Duluth voters nix tax increase for parks

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson can’t say no one warned her about the timing of her plan to put a tax increase for city parks on the ballot this year. The News Tribune didn’t mince words in editorializing against asking voters to approve a property tax increase for parks at a time of sky-high inflation and already significant tax hikes on the way in 2023.

The needs are there, but the city’s timing couldn’t be worse.

We’re still struggling to get past a pandemic. Inflation is at a 40-year high. And gas prices, food prices, and the costs of pretty much everything else are busting families’ budgets.

In addition, Mayor Emily Larson and the Duluth City Council are proposing to raise the city’s share of property taxes by as much as 8.9% in 2023. How many have seen their wages go up 8.9% in a single year? The Duluth School Board also voted unanimously last month to set its share of our property tax bill “as high as state administrators will allow,” as the News Tribune reported. And the St. Louis County Board gave preliminary approval to a 4.39% levy hike.

A property tax increase for parks, too? As much as we love our green spaces, Duluth voters can say no. Or at least not now.

The current parks levy approved by residents in 2011 already provides $2.6 million annually to supplement the park department’s budget. City hall argued the increased levy that would raise $4.2 million a year was necessary because the funds don’t go as far as they used to. The amount collected would further rise with property values, according to the Star Tribune.

Voters were asked to approve conversion of the Park Fund levy to a fixed percentage of property value dedicated to parks funding, rather than continue paying the fixed dollar amount — $2.6 million annually — approved by voters in 2011. The change from a fixed dollar amount to a fixed percentage would mean tax collections would vary in line with property values.

City officials have cited declining playground and facility conditions and the role parks play in Duluth’s economy as reasons for the request.

Officials essentially made the case that residents couldn’t afford not to raise the levy. But the News Tribune editorial board raised questions about the convoluted process for funding parks in making its case against approval.

…the city is quite good at partnering with private entities to attract grants and other funding sources for parks, trails, and more. We can be reminded that tourism tax proceeds are already being used for “destination parks” and that more could be allocated. And we can recall that our city officials and elected city leaders have the ability to find funds elsewhere in city coffers to pay for parks-related necessities. They can make hard decisions, recognizing that parks, oftentimes, are a core service residents should be able to expect our city government to find ways to pay for.

Emptying garbage cans and mowing grass shouldn’t require a voter-approved levy increase, yet both were identified as spending increases that would be made possible with voter approval by the mayor at a public forum last month in Canal Park co-sponsored by the News Tribune and Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce.

It was close but Duluth residents rejected the levy increase by about 200 votes. Afterward, Larson acknowledged her constituents face tough times, but made it clear she’ll be back.

This is a time when every dollar makes a difference. Every financial decision in our households matter. Inflation is up. Groceries cost more. Gas, heat and the cost of living are high.

And still, this question performed well.

This also shows that every conversation, and every vote, matters.

The work to get this question that close has created important awareness and started a conversation that I am confident will continue.