Tax bills for parks are much higher in Sterling than they are in Dixon, Rock Falls or Oregon.
For a $100,000 house, using the standard homestead exemption, a Sterling homeowner paid $287 in taxes for the Sterling Park District last year. By comparison, the bill in the Coloma Township Park District, which serves Rock Falls, was $165.
The Dixon Park District came in much lower – $128. Lowest in the area was the Oregon Park District at $108, but that's thanks to the nearby nuclear plant, whose tax assessment makes it a big revenue generator.
Among 15 selected districts, Sterling's had the highest tax rate. That's likely because the district has many more facilities and parks to maintain for a city its size, including Westwood and Duis recreation centers, a golf course, a marina, and popular parks such as Sinnissippi.
Coloma's holdings are considerably smaller, and while Dixon's has a lot of acreage, it lacks indoor facilities.
"It's hard to compare us to other downstate park districts," said Larry Schuldt, executive director of the Sterling Park District. "Our amenities and parks can be compared to suburban park districts."
People often cite Westwood, the marina and other parks as reasons they like to live in town, he said. Real estate agents, the schools and others often tout those amenities when they're trying to attract people to Sterling, he said.
"Quality of life is pretty high up there when people decide on relocating," said Schuldt, who has been director for more than two decades.
He said that years ago, the district charged higher fees for its services to out-of-district users, which affected many Rock Falls residents.
About a decade ago, though, the district ended the higher rates.
"We found that in-district people were more upset with it," Schuldt said. "You had to go through hoops to show you were a resident, going back home to get a utility bill. It was a nightmare for our front-desk staff. We decided it wasn't worth the wrath we were taking."
'A blessing and a curse'
The Oregon Park District's tax bills are low, yet its facilities are unusually extensive for a small town. The district has a big reason for that: Its boundaries include the Byron nuclear plant. Eighty percent of the park district's revenue comes from the plant, according to the district.
Every taxing entity that includes the nuclear plant gets a huge influx of tax revenue. In the 1970s, the Oregon Park District rushed to include the nuclear plant within its borders, leaving Byron behind. In response, Byron residents formed a forest preserve district that covered the plant.
"We live or die based on the tax base of the nuclear plant," said Jim Coutts, the park district's executive director for the past decade.
The district has two recreation centers – Nash and Blackhawk – and 10 parks.
The Oregon city government and school district don't have the advantage of a nuclear plant within their borders. However, the Oregon schools greatly benefit from the Blackhawk Center, which is next to the high school.
Still, the park district faces pressure from others in the community to expand its scope to other services, Coutts said. But he said state law limits what a park district can do.
"There are jealousies out there," Coutts said. "People think it's common for a small community of 3,700 to have what we have in the park district. It's a blessing and a curse," referring to the pressure for help from others.
In a town with its share of vacant buildings, he said, the district is doing what it can to help the local economy. It has kept a stable tax rate and is credited with bringing in 100,000 visitors a year to town, Coutts said.
'We would love' a rec center
The Coloma Township Park District, which covers Rock Falls, has no distinct financial advantages. Unlike Sterling, it has no high property tax rate. Unlike Oregon, it has no big commercial taxpayer like a nuclear plant.
The district has 17 parks, but an estimated 90 percent of the district's activity takes place at just one – the 50-acre Centennial Park, which includes baseball fields, soccer fields, tennis courts, picnic shelters and a lagoon.
Like Sterling, the district doesn't charge higher rates for out-of-town users, which is seen as a way "to keep peace in the family," said Mike Sterba, Coloma's executive director.
He acknowledged the lack of out-of-district rates reduces the incentive for outlying areas such as Montmorency to join the district.
"They would have to vote for [joining Coloma]," he said. "The reality is that they wouldn't want to be a part of the district. Their tax rate would go up."
Coloma, though, has another carrot to offer any outlying communities that would like to join: They could get parks.
"They have nice homes now, but no parks," he said.
While Rock Falls residents can enjoy the Sterling Park District's recreation centers, the Coloma district has considered getting one of its own.
"We would love to have one," said Sterba, who became the director 38 years ago. "We need gym space."
The district ran the numbers for the possibility of a $10 million center – which would include what the YMCA in Sterling has, except the swimming pool. With voters' approval, the district would get 20-year bonds to pay for it.
The problem, Sterba said, is that the district would have no money to maintain and staff the center. It can't raise taxes for general operations, he said.
For the first time in his 38 years, Sterba added, the district will get less tax revenue than it did the previous year.
"My board is very conservative and protective of the taxpayer. There is no use building a rec center we can't afford," he said. "Right now, we're not in a position to build a recreation center with tax dollars. The numbers don't look good."
'Land rich, money poor'
The Dixon Park District might not have a lot of money, but it can do something other park districts can't: Lay claim to a former U.S. president. Ronald Reagan worked seven summers during his high school and college years at Lowell Park, where as a lifeguard he was credited with saving 77 lives.
At one time, the district, with its 1,130 acres, had more parkland per capita than any other district in the state. Since, some suburban park districts have surpassed Dixon.
"We're land rich and money poor," said Deb Carey, the district's executive director since 1997.
Because of tax caps, the district is unlikely to build a recreation center, unless voters approve a referendum to finance the construction.
"I don't see voters wanting to raise taxes," Carey said.
Like Coloma, the Dixon district would like to annex outside areas. Years ago, though, voters in subdivisions outside town soundly defeated a referendum to join the district. The measure would have doubled the district's tax revenue, Carey said.
Indeed, an out-of-district subdivision is next to Lowell Park. Some of the houses have trails connecting to the park. They benefit, she said, but don't have to pay taxes to the district.
For the most part, the district doesn't charge higher fees for out-of-district residents. It finds that charging different fees tends to be an administrative hassle.
The district's biggest challenge is keeping its roads and other infrastructure in good shape. Unlike other districts, Dixon's has a relatively extensive road system, much of which is in bad condition, Carey said. Yet, she points out, the district doesn't get any gasoline tax revenue, as do entities such as counties, cities and townships. That's something Carey would like to change.
The last major road repair job was in 1996 – at Lowell Park. Getting voters to approve referendums for "unglamorous" road repair projects would be a tough sell, Carey said.
"The infrastructure is frightening more than anything," she said.