The tip of the Ice Arena budget iceberg


Intermission

The voters said “no” to building a new Arena back in November 2018, but the old Arena is still City property, still operated by the City, still barely functional, and whether to fix it still unresolved. But now it is budget season for the City and some choices will need to be made.

The Ice Arena is still a problem

Unfortunately, budget discussions are not as well-publicized as a referendum (indeed, the Council hides beyond the reach of video at the Police Station for budget talks), so in this intermission between the referendum first period and the budget decision second period on the Ice Arena, let’s review what’s happened and consider some questions the Council should answer before spending more money.

In November 2018, about 55% of Northfield voters voted against the ballot question to 45% in favor.  Interestingly, the only two precincts with a majority of voters supporting the question were the two college precincts, Ward 1-Precinct 1 (Carleton) and Ward 4-Precinct 2 (Olaf). If you take out the college precincts, the majority opposed was about 60% (click here for the MN Secretary of State results).

While we wait for the next puck to drop at City Hall, conversations I had with people not supporting the referendum last year revealed three general complaints:

  1. The “Civic Center” was really just a hockey facility [and the city was not being transparent and/or honest],
  2. The picture was too rosy, [and the city was not being transparent and/or honest] and,
  3. Wow, that’s a lot of money which could be better spent on other things [and this included a variety of concerns about spending, taxes, and priorities].

Process

In the budget timeline where a preliminary levy must be adopted by September, there is little time for Northfield to correct the process problems for next year, but the City needs to follow a much fairer and more transparent procedure to reach its next long-term decision. Obviously, the City needs help: 

This is an understatement

Be deliberate: Resist the urge to act quickly while you take the time to consider a broader range of options for ice in the community and who pays for it. Especially, take the time to (1) develop some financial policy about how the City can budget for the longterm maintenance and replacement of its facilities (any facility, not just the Arena!) before building a new one, and (2) consider how to equitably allocate resources to parks and recreation, and among recreational choices within that allocation.

Eliminate conflicts of interest: The Northfield Ice Arena Advisory Board was a hand-picked group of ice stakeholders from hotel owners (who benefit from the promised increased tourist dollars), to hockey and figure skating leaders (who benefit from the ice), to construction company owners (who could benefit from building the facility), the school district (which benefits by having the city do the heavy financial lifting for its teams).

Seek broader representation from the community including people for whom tax increases pose a real burden not just those who can afford to pay, people who skate and people who don’t, people who play other sports and those who play none, supporters and opponents, the School District, etc.  “What Northfield wants (and should pay for)” needs to be assessed by a better cross-section of the community.

Clearly state the costs and risks as well as the projected benefits for any Arena project  (and any other project): Large capital projects cost a lot to build, but each project creates the on-going obligation to repair and replace the new facility, road, bridge, etc.  Governments generally, not just Northfield, have not been very good about understanding and budgeting for this reality.  So the $21M price tag for the the proposed Civic Center was only the projected cost of construction, but did not include  the other costs which taxpayers will have to pay over the life of the facility including maintenance and repair, possible operating deficits, change in rates of participation, etc. Smaller plans to repair or remodel should consider the same long-term commitment.

Don’t consider the Ice Arena by itself, but plan for it as part of Northfield’s Parks and Recreation System. The key word here is “system.” Northfield has more than 30 Parks, 2 recreation facilities (outdoor swimming pool and ice arena), and miles of trails.

“How about a referendum just for parks?” came up more than once as voters thought about the 30% of the sales tax revenue which could have been allocated for recreation and parks. Most people said things like parks are important to them and providing recreational opportunities for Northfield was desirable, but the huge amount of money for ice was too much for one activity or just too much.

The City must discuss how to support its park and recreation system in the long term before committing to support a facility for a small group of very expensive sports. Ten years ago, when Gov. Pawlenty unallotted local government aid to Northfield, the Council voted to take money from parks to offset this sudden disappearance of revenue and long term park funding has still not recovered. Now’s the time and a good transition to the policy problems.

Big picture policy questions

Aspiration: If I had to pick just one aspect of Northfield government to change,  I’d say: The City needs to stop making decisions on a project by isolated project basis and start considering how it spends money in the context of the overall needs of the city, guided by it adopted policies, and armed with current and relevant data.

The Ice Arena is a stunning example of a single project put before the voters without context, without long-term planning, and without connections to the other priorities in the Strategic Plan, economic development priorities, the Capital Improvement Plan, or the Comprehensive Plan.  

The next attempt to address the ice arena should improve the process and ask (at least) these policy questions before getting to a specific project (or no project at all).

Big question 1: Equity and access: Is Northfield’s parks, trails, and recreation system (taken as a whole) equitable and accessible to all Northfield residents?

Parks, for example, should be located in places which are within easy (walking) distance of all residents.  A look at the map shows the northern part of the city is less well connected to trails, has parks which are hidden behind homes with little street frontage (creating the perception of private space), and large playing fields only at Greenvale Park Elementary School (likely to disappear when the new school is built). 

City of Northfield Parks Map

For major facilities like the outdoor pool and ice arena, the question is less about location than whether the facility supports activities able to be enjoyed the broadest cross section of the community. Swimming is a basic safety skill (and one unequally distributed) as well as cool recreation, so providing access to a pool (which hosts swim lessons via community education) seems like it could tick the right boxes, but the City should consider what its system and facilities supports now and what it should do.

Big question 2: Public facilities for school and private sports: The largest users of the Ice Arena are other organizations: the Northfield School District, the Northfield Hockey Association, and the Northfield Skating School.  What, if any, role should the City of Northfield play in building and maintaining public facilities for non-public activities?  Compare Sechler Park or Spring Creek Park; these facilities are also heavily used by baseball and soccer associations, but the use is seasonal, costs are lower, the parks include trails and playgrounds, the soccer association pays for maintenance and no fee is charged to visit the parks. What policy can the City develop to rationally guide choices about public facilities for non-public uses including capital costs, operating expenses, and the amount of time the facility must be available for public use?

A better example of a public private partnership (Photo: City of Northfield)

Big question 3: Funding: What proportion of Northfield’s annual budget should be committed to parks, trails, and recreation and how will the City determine this level?  Northfield’s Parks, Open Space, and Trails Plan includes dollar estimates for capital improvements for each of Northfield’s 30+ parks (trails and maintenance not included) totaling between $7-10 million in 2008 dollars (now about $8.2-11.7 million).  How will Northfield plan and budget for the life cycle costs of its parks and facilities, not just their initial development? After Northfield considers how it will partner with private groups, how will those groups participate in the construction, operation, and risk of these facilities?

Game on

It’s probably clear I don’t think a City-supported ice arena is a wise use of taxpayer money using any model like the current one. Maybe there are ways to build and maintain indoor ice in Northfield which shield the City from risk, are financially and environmentally sustainable, and are as equitable as possible. But Northfield hasn’t even started to identify those ways yet. All the City has now is this list:

From the Strategic Plan update

How is the City going to choose from this list?

Tax dollars should support activities and facilities which (taken as a whole) serve all Northfielders with a special effort to ensure access for underserved groups and areas. So I am concerned about the amount of money to construct and/or maintain an ice arena which serves relatively few people overall, is largely scheduled for use by other organizations, and is purpose-built for a few expensive sports (Public skating takes place at lunchtime during the week and 1.5 hours on Sunday afternoon). And I’m even more concerned the City will decide and budget by the seat of their breezers.

“Jesus Christ, what a friggin’ nightmare” (Image: Star Tribune)
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