“Closing the Gap: Insider Insights for Park Funding” explores neighborhood park funding strategies in other citiesPosted on 5 October, 2015
Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) staff hosted more than 30 public meetings throughout Minneapolis this summer to discuss how insufficient funding has impacted its highly-used, aging network of neighborhood parks.
While MPRB processes feedback received from the community, four distinguished park and recreation advocates from large urban park agencies across the country were invited to Minneapolis on September 29 to share how their cities tackled similar funding challenges.
“We have learned a lot over the past three months about Minneapolitans’ preferences on the best way to gather and utilize resources needed to program, operate, repair and rehab these parks,” said Jayne Miller, Superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. “It seemed fitting to wrap up our public meetings with an opportunity for the community to hear how other urban park agencies have addressed neighborhood park funding issues.”
“Closing the Gap: Insider Insights for Park Funding” featured representatives from Indianapolis, New York City, Portland and Seattle participating in a 90-minute panel discussion on creative park funding strategies, followed by a question and answer session with the audience. Each city’s park agency deals with its own unique challenges, complicated by vastly different methods of governance, but common themes still emerged.
Public Accountability and Transparency
Seattle recently passed one of the most sweeping park funding solutions in the country. In 2014, 53 percent of voters approved the creation of a park district with permanent, independent taxing authority. The Seattle Park District can collect up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, although its first collection in 2016 will be less than half of that (33 cents per $1,000) for an estimated initial annual total of $47.8 million. The taxes obtained are dedicated solely to park maintenance, management, improvement and acquisition within Seattle city boundaries.
Panelist Thatcher Bailey is the Executive Director of the Seattle Parks Foundation, a non-profit critical to the establishment of the new park district. He said the strongest opposition to the park district stemmed from concern about the loss of public accountability on park spending. Creating a permanent park funding source allows for improved planning, longer-lasting assets and eases uncertainty during rocky economic periods, but it eliminated the need for a public referendum that was previously held every six years.
“We took great pains to ensure absolute, strict citizen oversight in all expenditures,” he said.
The elected Seattle City Council serves as the governing body of the park district with direct input from a 15-member Community Oversight Committee. They have to work together to pass a spending plan every six years.
(Above: MPRB Superintendent Jayne Miller delivers opening remarks at the forum)
In 2014, 72 percent of Portland voters approved issuing a $68 million general obligation bond to address a park maintenance backlog. Panelist Warren Jimenez, Assistant Director of Portland Parks and Recreation, cited a detailed breakdown showing exactly how $40 million of the bond would be spent over the next 5-7 years as a major reason the measure enjoyed such tremendous support.
After the initial $40 million list of projects is completed, Jimenez says park officials will conduct another public conversation to determine how the reminder of the money is spent.
New York City utilizes hundreds of partnerships with park advocacy groups ranging in size from the Central Park Conservancy with an endowment worth several hundred million dollars to tiny “Friends of” organizations focused on improving much smaller neighborhood parks.
Panelist Liam Kavanagh, Deputy Director of New York City Parks and Recreation, said these organizations are essential to meeting the incredibly diverse needs of the New York City’s communities during a time of skyrocketing growth.
“Frankly, government, and in particular the parks department, can’t keep up with the pace of development and growth in the city right now,” he said. “Our partners have a lot of latitude to be creative, and that’s something we want and something we’ve benefitted from, but every park is still part of the New York City park system and our partners cannot be fully independent actors.”
In Indianapolis, panelist Joe Wynns spearheaded an extensive partnership with local churches when a 1990s benchmarking study exposed “terrible” park maintenance inefficiencies. Wynns, former Director of Indianapolis Parks and Recreation, convinced churches residing near neighborhood parks to take responsibility for four core maintenance duties: mowing, trimming, trash cleanup and cleaning surfaces.
Indianapolis issued competitive grants worth between $500 and $5,000 per year to churches to perform those basic maintenance tasks, increasing efficiency while tapping into the power organized stakeholders can offer. And in the end, the public still maintained ultimate control.
“We told them you can’t baptize nobody in the park,” he said.
With more skin in the game, churches’ involvement in Indianapolis parks grew to include programming for both youth and the homeless. Each panelist agreed partnerships can be very effective in providing or supplementing programming and maintenance within neighborhood parks.
Analytics and Equity
A “galvanizing moment” in Portland’s push for park maintenance bonds happened when park officials were forced to close down a popular wooden play structure in Couch (pronounced “kooch”) Park’s playground. Engineers studied the structure, located within a densely populated downtown neighborhood, and determined it had deteriorated to the point where it was unsafe for kids to play on.
“People began to realize [the $68 million bond] was about repairing and replacing what we had, to prevent that from happening again,” said Jimenez.
New York City Parks and Recreation is a mayoral agency. Park funding is never done through levies, bonds or referendums; instead park leadership and budget priorities are determined through the mayor’s office.
Last year newly-elected Mayor Bill de Blaiso pledged $130 million in capital dollars to rebuild 35 neighborhood parks across each of the city’s five boroughs. The parks chosen had less than $250,000 in capital investment during the last 20 years, and neighborhoods around those parks all experienced sustained population growth, high population density and contain an above-average percentage of residents living below the poverty level.
“Cities are built around neighborhoods and neighborhoods are built around institutions,” said Kavanagh. “And no institution ties people together like the neighborhood park.”
See below for a full video of the forum:
Closing the Gap: Investing in our Neighborhood Parks
An abundance of information on the state of Minneapolis’ neighborhood parks is available at minneapolisparks.org/closingthegap. There you can find:
• “Park Profiles” detailing where investments have been made and where funding gaps are in every neighborhood park in the city. (Under “Background” tab)
• A neighborhood parks fact sheet explaining how the funding gap was created and what MPRB is doing already to help close it.
• An FAQ with concise answers to 27 questions commonly asked at this summer’s Closing the Gap meetings.
To stay informed on Closing the Gap please visit minneapolisparks.org/closingthegap and sign up for email updates.
For a comprehensive examination of MPRB’s budget and how it is created visit minneapolisparks.org/budget.