Added funding for Rochester parks will likely require voter support.
“It would be good to have buy-in from the community,” Rochester City Council President Randy Staver said Monday after hearing a report regarding potential park funding options, all of which would require some form of tax increase.
The city’s 2016 Parks and Recreation System Plan identified more than $80 million in potential improvements, based on increased demand and proposed upgrades, but the proposals reviewed are unlikely to bridge the entire gap.
“Voters are generally willing to pay $20 to $30 a year in additional taxes for parks and conservation,” said Will Abberger, vice president and director of finance for Trust for Public Land.
With that in mind, the council focused on a potential referendum question for the Nov. 3 ballot, which could generate $1 million a year with an added $17 annual tax on the average home in the city or $2 million with a $33 annual increase.
Abberger said the nonprofit trust isn’t ready to recommend whether a referendum is the right move or how big the request should be.
For now, he said the trust would plan a phone survey of registered voters to determine whether the city council should consider moving forward. The trust will fund the survey, which is expected to cost about $25,000.
“We will not hesitate to tell you that now is not the time,” he said of the potential for negative survey results, adding that the national organization would prefer to focus its efforts on communities where the likelihood of passage is highest.
Council members questioned whether a potential referendum amid the COVID-19 pandemic is the right move, but Abberger said the survey will reveal any potential negative impacts.
At the same time, he pointed to seven communities that passed similar referendums in the months since the pandemic hit U.S. shores. They ranged from a $367,000 referendum in Berthoud, Colo., to $60 million approved by voters in Bozeman, Mont.
Mayor Kim Norton said she was pleasantly surprised by the report, but also suggested a delay might be needed.
“I would hate for this to fail,” she said. “I want to give it every opportunity for success that we can.”
Abberger said park referendums tend to do their best during elections with high voter turnout, which is expected with this year’s presidential election.
Council members also cited concerns about business impacts, since all property taxes in the city would increase if a referendum is approved.
“Commercial property taxes are already astronomically high,” said council member Annalissa Johnson, a small-business owner.
Council member Michael Wojcik suggested city staff ask the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce officials for input, to gauge whether business owners would support the effort to generate added funds for parks.
“I’m supportive of giving people the option, but the issue is there are a lot of impacts that aren’t directly from the people who are voting,” he said.
Staver agreed, adding that the council doesn’t need to make its final decision on the issue until more information is available.
“We have a decision ahead of us after we get to see the survey results,” he said.
To appear on the Nov. 3 ballot, the question must be submitted to the state by Aug. 21.