How much tax revenue is subsidizing park district programs?
If your child is the one shooting the basketball, riding a horse or learning to tap dance at a Hampshire Park District recreational program this winter, you're the one paying most of the cost.
Most of the park district's income for recreational programs last year came from participants, with just 6.8 percent coming from property taxpayers.
It's a different story in many suburban park districts where, on average, taxpayers kick in about 30 percent of the money for recreation and activities.
That's according to a Daily Herald analysis of 53 suburban park districts' recreational funds, the budget category that pays for classes, programs and events. Separate funds for certain other amenities, such as golf courses, ski slopes or aquatic centers, were also included in the analysis.
At the other end of the spectrum, Rosemont Park District taxpayers contributed 78.9 percent of the funding for recreational programs. Registration fees and other charges made up just 21.1 percent.
Parks officials in Hampshire, with the lowest taxpayer funding for recreational programming, are quick to admit their frugality with tax dollars isn't self-imposed.
"It's because we can't get more," Executive Director Laura Schraw said. "Our taxes are really low and they tried going to referendum many times before I got here, but none passed."
Hampshire charges $117 for a youth basketball program, to use one example, and will raise that cost 15 percent to 30 percent next year. Rosemont, with the highest taxpayer subsidy, charges $90 for youth basketball and officials say fees rise about 2 percent a year.
Aside from recreational programming, park districts are responsible for maintaining open space, equipping playgrounds and operating community buildings that are largely covered by taxpayers.
Park district leaders throughout the suburbs defend tax spending on recreational classes and events, arguing such programs benefit the entire community and boost property values. Watchdog organizations, such as the Civic Federation and Illinois Policy Institute, generally hold that those who participate in park district programs should shoulder those costs.
"What happens is taxpayer dollars are funding so much that park districts are offering services that only a few people will ever use," said Illinois Policy Institute Vice President of Policy Ted Dabrowski.
There are no state rules for how much tax revenue can be used to subsidize programming, nor are there policy guidelines from the Illinois Association of Park Districts.
"What you try to do is find a balance" by subsidizing things that are seen as benefiting the community and collecting fees for things that benefit an individual, said Mike Clark, Palatine Park District executive director. "There's a lot in the recreation fund that we subsidize that affects quality of life and property values."
In Palatine, about 34 percent of recreational programming is funded by property taxes.
Many suburban park districts turned a profit last year from recreational programming, with varying effect on taxpayers. At least 14 park districts shifted profits from recreational programming for other uses, according to the financial records.
In South Barrington, income from the district's tennis club and recreation center helps pay for salaries, debt and maintenance of other facilities, reducing taxes. Last year, $650,000 in revenue generated by the South Barrington Club was used to offset some of the district's $1.1 million operating costs as well as covering the facility's own costs.
"This is really a revenue generator for the entire operation," said Jay Morgan, South Barrington's executive parks director. "We're a little bit unique in that regard."
Some park districts save up the unused revenue and use it to build or enlarge facilities. That troubles some government finance experts who say park districts and other governments should seek taxpayer approval to expand and otherwise should reduce taxes if they're making more money than they require.
Palatine moved $5.9 million out of its recreation account "to fund future capital projects and purchases." Some of that money is being used to help pay the park district's $9 million portion of a $38 million athletic complex at Harper College that includes an indoor pool and fitness center. By using the recreation funds, the park district could borrow the rest of what it needed without seeking voter approval because the district wouldn't surpass its debt limit, Clark said.
Civic Federation President Laurence Msall praised the partnership between the college and park district to find a solution that met both groups' needs, but he was concerned about the park district's method of financing.
"Transferring surpluses from one year to other accounts is not objectionable; it's only if it's used to avoid getting voter approval for large capital projects that will have long-term financial obligations for the district's taxpayers," he said.
Clark said using recreation funds was not to skirt taxpayer approval, but rather to expedite a need that had been identified in user surveys.
"It's been a 40-year goal of this park district to finance an indoor pool, and it was the No. 1 priority identified in that community survey," Clark said. "We felt we got a good pulse of the community."
That survey, Clark noted, did not include an option to use excess funds to lower taxes.
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