Writer’s Block:Coon Rapids seeks park referendum support

Cities placing referendums on election ballots in this day and age are a rare occurrence. It is usually school districts going to the voters for approval to maintain existing operating property tax levies for the day-to-day running of their schools, or to increase the levy because of lack of state funding. There have also been some recent school district referendum votes on levies to enhance technology in school districts.

Peter Bodley
Peter Bodley

But on the Nov. 5 general election ballot along with some school board races, but precious little else, will be a city of Coon Rapids’ park bond referendum, asking voters to approve a park bond issue totaling no more than $17.2 million.

Normally, school board elections don’t draw a large turnout, unless there is a levy referendum on the ballot. District 11 is not planning one this year, which leaves only a couple of school board races affecting some Coon Rapids precincts, not all.

So it is incumbent on Coon Rapids voters to take the time and make the effort to go the polls Nov. 5 and cast their vote on the bond issue, whether they agree with it or not.

This is not a case of the city council trying to force something down the throat of it citizens, but rather giving residents a chance for their voice to be heard at the ballot box on what councilmembers have called a quality of life issue.

The park bond referendum has been a long time in the making. Back in the early years of the 2000s, the council spent some $500,000 annually redeveloping a park each year, but when the recession hit, the city’s Local Government Aid was eliminated by the Minnesota Legislature. As the state faced massive budget shortfalls and the city’s revenues shrank, the annual park redevelopment project was one of the victims.

That’s when the notion of a park referendum first surfaced. The council retained a consultant to update the city’s parks and trails master plan and working with the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, came up with a list of high, medium and low priorities for improvement projects covering the entire parks and trails system. Those were unveiled at an open house last year.

The council realized that implementing even the top priorities of the master plan could not be undertaken through the annual tax levy because of the cost and would need voter support of a park bond referendum at the polls.

Working closely with its Parks and Recreation Commission at a series of meetings, the council came up with a list of projects and a bond issue figure of $21.5 million, then earlier this year hired Decision Resources to conduct a telephone survey of a sampling of Coon Rapids residents to get their views on a number of issues, but especially the proposed park improvements.

The results of the survey showed more support than opposition for all but one of the proposed projects, although the support was not overwhelming. However, the survey results were enough for the council to decide to move ahead with the park referendum, but also to lower the bond amount to $17.2 million by cutting out the one project that received a negative survey response and scaling back some others.

All but one of the park projects involve redevelopment of existing facilities; the only new park proposed is what has been called Boulevard Park, which would be created in front of the Coon Rapids Ice Center on Coon Rapids Boulevard. Money is also proposed for the expansion of regional trails in the city and closing gaps in existing trails.

Parks on the list for redevelopment if the referendum passes include Sand Creek, Crooked Lake, Riverview, Lions Coon Creek, Pheasant Ridge, Woodcrest, Mason, Delta and Riverwind.

Brochures will be mailed to all residents in July providing information on the referendum, the cost and its impact in taxes, as well as a project list complete with concept drawings on the proposed improvements. Detailed plans for each park would only be prepared if the referendum passes and then would be presented at individual neighborhood meetings.

Residents should take the time to learn everything they can about the referendum and its ramifications by studying the brochure and other materials that proponents and/or opponents of the referendum might present, as well as asking questions at events and meetings where the park bond referendum might be on the agenda, for example, the upcoming Coon Rapids Summer in the City programs that will take place in five different parks this summer.

The council is asking residents for their support of the referendum and it is up to voters to be as informed as possible when they cast their ballot in November.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]