Minneapolis parks could get major funding boost

The playground equipment in Longfellow Park
The playground in Longfellow Park in Minneapolis, seen here on Jan. 17, 2015, is one example of equipment some say is long overdue for replacement.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Minneapolis parks may soon get a major infusion of cash.

An $800 million, 20-year spending plan for both parks and streets cleared a key hurdle Wednesday, passing a city council committee unanimously. The full council is expected to pass it Friday.

Backers of the measure say the new money will mean the Park Board will finally be able to address years of deferred maintenance.

The maintenance backlog is obvious at nearly every one of Minneapolis's 160 neighborhood parks. And it's not just faded, squeaky playground equipment and cracked sidewalks.

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Many of Minneapolis' recreation centers — built in a flurry of construction activity in the late 1960s and early '70s — have serious problems.

Roof of the Longfellow Park building
The roof of the building in Longfellow Park in Minneapolis, seen here on Jan. 17, 2015.
Matt Sepic | MPR News 2015

At Longfellow Park, a heavy roof beam has finally yielded to decades of dripping icicles. The end of it, which sits on a brick wall, has about as much structural integrity as a pile of shredded paper.

For the last year, former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew has headed up an effort to fix these problems. His group, Save Our Minneapolis Parks, had been pushing to put a tax referendum on the November ballot. But Andrew says this week's City Council action means the issue won't have to go to voters.

"For some of these council members this was the biggest vote they will ever take," Andrew said. "Because this literally saves the Minneapolis neighborhood parks from falling into irreversible decline.

Under the proposal, the Park Board would get an additional $8 million a year in bond funding for improvement projects in addition to the $2.5 million it already gets. A 1 percent property tax increase is expected to bring in another $3 million annually for day-to-day operations.

At Wednesday's committee meeting, Council Member Abdi Warsame praised the plan, saying the new money will mean big improvements in his ward, to Peavy and Currie Parks, the Brian Coyle Community Center and the Phillips community pool.

"People talk about areas of concentration of poverty. People talk about people of color. People have mentioned equity and racial equity. But this is — in the time I've been in the council — the biggest investment that we have made in terms of addressing the racial equity gap," Warsame said.

While the proposal passed the committee 11-0, there was some vocal opposition from citizens.

Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds said the council should delay voting on the funding until the Park Board addresses complaints that it treats its employees of color unfairly.

"They're not being promoted, or retained in an equitable manner in comparison to their white counterparts," she said. "We do not have a place for a Jim Crow system in the city of Minneapolis, but that's exactly what's happening."

Parks Board employee Cynthia Wilson, who's African-American, says she's been demoted several times. Wilson filed a lawsuit in 2013 after park administrators fired her for allegedly failing to supervise an employee properly. She appealed the decision and was rehired, but says she again became the target of baseless investigations.

Wilson says she loves her job, but told council members the Park Board needs to take a serious look at the way it treats employees of color before getting any additional funds.

"You give this money, what you're doing is you're saying 'Hey, we're going to close our eyes,'" she said. "You continue to be a racist organization. You continue to treat these people the way you want to. And we're going to close our eyes to it. I say, yes we need some money, but not this way."

Park commissioner and board president Liz Wielinski said the board is already doing that. She says over the last five years, Superintendent Jayne Miller has made racial equity training a priority.

"We do know that this is a long, long, long-term process, and we are dedicated to completing it and going forward," she said. "I don't think there's ever a point when you're talking about racial issues where there's an endpoint."

Wielinski said the board on Monday will post on its website a detailed response to the concerns.

Pending final passage of the funding measure, Minneapolis parks will get the additional money from 2017 through 2036.

The ordinance provides even more cash for city streets — an additional $21.2 million dollars a year on top of current spending.

Manda Lillie contributed to this report.