Is your park district also a landlord? And what rent does it charge?
Ryan Risinger might have the shortest commute of any park district director in the suburbs.
That's if you call the roughly 200-foot walk from his house on Bernard Drive to the back door of the Buffalo Grove Park District's Alcott Center a commute.
It's not an accident the park district's director lives so close to the agency's administrative headquarters. The park district owns the house where Risinger and his wife reside.
The park district used to own three houses in a row, but two were torn down to improve access to the Alcott Center. When Risinger accepted the job as the park district's director in 2014, he also agreed to move into the remaining house.
He pays no rent, and he also doesn't have to pay income taxes on the perk since the board considers his proximity a "convenience to the employer."
"There are myriad events the park district runs, and the board wants me to attend those as much as I can," Risinger said. "I can certainly attend many of those things much easier."
Risinger isn't the only tenant of a suburban park district. A Daily Herald investigation revealed 14 park districts own housing that in most cases is leased to employees or the public, or, as in Risinger's case, offered as part of a compensation package.
In most cases, the houses came along with property that has been or will be converted to park land. Meanwhile, the park district becomes a landlord.
Some critics argue removing homes from the tax rolls shifts that tax burden onto neighboring property owners. Meanwhile, park district taxpayers pay to maintain the homes.
"It's hard to make a connection with what the taxpayers are getting out of these rental deals," said Laurence Msall, head of The Civic Federation, a nonpartisan government research organization that specializes in Illinois tax and financial policy. "It's difficult to justify and outside the scope of a park district's mission. And the districts should prove the benefit to the taxpayers of taking a property off the tax rolls."
The 14 park districts own 24 houses or apartments that have tenant agreements. Combined, the 24 homes generate more than $17,000 a month in rent, the park districts reported.
Tenants in six of the properties paid no rent, either because the houses were part of a compensation package for the park district employee, or because sellers still live in the homes and had negotiated their continued occupancy as part of the deal.
West Chicago Park District Executive Director Gary Major lives rent-free in a house owned by the park district he oversees. In Palatine, an employee of the park district's stables receives free lodging as part of his employment agreement.
On the high end, the Lombard Park District receives $1,925 a month from a couple who rent a house with five bedrooms and 3½ bathrooms adjacent to Madison Meadow Park. On the other end of the spectrum, Dundee Township Park District receives $450 a month from a park district golf pro who rents an apartment above the Bonnie Dundee Golf Course clubhouse.
Most of the park districts rent properties to their employees. "The benefit is having a body at these facilities and being able to call on them if something occurs," said Dave Peterson, Dundee Township Park District executive director. "But we're trying to get out of the landlord business."
The Downers Grove Park District paid $603,000 for a house near its Lyman Woods park property last month. Eventually, the park district will probably raze the house to add more park space or construct a storage building, district officials said.
Previous owners of the house paid more than $6,000 a year in property taxes, but park districts and other government entities don't pay property taxes.
"It is definitely a concern that you're losing parcels when park districts buy residential properties, because you're taking a parcel off the tax rolls and the burden is getting spread around to everyone else in a very small way," said Chris Goodman, an associate professor of public administration at Northern Illinois University.
Conversely, Goodman said, the rental income could help offset the cost of purchasing the property and save taxpayers some money. "Trying to plan for expansion of a park and being a landlord in the interim seems like good planning as long as it's done well."
The Illinois Association of Park Districts has no recommended best practices for dealing with purchased land that contains dwellings.
The Arlington Heights Park District owns a house and a triplex on South Belmont Avenue adjacent to Recreation Park. Eventually, the district would like to buy a third residential property and a commercial lot to expand the park. For now, the district's residential units are rented to four employees for almost $34,000 a year.
"We are earning back the capital used to buy the property until it can be developed to become part of the park," said Steve Scholten, the district's interim executive director.
Meanwhile, the public lacks access to the property while tenants are leasing it, others point out.
The Fox Valley Park District in Aurora leases a home at its Blackberry Farm living history museum to a park district electrician who works at the site. But aside from such rare exceptions, "we shouldn't be in the business of managing real estate," said Jim Pilmer, the park district's executive director.
Pilmer suggested if a district buys land and ends up with a house that isn't part of the park's master plan, "the property could be (demolished) and turned into a parking lot until the district gets the land it needs to realize their plans. Every park could use more parking."
Park district homes Here's a list of suburban park districts' residential properties.Arlington Heights Park District
• 1 house and 1 triplex at Recreation Park
• $2,825 monthly rent
Bensenville Park District
• 3 houses near White Pines Golf Course and open space
• $2,150 monthly rent
Buffalo Grove Park District
• 1 house near Alcott Center
• No rent; director's residence
Cary Park District
• 1 house at Sands East Main Street Prairie
• $1,400 monthly rent
Des Plaines Park District
• 2 houses at Centennial and West parks
• $2,432 monthly rent
Downers Grove Park District
• 3 houses at Lyman Woods and other open spaces
• 1 home $1,030 monthly rent, 2 homes occupied by previous owners
Dundee Township Park District
• 1 house and 1 apartment at Randall Oaks Zoo and Bonnie Dundee Golf Course
• $1,000 monthly rent
Elmhurst Park District
• 2 houses near Berens Park and Sugar Creek Golf Course
• $1,301 monthly rent
Fox Valley Park District
• 1 house at Blackberry Farm
• $500 monthly rent
Lombard Park District
• 2 houses at Madison Meadow Park
• $3,025 monthly rent
Mount Prospect Park District
• 1 house at Friendship Park Conservatory
• $544 monthly rent
Palatine Park District
• 1 house at Palatine Stables
• No rent; barn hand's residence
St. Charles Park District
• 2 houses at Primrose Park and Primrose Farm
• $1,170 monthly rent
West Chicago Park District
• 1 house at Kress Creek Farms Park
• No rent; director's residence
Source: Park districts