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Minneapolis Park Board outsources winter operations at Wirth Park

Adapted from the Minneapolis Labor Review
December 16, 2016

By Steve Share, Minneapolis Labor Review editor

A snow gun blew man-made snow onto the cross country ski trails at Wirth Park December 8, minus the skill and experience of members of City Employees Local 363..

MINNEAPOLIS — As in past years, snow guns began blowing man-made snow onto the cross country ski trails in Wirth Park in early December after Mother Nature failed to provide. What’s different this year: for the first time ever, the personnel operating the snow guns and performing trail grooming and maintenance will not be members of City Employees Local 363.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted September 7 to approve three agreements with the non-profit Loppet Foundation which turned over the management of winter operations and other activities at Wirth to the Loppet.

The Loppet will maintain and groom the cross country ski trails, snowboarding hill and tubing hill, as well as operate equipment rental. Next spring, the Loppet plans to break ground on a new 14,000-square-foot building (first called the “Adventure Center,”  now called the “Trailhead”) to serve as “hub” for cross country skiing and mountain biking. The Loppet also will maintain the park’s mountain biking trails.

For City Employees Local 363, the Park Board’s deal with the Loppet is outsourcing of public employee jobs, pure and simple.

Over the years, Local 363 members had worked closely with Loppet staff and volunteers as the nonprofit grew and expanded its programming and drew many more people to active sports in Wirth Park.

But at the September 7 Park Board meeting with the Loppet proposal up for approval, Local 363 members clad in their orange union colors turned out in force to show opposition to the Loppet plan and speak against it.

“I’m all for the Loppet. I’m all for mountain biking. I’m all for cross country skiing. I’m all for the Adventure Center,” said Kevin Moody, business manager for Local 363. “But Local 363 members should operate it.”

“This is an outsourcing proposal,” Local 363 field representative Tony Kelly told the board. “This is a bad deal.”

In contrast to the wages and benefits and collective bargaining protections enjoyed by Local 363 members, Kelly said, the details of Loppet employment packages weren’t known.

“My question is why are you taking middle class jobs from us, the rank and file?” asked Corey Webster, president of Local 363.

At the September 7 Park Board meeting with the Loppet proposal up for approval, Local 363 members clad in their orange union colors turned out in force to show opposition to the Loppet plan and speak against it. “...Why are you taking middle class jobs from us, the rank and file?” asked Corey Webster, president of Local 363.

Loppet participants, including youth, spoke highly of Loppet programming. “They’ve given me so many opportunities,” said Xavier Mansfield, a north side high school age student who has participated in the Loppet’s nordic skiing programs.

“You can have a successful program like that without privatizing Wirth Park,” observed community member Constance Peppin.

In the end, the proposed operating agreement with the Loppet passed 5-3. Commissioners voting in favor included Liz Wielinski (District 1), Scott Vreeland (District 3), Anita Tabb (District 4), Steffanie Musich (District 5), Meg Forney (At Large). Commissioners voting no included Jon Olson (District 2), Brad Bourne (District 6), Annie Young (At Large).

Three months later, Local 363’s Tony Kelly shared many concerns about what he’s seen going on in Wirth Park and has documented with photos.

Kelly knows Wirth well —he lives nearby and for seven years he was the lead Park Board employee involved with winter trail work at Wirth. “I averaged 80 hours a week the last year,” said Kelly.

Kelly was celebrated by the Loppet for his dedication to the ski trails and he considered Loppet staff and volunteers as friends.

Three years ago, Kelly left his work at Wirth and joined the Local 363 staff as field representative.

This fall, with the Loppet taking over trail improvements and maintenance, Kelly has documented concerns about poor erosion control and cutting down of mature oak trees. “What they said they were going to do and what they are doing are completely different,” Kelly said.

He observed bulldozer work “right next to mature oaks in ways that are against best practices” and bulldozers also removing dirt too close to light poles.

“If a private developer did what they’re doing, they would be held to account,” he said.

Kelly said he has forwarded some of his photos to Park Board management and some of the problems he identified have been addressed.

Now, with winter operations beginning, he expressed concern about safe installation of the tubing hill lift, maintenance of the very expensive Piston Bully snowcat grooming machines, and other issues.

As far as Local 363 members’ jobs, “no one has been laid-off but all of that work now is being provided by non-union Loppet employees,” he said.

“I don’t know what they’re making but it’s much, much less,” Kelly said.

For Local 363 members, “they’re going to back-fill a lot of the work in the system that hasn’t been done.” Kelly added: “there’s plenty of work to do.”

“Overall there will be more park-keepers in 2017 than in 2016,” he reported.

Kelly regards the Loppet takeover of Wirth winter operations as “a settled issue” although the union still has a pending grievance over the change.

His beef is not with the Loppet, but with Park Board management and commissioners, he emphasized.

“I wanted to work with them to find a staffing model that would work and they just weren’t interested,” he said. “When they say ‘public-private partnership,’ I hear ‘outsourcing’ and a race to the bottom and a loss for the middle class.”

“Once a third party nonprofit formally takes over, the public loses its ability to manage a public resource,” Kelly said. “The public does not have the ability to go and look at how a nonprofit is functioning.”

“It absolutely is outsourcing,” Kelly said. “They [the Park Board] will say it’s not.”

“Any time you take a task or program that requires 6,000-7,000 hours of labor and you instead make arrangements with a third party organization who will do it at a lower rate — that’s outsourcing,” Kelly said.

The writer has been a member of the Loppet Foundation and a participant in Loppet programs and events.




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