Board takes the next step in putting the horse patrol program out to pasture
by Brian Rosemeyer
Sun sailor Newspapers
Three Rivers Board of Commissioners held a final hearing Dec. 5 on a trying 2014 park district budget before sending the figures, cuts included, to Hennepin County for approval.
The 2014 budget, which the board has been discussing since June, carries a general fund of $34,021,085 – $98,017 more than 2013.
The general fund is the largest aspect of the budget and includes all park district operations except for golf, Scott County operations, Highland Ski and Snowboard Area and the equipment fund.
For 2014, Three Rivers is proposing a property tax levy increase of 2.5 percent, more than $1 million from 2013. The property tax levy accounts for 76 percent of the general fund.
And while the levy for the general fund will decrease by nearly $560,000, the bump in needed tax revenue comes from a spike in the debt service levy of $1.6 million.
According to Three Rivers Chief Financial Officer Howard Koolick, the uptick in debt service is due to the way previous boards had structured bonds, causing the highest amount of debt service in at least five years. Koolick continued to note that he expects debt service to drop to normal levels in 2015.
The debt service was just one of a number of dilemmas posed to Three Rivers in this budget cycle.
“In putting this budget together, we faced a number of challenges,” Koolick said. “While we’ve seen tax base decrease, park usage has doubled.”
Use of the district’s parks and trails has grown 245% in the past 10 years – from 4.4 million visits in 2004 to 10.8 million visits projected in 2014.
“The growth in the use of parks and trails in the last two years is absolutely remarkable,” said Three Rivers Superintendent Cris Gears at a September budget meeting.
In a balancing act, 2014 will cut two full-time equivalent positions that are currently vacant while adding 1.8 FTE positions, and total wages will increase $235,000 district-wide.
In light of the overall property tax levy increase, average homeowners (home value of roughly $250,000) are estimated pay an increase of about $3 a year to Three Rivers.
When brought to a vote, Jennifer DeJournett cast the lone “no” vote.
While she recognized the bond structuring left by previous boards spurred the debt service spike, she felt the district could employ other means of filling the funding gap, such as shifting future projects to other budget years.
However, one existing cut did draw a level of concern from park patrons.
Equestrian patrol program
In order to reduce strain and bolster efficiency in Three Rivers public safety, the mounted patrol may be riding off into the sunset.
The equestrian patrol was downsized for 2013 – by three fewer horses – and the board has included complete elimination for 2014.
Three Rivers Director of Public Safety Hugo McPhee said his department has three staff trained to participate in mounted patrol.
However, McPhee said that when staff is on a horse, they become “out of circulation” to potential issues that aren’t located on a trail. He said his department doesn’t have the staffing capabilities to consistently keep mounted patrol on the trails.
The decision to cut the program comes with a sorrowful tinge for a number of park users.
David Linder of Medina approached the board at the Dec. 5 public hearing to offer his support for reconsideration of the cut.
Marylou Ratz of Minnetonka spoke on behalf of Linder, who has difficulty projecting his voice as a result of Parkinson’s disease.
“Please, I ask you to reconsider continuing funding of the Three Rivers mounted patrol,” Ratz spoke, reading from Linder’s statement. “I have seen the smiles and keen interest in the horses when children show up on field trips at the stable.”
Linder was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 17 years ago, he volunteers at the Three Rivers stables nearly every Tuesday and Thursday. He said his time with the horses greatly decreases his Parkinson’s symptoms and “lifts [his] mood immensely.”
He took to grooming, feedings and caring for the horses to honor the memory of his sister, who passed away from breast cancer in 1997. He said his sister raised horses and cared deeply for all animals.
“Personally, I have benefitted from the opportunity many Tuesdays and Thursdays mornings at the barn,” Linder’s statement read. “This volunteer opportunity has helped me realize a dream to carry on my sister’s legacy to care for horses and all animals.”
Linder added that he’s seen great positivity in many others who had the opportunity to interact with the horse patrol. He said his home is adjacent to Three Rivers trails and, often, he sees officers on horses interacting with the public.
For the board, the concerning matter was the strain the program places on public safety efficiency.
At a September discussion, McPhee noted that programming involving horses would not necessarily go away for good. Horses could be utilized through different agencies and patrol elimination would result in a significant reduction of cost without cutting staff – workers currently in the equestrian program would be transitioned to other open positions within the system.
Three Rivers staff suggested that discussions are in progress to keep equestrian programming in the district as an educational aspect through partnerships.
Those partnerships, however, would not restore Linder’s Tuesday and Thursday mornings with the horses.
“There’s a difference when the district has its own horse program,” Ratz, a long time friend of Linder, said. “It’s important to preserve the heritage of the park system.”
The elimination of the equestrian patrol program will remain in the 2014 budget.
Following the board’s approval, Three Rivers sent the budget to Hennepin County for consideration on Dec. 10.
Three Rivers Board of Commissioners will revisit the budget, with comments from the county, at a regular meeting 5 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 19 at Three Rivers Administrative Center – 3000 Xenium Lane North in Plymouth.
Contact Brian Rosemeyer at [email protected]