from left, Editorial Page Editor Chuck Frederick, parks manager Jessica Peterson, Director of Parks, Properties and Libraries Jim Filby Williams, and Duluth Area Chamber Foundation Executive Director Daniel Fanning.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — This November, Duluthians will be asked to vote on whether to change the dedicated parks fund levy from a flat rate to a percentage. At a forum Monday morning organized and hosted by the News Tribune and the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Emily Larson was joined by Director of Parks, Properties and Libraries Jim Filby Williams and parks and recreation manager Jessica Peterson to lay out details of the referendum question and answer questions.

What is the referendum question?

The key issue was what voters are being asked to do with this referendum question. To start, Larson explained that about 10 years ago, Duluthians voted to invest in a dedicated parks fund and passed a referendum that collected a flat rate of $2.6 million.

"The question we're asking voters now is, do you want to actually bring that value up into 2022 times, meaning increase the contribution to the parks fund in a measure equal to what you were paying in 2012?" Larson said.

Larson said that while the costs of operating and maintaining the parks have continued to increase since the fund was implemented, the amount of money collected has continued to be $2.6 million.

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"Park facilities, meaning playgrounds, now cost 122% more than they did 10 years ago," Larson said. "And we're operating off a budget plan that didn't take into account the cost of inflation and growing operations. So the basic question before voters is do you want to renew your commitment to parks in equal measure to what you chose in 2012?"

How will the average household be impacted by this increase?

"A house valued at $200,000 in 2012 would have paid $94.53 and the payment associated with that $200,000 home has steadily decreased ever since," Filby Williams said. "Next year it will be $58."

The proposed referendum will take the flat dollar amount and replace it with a percentage: 0.04%. So taxpayers who own a $200,000 home would see their taxes increase back to around $94, a $36 difference.

"Then it will remain that way ever after, neither increasing or decreasing," Filby Williams said. "One of the peculiar and counterintuitive effects of the flat levy is that no amount of community growth or new construction can currently increase these proceeds."

Filby Williams also added that, while the percentage would not change, if a home's value should increase, the homeowner would proportionally pay a little bit more. The levy would also sunset in 25 years to allow for future decisions to be made on it, whether to keep it going or change it.

Why vote to increase taxes with the change?

Filby Williams said that Duluth's "economic renaissance" is in part thanks to the investment in the city's parks, especially the destination parks and amenities such as the Lakewalk.

"But we can't starve the goose that laid the golden egg. We have to continue investing," Filby Williams said. "And I think starving the goose that laid the golden egg is apt because if you were to put to any business, any local government agency, any nonprofit, 'we would like for you to cover all of your 2023 expenses with the income you had in 2012. And in fact, we'd like you to be prepared in 2050 to cover all of your 2050 expenses with the revenue you have in 2012.' It's a slow-motion starvation."

How would the money be used?

Larson emphasized that the funds would be "legally and legislatively identified to only be used for parks" in the same way that street sales tax funds are only used for streets projects.

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St. Louis County Sheriff candidates Jason Lukovsky and Gordon Ramsay took the stage Monday morning at the Duluth News Tribune and Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce's forum.

Funds would be used to increase revamping and replacing some playground equipment, increasing garbage collection from the parks, mowing, custodial service, restroom access, developing major reinvestments in competitive athletic venues, and enhancing park spaces.

"Half of the projected 2023 revenues would go to continue the operations of our parks and recreation division, to continue to support park maintenance," Larson said. "But the additional funding would be prioritized for entirely for enhancing routine maintenance of parks, and expanding and enhancing our capacity for capital reinvestment in deteriorated parks."

Filby Williams added the funds would be leveraged with capital improvement funds, and tourism tax funds as well as grants and donations.

What happens if it doesn't pass?

Larson said she wasn't there to tell voters how to vote but to "give you the information" so voters could decide for themselves.

"I think that some of the things that will happen if this does not pass is that costs will continue to rise and we will continue to have the ability to do less. Not more with less, we will just have to do less," Larson said.

She added that some community buildings would likely have to be closed and torn down and that building use fees would likely increase.

There will be public meetings over the next few weeks that lay out more information about the referendum and allow the public to ask questions at 5 p.m. on Oct. 11 at Morgan Park Community Club, 12:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at Harrison Community Center and 8:30 a.m. Oct. 28 at Portman Community Center.

This story originally gave an incorrect first name for Jim Filby Williams. It was updated at 10:15 p.m. Oct. 3 with the proper name. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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