Recently, the phrase, 'Everything must be on the table,' has been uttered a lot at Minneapolis city hall. The words are spoken by city officials who must patch a $13 million hole in this year's budget. The trend points to more and deeper aid cuts in the next two years.
The proposal, authored by council member Paul Ostrow, has a few recommendations. First, to consolidate the oversight of the city's major departments under one city coordinator. The second, to eliminate the Board of Estimate and Taxation - a body which sets tax levies for the city and the park board. But the most controversial change would eliminate the 126-year-old park board and its elected board of commissioners.
"We are almost unique in the country in having a separate, elected park board," Ostrow said. "Most cities have an advisory board that makes recommendations to their council and mayor on capitol and operation of their parks."
Ostrow wants an appointed panel of park advisors. He said it will cut redundant services and it would also do away with an independent board that has sometimes clashed with the city council. The latest example, when park board commissioners recently denied a city request to use park land for the city's Wi-Fi network construction.
Ostrow said he can't quantify the cost savings, but said the proposal would make sense even in better economic times. For example, Ostrow said the creation of a new city coordinator position will save the council members from doing the work that should be done by a manager.
"The council and mayor, we're the policy makers. We're the ones who set the vision for the city, the policies for the city," Ostrow said. "We're not primarily here to manage and implement the programs. We're here to set the priorities and then to have strong, professional management hold people accountable for the policies we develop and we don't have that now in our system of government."
But some are not convinced that this plan is the best way to help the city through rough times.
"I don't know that mergers are a solution for cost savings," said Sheldon Mains, the board chair of the Seward Neighborhood Association.
Mains is also a former member of the Minneapolis Library Board - which recently dissolved after the city's libraries merged with the Hennepin County Library system. Mains also served on the Board of Estimate and Taxation.
Earlier this week, Mains and members of the Seward board met with their council member and park board commissioner to discuss the proposal. He said Seward is a very 'park-centered' neighborhood and board members expressed concerns about how the elimination of the park board would affect park funding.
"I don't see that this consolidation would actually save any money," Mains said. "The park board and the city council already have arrangements for sharing services where the park board does some things for the city and the city does some things for the park board."
The dissolution of the park board is not a new idea. Former council member Steve Minn brought up the idea in 1996. Minn said his proposal was met with laughs and that he supports the other parts of council member Paul Ostrow's plan. But, Minn said that if Ostrow really wants to streamline city government, he should go a little further. Minn said more than 50 years ago Minneapolis needed 13 council members, but it doesn't now.
"We now have a population loss from 1955 that suggests we should only have nine council members to maintain the same ratio that we had in 1955," Minn said. "The time now is to change the charter to have nine wards, not 13."
Ostrow's proposal will require amending the city's charter, and that requires a referendum. Ostrow said he needs four more council members to vote with him to get the proposal on the ballot for this fall. However, Ostrow said it will take several weeks of committee meetings and public hearings before that vote will happen.