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Duluth ballot asks for higher taxes to restore services

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Duluth library
A mural of books near the entrance to the main Duluth library on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011 in Duluth, Minn. A parks and libraries referendum will appear on this year's ballot in Duluth that will create a special levy fund for parks and recreation while allowing the city to take general fund money previously allocated for parks and recreation and dedicate it to keeping branch libraries open five days a week and allowing the main library to operate at full capacity.
Photo for MPR by Derek Montgomery

Many Minnesota cities have whittled away at their library and park budgets the past few years, and Duluth is no exception.

But it is taking the unusual step next week of asking residents to vote on whether they want to raise their taxes to restore some of the services that have been cut.

Duluth's formal referendum is how one community is making choices as a changing state budget and a slow economy put new financial pressures on local governments.

On the ballot Tuesday will be a proposal that would establish a dedicated park fund of $2.6 million. The measure would raise property taxes 3.2 percent. If it doesn't pass, the city's 129 parks and public spaces would take cuts beyond those instituted recently and rely more heavily on volunteers. City funded recreation programs have been all but eliminated, lawns are mowed less often and deteriorating playground equipment isn't replaced. City officials say the referendum would also free money from the general fund to avoid big cuts to library services. If the referendum passes, it would save two branch libraries from permanently closing in January, and it would restore service hours that have been cut at the main downtown library.

Along a commercial corridor on the west side of Duluth, it's easy to see why this is a difficult decision.

Alta Wickham is co-owner of a brand new business called Dungeon's End, one of a few new businesses sprouting in an area scattered with empty storefronts. It's a hobby shop that sells collectable games, like Dungeons and Dragons.

The potential tax increase has Wickham worried.

"It definitely concerns me, because we sank quite a bit of money into trying to get this business up and running on our own completely, because no banks are lending at all," she said. "To have to pay that much more in taxes actually does make a significant difference to us as a start-up business."

It's already clear that residential and commercial property owners in Duluth will pay more in taxes this year. Figures from the St. Louis County auditor show that a $300,000 commercial property in Duluth will see a nearly 9 percent tax increase. That's based on proposed budgets from the city, county and school district. If you add in a school referendum and the city's parks and library referendum, the tax hike would climb into double digits.

Playfront Park
Jeff Winkels (left) pushes sons Caleb Winkels (far right) and Simon Winkels (middle) on a tire swing Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011 at Playfront Park in Duluth, Minn. A parks and libraries referendum will appear on this year's ballot in Duluth that will create a special levy fund for parks and recreation while allowing the city to take general fund money previously allocated for parks and recreation and dedicate it to keeping branch libraries open five days a week and allowing the main library to operate at full capacity.
Photo for MPR by Derek Montgomery

For the city of Duluth, the budget crunch is all about declining state revenues. The city has lost millions in Local Government Aid from the state since 2003. City leaders slashed $7 million dollars from the budget over the past four years. The brunt of those cuts have fallen on city parks and libraries.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness said the city council could have passed the tax hike itself without a referendum. But it didn't, and that's unusual. Most voters in the state will be considering referendums only for school spending, not for basic city services.

Ness blames state lawmakers for slashing aid to cities in order to hold down income taxes. He said the end result is more tax pressure on property owners.

"When the relationship deteriorates between local governments and the state, then it kind of forces our hand to put very unpopular decisions before our constituents," Ness said. "Property taxes are one of the worst ways to pay for government services. And yet it's the only tool that local governments have."

Duluth city council member Jim Stauber opposes the referendum. He worries that higher taxes will drive away businesses and jobs. Stauber said people expect police and fire protection and safe roads from their city government, but tough times mean people should lower expectations for things like parks and libraries.

Clarice Hietala
Wearing a shirt with "Our libraries are essential" on it, Clarice Hietala (left) of Duluth, Minn. listens to Duluth mayor Don Ness speak about the importance of passing a parks and library referendum. The referendum would create a special levy fund for parks and recreation while allowing the city to take general fund money previously allocated for parks and recreation and dedicate it to keeping branch libraries open five days a week and allowing the main library to operate at full capacity.
Photo for MPR by Derek Montgomery

"You can't have it all, so you try and balance those things," Stauber said. "Perhaps there are higher priorities than the parks for this year and maybe next year. And in follow-up years, perhaps things will be a little more flush.

Referendum supporters say beautiful public spaces like Chester Park are a big part of the quality of life in the city. The park is perched on a hillside above downtown Duluth. Crystal Taylor said people come to ski and to hike the 10 kilometers of picturesque trails. Taylor is encouraging people to vote 'yes' next Tuesday.

"If we don't turn to the people to get this funding, there isn't going to be any money allocated to maintain and take care of our city parks," Taylor said. "If it doesn't pass, I hope people are ready to volunteer and to start giving of their time."