Ballpark Tax Money for Youth Sports Facilities

Written by Jeff Johnson on July 16, 2009. Posted in General

Board Gives Preference to Minneapolis and Inner-Ring Suburbs

The Star Tribune captured relatively well the discussion at Tuesday’s county board meeting about funding of youth sports facilities with ballpark tax revenue.

Below is an abridged version of the story focusing on the amendments I offered to allow every community in Hennepin County an equal opportunity to benefit from the county-wide ballpark tax. 

Efforts by a suburban Hennepin County commissioner to remove financial need as a primary factor in awarding millions of dollars in grants for youth sports facilities failed on Tuesday.

 The plan governing how to use part of a county sales tax that helps pay for the new Twins ballpark was approved mostly unchanged from the original proposal. The sole changes added language that said all county residents should be able to benefit from the county-wide tax and that one of the criteria to be considered when evaluating grant applications would be “equitable distribution throughout the county.”

Board Chairman Mike Opat, one of the authors of the original proposal, was quick to point out that “equitable does not mean equal.” Commissioner Jeff Johnson failed in his attempt to remove language requiring that grant recommendations “place emphasis on the proposer’s financial need.”

The measure passed by a 6-0 vote, but only after attempts to amend the measure by Johnson and Jan Callison, who represent the western suburbs, were mostly rejected.

The plan to spend up to $4 million this year and $2 million in following years on youth athletics facilities stems from the 2006 state law that allowed Hennepin County to use a 0.15 percent sales tax to help fund the Twins ballpark. The law included provisions allowing the county to use excess funds from the tax to expand library hours and aid youth sports. That money cannot be used for any other purpose.

The original resolution specifically mentioned “under-served communities and populations” as a target for the funds. That language had disappeared by Tuesday’s meeting, but Johnson and Callison wanted to make sure constituents in areas like Orono and Corcoran also had a shot at the sports funds.

… 

After Johnson pointed out that the board’s original resolution to develop ballpark legislation dictated that “any monies derived for youth sports as part of the resolution be divided equitably throughout” the county, other commissioners unanimously voted to include equitable distribution as one of the criteria for evaluating grant proposals.

Applicants to the Hennepin Youth Sports Program, as it has been named, must partner with local units of government, park systems, cities or school districts.

 

You can read the full story here.

Bottom Line: Despite my opposition, the Hennepin County Twins ballpark tax is in place and will remain so likely until 2032. The legislation allows Hennepin County to spend $2 million per year on youth sports through the life of the bonds. My preference would be to dedicate that $2 million each year to retire ballpark debt and eliminate the ballpark tax three years early, but that is clearly not going to happen, so I will focus instead on distributing the $2 million per year as fairly as possible.

There were two provisions I unsuccessfully sought to delete from the resolution on Tuesday (although only one was mentioned in the Strib story). The first was the provision requiring emphasis on “financial need”. The full clause reads:

“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED … that the grant recommendations evaluate proposals from agencies and programs countywide, but place emphasis on the proposer’s financial need when making grant recommendations…”

Only “local units of government, local park systems, cities and school districts” are eligible to apply for these grants.

This language provides not that emphasis be placed on the need in a community for a youth sports facility, but rather emphasis be placed on the financial need of the requesting governmental entity.  In other words, the worse financial shape the requesting city or school district is in, the better. The likely result of this provision will be that Minneapolis and the inner-ring suburbs will be given preference over the outer-ring suburbs of Hennepin County.

The above language (which remained in the resolution on a 4-2 vote) does not address the need for a new athletic facility or field, but rather the financial condition of the governmental unit requesting the facility or field.

The other provision I sought to delete was contained in the following clause:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that these criteria will be among those considered in evaluating grant applications:
1. need for the facility, including recognizing that many changes in youth sports and activities have occurred in the more densely populated cities in Hennepin;
2. leveraging non-Hennepin County funds and in-kind contributions;
3. sustainability of ongoing operating funds;
4. inclusion of environmental improvements…

I did not seek to delete the “need for the facility” criteria, as that should be the primary consideration for applications.  I did unsuccessfully seek to delete the language regarding the population density of cities. Although this language is somewhat vague, the intent is pretty clear: densely populated cities in Hennepin County (again, primarily Minneapolis and the inner-ring suburbs) should be given preference in funding.

I was pleased (and a bit surprised) that we succeeded in adding as a fifth criteria to the clause above, “equitable distribution throughout the county.” It wasn’t a huge victory, but it was a victory nonetheless.

My intent as a Commissioner is not to constantly pit outer-ring suburbs against Minneapolis and the inner-ring, and I don’t intend to whine about the fact that western suburban taxpayers are paying property taxes into Hennepin County in significant disproportion to what they receive – or even request – back (although an occassional complaint about this is warranted).

Most of us in the hinterlands of Hennepin County recognize that there is a disparity in income throughout the county and the economic need for help is greater in the eastern portion of the county than in the west.  Like many other things, I would assume that there is probably a greater “need” (many would call it a “want”) for new youth sports facilities in Minneapolis than in Greenfield, for example, and would expect that the primary criteria of “need for the facility” will address that disparity.

What is unnecessary is to bias the results of this need-based analysis by granting specific preference to more densely populated cities or to requesting governmental units that are in poor financial condition.  Neither preference has any bearing on a community’s “need” for a youth sports facility.

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