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Letter: Park district ready to continue merger discussions

 
Submitted by Carl Flowers
President, Carbondale Park District Board of Commissioners
updated: 7/18/2020 10:57 AM

Over the past two years, the Carbondale City Council has discussed the Carbondale Park District, at times with "combative" language. Some members of the council have proposed a "merger" between the city and the park district, while critiquing the CPKD's finances and operations. The CPKD Board of Commissioners herein provides clarification.

Currently, the CPKD has 10 properties that it owns outright and four properties it manages for the city. The properties managed for the city are Turley Park, Tatum Heights Park, Evergreen Park and the city's portion of the Super Block athletic fields. The leases for Turley Park and Tatum Heights Park expired in 2013 and 2016 respectively. Intermittent discussions have not led to renewing them. Nonetheless, CPKD continues to maintain these parks.

In 2018, with finances being ever tighter, CPKD again approached the city to request renewal of the leases be linked with the ongoing management of their properties through contributing $150,000. The city council reacted with anger and concerns.

Subsequently, during spring 2018, the city and CPKD agreed on forming a joint subcommittee to discuss next steps. Many ideas were generated, including that both entities explore ways to assist the cash strapped CPKD; perhaps through inter-governmental agreements merging certain management functions -- such as payroll, IT, marketing/communications, and some maintenance, with the city.

In spring 2019, the city council unilaterally submitted a ballot advisory question "Should the City of Carbondale and the Carbondale Park District explore merging their operations?" Citizens voted affirmatively and in August, the city council and CPKD Board of Commissioners, with three new CPKD board members, met to begin the process of exploring merging operations. Key decisions made were to exchange information about their operations, to extend the leases two years to protect both parties from liability issues, and to continue meeting.

The city also did not provide language for a lease extension until December. Instead of the simple extension agreed to in August, their proposal contained several new and unacceptable provisions.

The CPKD Board of Commissioners rejected the new leases, requesting the simple extension agreed to, as well as $150,000 to help maintain the two parks. The city council then offered the simple lease extension but refused to contribute toward maintenance.

Since August, the city and CPKD have exchanged data, but the council has declined two invitations by CPKD to hold further meetings on the ballot question.

More recently, the COVID-19 emergency has required the park district to shutter virtually all its programs. Faced with this new fiscal crisis, the commissioners decided to return Tatum Heights and Turley Parks to the city. The city council was notified in early May, and we will end our maintenance of these two parks Aug. 31.

By statute, CPKD revenue sources available to the CPKD are property taxes, fees for services, and grants and private donations. Illinois law also limits the amount park districts can levy in property taxes and caps increases. Due to inflation, the real purchasing power of CPKD property taxes has decreased by nearly 20 percent since 1989.

Through the years, the CPKD has greatly increased the number of properties owned and managed, as well as increasing its program offerings.

Some of the larger expansions include the golf course (1993), the Super Block playing fields (2002), the Attucks Spray Park (2015) and the Super Splash Park (2017). Comprehensive, diverse and exciting programming and recreational services have expanded as these heavily used facilities were installed.

CPKD now manages a vastly increased portfolio with these additions and their associated costs, with the aforementioned significant decline in purchasing power.

And, adding to the economic pressures, around a decade ago, the city stopped some maintenance they had historically shouldered -- for example, maintaining the roads at Evergreen Park.

Council members have argued that the city can better maintain the parks because they have access to sales tax dollars while the park district can only tap property taxes.

But the city, too, has experienced declining revenues. In 2011 it re-established a property tax; in 2015, the city raised the sales tax by 0.05 percent and levied new beverage, food, package liquor, and gas taxes. A tax on marijuana sales has also been levied.

The city, as a government entity, also has debt load and high pension liability, as well as a wide array of functions it must fulfill, from maintaining roads to protecting public safety. Furthermore, the city is taxed out.

As the current and future councils struggle with declining sales tax revenue, is there any guarantee parks and recreation would be a high priority? Currently, due to the pandemic, city leadership has made clear that essential services are their priority.

The CPKD with a relatively small staff -- delivering maintenance, operating multiple venues, and providing outstanding and varied programs and activities. Is the city capable of absorbing all these activities and, as some council members argue, do it better and at the same or reduced cost?

Alternatively, are the city's parks and recreation programs better protected by an independent taxing body whose sole responsibility is to provide parks and recreation? Despite CPKD concerns over the comments of some city leaders and the city council's unilateral actions, CPKD stands ready to continue with public meetings to honor the vote of our citizenry in exploring how we might work together. We again invite the city to honor the agreements of the first joint public meeting regarding the ballot question and move quickly to hold public exploratory discussions.

• Carl Flowers is president of the Carbondale Park District Board of Commissioners.