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Vision 2030: Less money for park districts to play with?

Park district budgets unlikely to grow, amid new emphasis on appearance

Published: Monday, March 24, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST
(Alex T. Paschal/
Caleb Walls watches swimming and diving practice in November 2010 from the observation deck at the Duis Center. The Sterling Park District’s recreation center underwent a renovation and extensive updating in 2010.

Like many local public bodies, park districts will face a challenge to pay for providing services.

Publicly funded budgets aren’t expected to increase, said Deb Carey, executive director of Dixon Park District, and residents will continue to expect the same – or even increased – level in services.

In Dixon, another factor limits any future increase in revenue – the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law.

“With PTELL already capping our ability to maintain our parks and grounds, the budget will be the No. 1 issue for elected park commissioners,” Carey said in an email. “I cannot imagine nor expect the public to pass referendums and increase their already-high tax burdens.”

PTELL – also known as the tax cap – limits how much a public body can raise its tax rate each year, by the lesser of either 5 percent or the change in the Consumer Price Index. In recent years, that’s been less than 5 percent.

But even those park districts – like Sterling and Coloma – that don’t have to deal with the tax cap have to deal with a new emphasis on appearance, which can drive up the cost of facilities and renovations.

Larry Schuldt, executive director of Sterling Park District, said districts used to have to worry just about functionality.

“Nobody cared about aesthetics,” he said. “We had gang showers and cinderblock buildings. But nobody cared. That isn’t that way any longer. Now, what people are looking for is more than just functionality – it’s aesthetics. Things need to look pretty.”

But those aesthetics cost much more than the functionality.

Duis Recreation Center, which opened in 1970, was built for $500,000, Schuldt said, and when the district renovated it in 2010, the cost was almost $4 million.

“Although people are willing to pay more than they used to,” he said, “they’re still not willing to pay to the level of what it actually costs to put those things together.”

To cover the difference, park districts will likely have to explore additional pubic-private partnerships and even more aggressively pursue grants from the state and federal government.

While some residents don’t approve of tax dollars being spent on parks and recreation, the money will go somewhere, Schuldt said, so it might as well go to the Sauk Valley.

Gone is the notion of doing more with less, Carey said, the park districts will likely have to focus on doing the same – or less.

“And in reality, the Dixon Park District was created as a passive park district – open space, picnics, fishing and hiking through the woods,” Carey said. “These activities are low-cost or free to the public and are, in comparison, low-cost to maintain.

“We plan on providing these same family-oriented types of activities in 2030 as we do today,” she said.

Vision 2030 on Tuesday

Tuesday's edition will include a 52-page special section, "Vision 2030," that will examine what the Sauk Valley might look like in 2030. We will look at issues including employment, the workforce, education, infrastructure, housing, religion and health care.

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