Why no Rec Center referendum?

Opinion: Columns

July 15th, 2020 11:24 AM

Jack Powers

One view

A 2014 survey of 618 or 1.1 percent of Oak Park residents is still cited by the Park District of Oak Park (PDOP) as justification for building a Rec Center, partly with donated funds.

Only a referendum confirms true interest and justification. Unelected park district Executive Director Jan Arnold said, "The project will only go ahead without hiking property taxes or going to referendum." 

Why no referendum?

Phase One, $18 million, won't be funded entirely by private money as promised. PDOP has already set aside $5 million of taxpayer money. Oak Park Township is contributing $1.5 million in property tax money. The bankrupt state of Illinois is donating $875,000 in tax money. The park district requested a $2.5 million PARC grant from the state; if obtained, that's $9,875,000 in tax money for a rec center to be built "without tax money." Phase One would be built 55 percent from tax money, assuming no cost overruns. How much more tax money for Phase Two?

Phase Two includes a pool. How many pools do we need? We have Ridgeland, Rehm, FFC, YMCA. Better and cheaper to cover Ridgeland Common, expanding pool usage 400% from 3 months to 12. District 200 still dreams of its own enormous $68 million, 600-seat aquatic center (how do we finally force the PDOP and D200 fiefdoms to cooperate on a pool to taxpayer benefit?). 

Yes, 1 acre of land along Madison was generously donated to the PDOP. What is the opportunity cost of not redeveloping it into affordable and/or market housing paying property taxes in perpetuity? 

A rec center becomes a permanent PDOP budget obligation. What if PDOP is wrong that it can permanently self-sustain via 100 percent user fees? Who takes on this risk? The board and executive director? Property taxpayers, no one else.

The park district has been admittedly reluctant to raise fees. Example: free daycare for families with income up to $100,000 (median income in Oak Park is $87,271). An organization with a "free things" mindset can be trusted to ensure the structure is supported solely by user fees? 

Last fall, PDOP, which annually votes for levy increases, accessed $315,000 in expiring TIF money despite an already ample budget. As PDOP's Diane Stanke explained, "Of course we are good stewards of our tax dollars here and we always want to use our tax dollars as best we can to benefit our community, so we've come up with three different ways in which we're going to spend that $315,000 to benefit our community." A board and executive director with a mindset of first acquiring unneeded revenue and then finding new ways to spend it can be trusted with building a facility that will never require property tax money to operate? 

Given the scope and long-term risks of this project, the residents of Oak Park are owed a referendum. Taxpayers need to vote on this long-term risk. If it fails, we still have PDOP facilities and services (which include need-based scholarships) and various private recreation options in town.

Lastly, financial reverberations caused by COVID will linger in the village for years. Better that the PDOP refocuses on repurposing it's already ample budget, maximizing current assets and resources. 

The board and executive director are not the proper ones to decide this issue; the taxpayers are.

Jack Powers is a resident of Oak Park.

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