Park District Betting $76,000 On Its “Free” Referendum


This week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate contains a story (“Planning for Park Ridge Parks’ property-tax referendum has costs, too.”) about how the Park Ridge Recreation & Park District will be spending approximately $76,000 in connection with what should be a free referendum process.

As most sentient Park Ridge residents already know, the Park District is planning an April 2013 referendum seeking voter approval of the District’s issuing of as much as $13 million in bonds for the acquisition and conversion of the Park Ridge Youth Campus property into a parks and recreation complex.  That referendum process is essentially free: the Park Board simply has to pass a resolution prior to January 18, 2013, and the referendum issue will be part of the regularly-scheduled local election ballot on April 9.

But the Park District apparently isn’t waiting for voter approval to start spending money on this project.  According to the H-A article, the District already is buying a variety of project development services, such as architectural services “to develop conceptual design plans” for that 11.35 acre property.  Count on those plans being used as a sales/marketing tool to help convince voters that this is a wonderful project deserving of their votes…and their tax dollars.

We think that’s just plain wrong.

Merely by putting this project and its funding to a popular vote via referendum, the Park District is expressing its endorsement of the project.  That’s all it should do, both legally and ethically.  Spending money on the project before the referendum passes isn’t good government, although it most definitely is political – something public bodies often try to legitimize by tying the expenditures to the underlying project rather than to the political referendum campaign.

In this case, the District claims those expenditures are for “necessary steps we have to go through,” according to a quote by Executive Director Gayle Mountcastle, as reported in the H-A article.  The H-A article also listed structural studies of the existing Youth Campus buildings, the District’s review of environmental studies, and informational materials.

We don’t see how any of those expenses are “necessary” prior to the referendum’s passage.  So long as the referendum language simply authorizes the District to issue bonds but doesn’t commit it to do so, all of these “necessary” steps should be able to be done after the referendum passes – if it does, indeed, pass.

The politics and the marketing should be left to those private supporters of the project, like the “Our Parks Legacy” organization – which has been organized solely for the purpose of selling this referendum to the voters using private funds, not public tax dollars. That organization already is raising funds and has started both a website and a Facebook page .    

But if “conceptual design plans” are needed to sell the project to the voters, Our Parks Legacy is the organization to provide them, using…wait for it…private funds.

Frankly, if the Park Board and District Staff already haven’t been able to come up with a reasonable conceptual design plan for this property on their own, we have to question the “ready, fire, aim” process on which the District seems to have embarked.  Spending money on architects and other development costs when the voters have yet to approve the project’s bonded-debt financing is inviting the waste of that money – unless, of course, those costs are really intended to “sell” the project to the voters.

Back in the early 1990s, a previous Park Board and and the District’s then-executive director Steve Meyer spent over $100,000 on professional services for the design of a water park to replace Centennial Pool.  Those plans, assuming they ever ended up being delivered, presumably are still collecting dust on some shelf after the voters overwhelmingly rejected the project’s bond-financing via referendum.

We’re not saying that will happen here.  But why take the chance, unless $76,000 doesn’t matter all that much to the Park District?

Actually, that sounds like the District’s attitude, judging by a quote from Park Board member Jim O’Brien reported in the H-A article: “This isn’t board worthy” – apparently in reference to the $20,000-per-individual-expenditure discretionary authority Mountcastle has been given by the Board.   By comparison, the Park Ridge City Manager only has discretionary authority for $10,000 per individual expenditure.  Such limitations, however, can still be circumvented by breaking down aggregate “project” expenditures into smaller components.

Interestingly enough, this process has enabled individual Park Board members to escape direct accountability for these expenditures.  According to Mountcastle: “[The Board] gave consensus for me to expend these dollars.”

Consensus, noun: the cowardly politicians’ way of avoiding individual accountability by avoiding a roll-call vote.

With the Park District already committed to the $7.1 million first phase of a two-phase replacement of the Centennial pools with an aquatics complex that will consume almost all of the District’s non-referendum bonding power, the District doesn’t have any margin of error for the Youth Campus project: either the referendum passes, or the project dies.

And the Park District is betting $76,000 of our money on that outcome.

To read or post comments, click on title.

16 comments so far

You bring up a couple of interesting points that raise additional questions.

Why does the Executive Director of the Park District have higher discretionary approval limit than the City Manager? I am guessing that because the Park District is not in as bad a shape as the City of Park Ridge is financially? Or is it based on one individual has interim status versus the other person does not?

Do any of the Commissioners oppose the acquisition? Has the financial impact to the taxpayer been determine?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We have no idea, although the Park District’s finances do not appear to be in as bad shape as the City’s have been: e.g., the PRRPD doesn’t have a $6 million deficit TIF on its books.

The acting City Mgr. has the same authority as his predecessor, whose authority (as we recall) was cut back to $10,000 after some injudicious discretionary expenses were identified.

We have no idea whether Commissioner support for the project is unanimous or not. If you check out the PRRPD’s and the Legacy websites/Facebook pages, we believe the cost to the “average” homeowner is discussed somewhere.

I realize that the City and PRPD are two different entities with different budgets, but they get their money from the same place…..our pockets!! Talk about skitzophrenic!!

The elected city officials cry poor to the point that if it were not for volunteers, AGAIN, we would not have Christmas lights. Meanwhile, the elected park board has no problem spending 76K (about 2 times the cost of the lights) for project designs for a project that may not even happen.

Is it any wonder why people believe government does not work for them??

EDITOR’S NOTE: They’re still two separate governments, with the City arguably being poorer than the Park District because (a) the PRRPD is under tax caps while the City is not, so the handcuffs help; and (b) poorer decision-making by the City over the past decade or two, including the Uptown TIF that is $6 million in the red and counting.

Government almost always “works” for somebody – usually for the bureaucrats employed by it and the special interests that manipulate it. OPM (Other People’s Money) can be very addictive.

Both the acquisition of the Youth Campus and the $7.1 million aquatic center in the middle of a neighborhood demonstrate the fiscal and management irresponsibility of the current park board and administrative staff.

First the pool. In case the PRPD board and administrators have not read the history on this, the citizens of Park Ridge voted “NO” three times to spending millions of dollars on a water park at the Centennial location. Now that the PRPD says they have most of the money in the bank, they plan to build it without needing approval for a referendum.

Just because the funds are available does not mean the money should be spent on a water park. The Centennial pools do need to be repaired/rebuilt. Do that. Fix what is there. Period. No need to pour millions of dollars into a water park that can be used only 10 weeks of the year.

The Youth Campus is also another example of poor PRPD management. According to the PRPD board, the average household will see about a $100 increase in their property taxes. This $100 we are told is to cover the cost of the $13 million debt need to acquire and improve the land.

The $100 per household of additional tax dollars will not cover the annual cost of maintaining the land. The Our Parks Legacy group which is telling the PRPD what are acceptable uses of the property if it is acquired is trying to convince the PR taxpayers that the rest of the costs associated with the property will be offset by increased program revenue. Budget nuetral they want us to believe yet they have no plans for the land yet-except to say that there will be NO LIGHTS for night time use of the park.

The PRPD budget found online shows a budget of $1.5 million for park maintenance. The PRPD currently manages 136.8 acres of park lands. That comes out to about $11,000 per acre per year. Acquiring another 11.35 acres will add $124,850 to that budget. This does not include the cost of any building maintenance or parking lot/walking path/roadway maintenance. Where will this additional $124,850+ come from? Simply moving current programs from one PRPD location to another does not constitute new revenue. Simply saying something will be budget neutral is not enough. Give us the details.

The $100 increase in property taxes-on average-seems to be a low ball estimate and many household budgets are already stressed. If the PRPD board and management are not aware, there are currently just over 200 houses in foreclosure in Park Ridge. Real estate agents will tell you there are more in process and many more home owning taxpayers are upside down on their mortgage. Our taxes and costs for basic city services and the schools keep going up. These taxes and costs cover things we need like water, improved sewer/water management, maintaining aging school buildings, etc. More very limited use park acreage is not a need-it is a want. In this economic environment it is irresponsible for the PRPD to move forward on spending $76,000 to plan for developing land they do not yet and may never own.

Before the PRPD embarks on acquiring more property to manage they should focus on fixing, maintaining and upgrading the facilities they already own. There is a big empty space at Oakton-what are the plans for this? The hot tub at the Com Ctr has been broken since early May-still not fixed. The Oakton ice rink and locker rooms are dated and need fixing up. Other readers of this site can add their own items to the PRPD to-do list. The PRPD already has more than enough to deal with.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We have not had a pool referendum since Oakton closed, so the outdoor pool landscape has changed signficantly. Additionally, as we understand the plans for the new Centennial Pool complex, it will not have all those “water park” features (e.g., tall slides) that characterized previous failed proposals. But traditional “lap”-style pools are out of favor today and could not be expected to attract enough customers to justify their construction.

Nevertheless, you raise a number of good points, including whether a majority of the community even wants to invest multi-millions in an outdoor water complex that can only be used 3-4 months out of the year. THAT’s a problem we don’t recall the Park Board discussing, and we think a valid referendum question.

Re the Youth Campus, you seem pretty much on target with your analysis of the financial situation, although we understand that the PRRPD’s reason for spending all this money on site plans is so it can actually prepare some type of business plan for the complex – the revenue side of which won’t be helped by no lights for night-time use.

Virtually nothing the Park District offers is a “need” but, instead, an “amenity.” But it can be argued that a lot of these amenities are what maintain the desirable character of the community. So we think the PRRPD has done the RESPONSIBLE thing by going to referendum on the project – even though it clearly had no choice in the matter because it doesn’t have enough non-referendum debt to finance it. If enough voters think this project is a bad idea, they can vote “no.” We just wish the PRRPD wasn’t going to spend $76,000 before that vote is cast.

And we agree with you that the PRRPD shouldn’t be doing “new” stuff unless and until all its “old” stuff is ship shape.

The previous commenter can’t have it both ways, either the pd shouldnt spend any money on the plans, or you need to hear the exact specs for the future youth campus project.

The qusstion before the board last week involved the expenditure on rezoning legal fees, and the timing doesnt allow for that to be done between the passing of the referendum and the closing on the purchase.

The rest of the expense is mostly to allow the board to accurately determine the dollar amount for the capital expenditure for the buildout. No one wants to guess at that number only to be surprised later, after the budget has been drawn up. The board and the public need to know the real numbers and the plan before they act.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “[T]he timing doesn’t allow for [rezoning] to be done between the passing of the referendum and the closing on th epurchase”? Says who? And why is that – given that so many large real estate deals involve zoning issues that regularly serve as contingencies in the purchase contract? Did the PRRPD sign a contract without that kind of contingency?

As for the other expenses being necessary for the Board to determine the dollar amount for the “capital expnditures for the buildout,” puh-leeze. All that’s needed to prove that argument to be a load of bunkum is the photo of last week’s PRRPD meeting published in this week’s H-A, which features “landscape architect Steve Halberg and consultant John Dzarnowski” displaying what’s described as “a mock-up of plans for the former Park Ridge Youth Campus property.”

Irrespective of Whether that “mock-up” (and the work that’s gone into it) is the “dog” or the “pony,” it’s still nothing more than sell-the-referendum propaganda that should not be taxpayer financed. The PRRPD already has its $13 million number for the referendum: If the voters give them that amount and it’s not quite enough to cover the “paddle tennis” courts, the “performing arts area,” or the “creative play area,” those features could be deferred without major damage.

11:07 pm-The reality regarding the Youth Campus is that the neighbors of the property want all the taxpayers of Park Ridge to pay for a low use park in their neighborhood. The Our Parks Legacy group is limiting when and how the land can be used. No lights is just the start. If the PRPD needs propaganda to convince the taxpayers of Park Ridge to pass a $13 million dollar referendum when the PRPD cannot even properly maintain the property they already own then let the Our Parks Legacy group pay for the propaganda. The $76,000 of PRPD money should be used for current PRPD needs.


I wonder what the overlap is between those who “want all the taxpayers of Park Ridge to pay for a low use park in their neighborhood”, and those who are vehemently against WF, which might actually raise some tax dollars for Park Ridge. There seems to be at least a neighboorhood in common.

Lots of interesting commentary here. I’d like to put a bright spotlight on 11.01 at 11:07 pm, for the same reason as the editor. Who or what is setting the schedule of the property closing so close to the taxpayers’ vote? Are we saying that the rezoning needs to go through *before* the taxpayers vote? I find it hard to believe the zoning board and the city council would want to approve a rezoning before the voters voted.

If the Park District board is so interested in selling this boondoggle, perhaps one of them could join this discussion and explain.

Via the 11:07 pm commenter, it appears they may have joined already.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We believe the City takes all re-zoning applications as they are filed, irrespective of other concerns such as how a referendum vote might go.

My vote is for the Park District to acquire the property. So if they get the votes the $76,000 will not be a waste. If they don’t get the property it will be an expensive lesson learned. The City, Library, and school districts waste a heck of a lot more money, on an annual basis, than the Park District.


I am sitting here blown away by the stupidity of your comment. You have no problem with what you admitt may very well be a huge waste because others waste more?!?!?!

By that logic, you should have no problem with the City or School waste because the State wastes more. Beyond that, you should have no problem with the State because the Federal Government wastes more…….ahhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Typical mentality of the “gimme” crowd.

2:32 You are right, I am wrong. I hope they get the property so the money is not wasted. I was attempting to bait the commentators into what money is wasted at the other governmental locations, but my logic was absolutely incorrect.

I see the flaw in the logic. I admit that I am wrong.


Look, I am sure that there are things I would like government to spend money on that you would object to. The point is that to spend monehy on “hope” (our money) is flat our wrong.

Would you pay for plans for a house on a piece of land that had no idea if you were going to be able to acquire??? Of course you would not. That would be foolish and irresponsible.

Whatever entity or purpose this money goes to or for (PRPD vs. city, or Pell Grants vs. defense spending) it is our money. If we let one entity spend it in a stupid way we will have to cut something from somewhere to compensate or face increased taxes.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Each branch of local government is resposible only for itself, but that responsibility needs to be viewed in the context of all the other demands on the taxpayers’ funds.

It’s discouraging to me that some people are do dead set against both the park acquisition and the Centennial upgrades. While I don’t disagree that the PD could do a better job with its existing properties/amenities, I also feel like we can’t dismiss opportunities like this, which could go a long way in enhancing our community.

The parks group has “legacy” in its name for a good reason. Even if you won’t personally use this park, the chance to preserve a rare open parcel of land is important. Our town is densely developed, with plenty of houses. A new park on the Youth campus property offers a little “breathing room” from the relentless development/traffic that can sometimes seem oppressive.

And from a taxpayer perspective, I think people should look harder at the potential implications of a huge new housing development that could go in place of a park. Potential infrastructure issues, including possible flooding (this town seems notorious for that), overcrowding of the local schools, vacant, unsold homes. Residential development isn’t automatically a better financial option.

And let’s face it, our aquatic amenities are sorely lacking compared to neighboring communities. As PWD said, the outdoor pool landscape has changed and we have simply not kept up. The young families in this town, who will benefit the most from an updated pool complex, are our future. Why shouldn’t we try to keep them happy rather than looking elsewhere? Yes, the outdoor pool season is short but I say that’s even more reason to have a pool complex that lets people make the most of the warm weather while its with us.

I’m also not advocating that we spend money needlessly. But these are unique opportunties with long term benefits, which are sometimes hard to appreciate in the here and now.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The PRRPD and PR residents “dismissed” the Youth Campus property for all those decades it was the Youth Campus. Nobody ever said “Hey, we really NEED that property for parks and recreation, let’s take it by eminent domain.” All of the sudden it becomes available, and suddenly it’s the equivalent of the Louisiana Purchase – a once-in-a-lifetime “opportunity” (although not nearly the same kind of bargain).

There’s already “breathing room” in that area: Northeast Park, right across Washington St. So let’s not get carried away with the hard-sell that challenges your credibility, because your point about the infrastructure and flooding effect of a new residential development in that area has merit and should be considered – although not necessarily by the PRRPD.

As for the new Centernnial Pool, you can spare us the new twist on the “it’s for the kids” canard (“The young families in this town…are our future.”). If we don’t get our finances and taxes under control, the moment those “young families” age to the point where they’ve sucked all the subsidized education and recreation they can out of Park Ridge, they’ll be out of here – as already is starting to happen.

If the PRRPD had any vision instead of simply reacting to the end of the current Centennial Pool lifespan, it would be looking to construct a hybrid indoor-outdoor aquatic facility at Centennial that could provide more than just a 3-month season. But that would likely cost more than the PRRPD’s non-referendum debt limit, so it’s doing another cut-rate just-get-it-done-now project – like it did back in the early ’90s with the backward-looking, keep-it-within-the-non-referendum-debt-limit Community Center.

I think people didn’t “care” about the Youth Campus property while it was the Youth Campus because it wasn’t a dense residential development. But now, faced with the prospect of a bunch of new houses being crammed onto that land if the park plan falls through, I can see why the need to acquire it feels urgent.

You mention that young families are taking all they can get from schools and parks and then getting out. Is there truly evidence of that happening? Then I say that’s all the more reason to keep our resources and amenities up to date and not let them fall apart, a la Oakton. The idea of an indoor/outdoor complex is a great one. It’s too bad the PRPD can’t be more thoughtful about the redevelopment.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We have heard from several realtors how newly-empty nesters are increasingly looking to downsize or migrate, citing “the taxes.” We realize that’s anecdotal, but that’s the best “evidence” we have right now; and it does seem to have a certain logic to it.

Oakton was effectively allowed to fall apart because it was a huge money loser, due to the fact that it was purely a lap pool and the public today wants gimmicks. It should have been closed back in 2005, but the PRRPD didn’t have the guts to do it – and the voters rejected renovation/replacement plans for it – so Oakton was allowed to bleed the district of hundreds of thousands of dollars until it finally gave up the ghost.

The PRRPD can’t be “more thoughtful about the [Centennial Pool] redevelopment” because it doesn’t have the money it would take to do Centennial the way it should be done unless it goes to referendum. And the Youth Campus already is the PRRPD’s referendum du jour.

What do you mean about Oakton being just a lap pool and the public today only wanting gimmicks?

I still can’t see how it became a money loser considering it was the largest pool in town.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the last four pool seasons Oakton was still in operation, it lost an average of over $85,000, or more than the other three outdoor pools combined – precisely because it was the largest pool in town and, therefore, the most expensive pool to operate despite it having (as we recall from the PRRPD’s reports) the lowest attendance of any of the District’s three full-sized pools.

It is all about priorities. What are the best uses of our taxpayer money today. Yes we do need to think of the future but at what price. The PRPD states that the cost to the taxpayer will be about $100 additional tax dollars. The significant additional cost to maintain the property once it has been bought has still not been determined by either the PRPD or the Legacy group.

Another reality is the fact that PR needs to expand its revenue base. Empty nesters are leaving town because they simply cannot afford the real estate taxes. This is fact. More will follow as the city and schools and PRPD keep wanting more and more and more of our money while not giving more or better services in return.

The Youth Campus was never public open space-at least not in the last 100 years or so. So what are you preserving? The previous poster wants breathing room or translated the Youth Campus neighbors do not want the mess of construction they would have to deal with. They want a very low use park when there already are several on that far end of town.

The original idea of a mix of new development and park space seemed a good compromise. It is too bad that this partnership with a builder and the PRPD or the city of Park Ridge was not pursued. But asking all the citizens of PR to pay for the PRPD’s 11.4 acre boondoggle should get a resounding no vote (how many voters will really come out for the spring election-usually a low turnout-purposely done by the PRPD board?). Use the money the PRPD has on hand to fix maintain or upgrade the properties they already own.

My wife and I have vehemently opposing views about having another park in the location of the Youth Campus.

Her view is that we are below the National average. OK, Park Ridge is, but is this the best reason to place a park in its new desired location?

My wife and I are obviously residents here and we love parks and the idea of parks but I must tell you that I don’t understand the logic for placing a park in the proposed location. Not more than 4 street blocks away is a park — Northeast Park. It offers these amenities:
Tennis Courts
Play Field
Basketball Courts
Drinking Fountain

OK so the tennis courts are not paddle tennis, bring a paddle racquet to Northeast Park and play by those rules (add lines to the court to make it multipurpose). Want to have skating?…fine..add water with 20 degree weather and now you have it or go to the indoor skating rink in Niles at the corner of Ballard and Greenwood anytime of year. Want a kids play area? … fine…there’s a playground at Northeast Park.

So here’re my proposals on each of the proposed amenities to best use our funds and save on our taxes!

Paddle tennis:
At Northeast Park add lines in the tennis courts to be able to have paddle tennis.

Performing Arts Plaza:
Instead, go to Uptown during the summer, concerts nearly every Friday, also varying events and times, Taste of Park Ridge, arts and crafts,etc.

Multi-use athletic field:
At Northeast Park be creative and add additional features for more than just soccer or large field-driven type sports

Winter ice skating:
Want only outdoor ice skating instead?… go to Northwest Park near Dee and Northwest Hwy or to South Park or Woodland Park …and…sledding at Centennial park

Creative play area:
Northeast Park or Centennial park, Woodland and others….or be creative and enhance Northeast Park playground,if needed.

Multipurpose building and outdoor patio and shelter and restrooms:
Smacks of a lot of maintenance required…and you think $72 a year will cover this?

Rain Garden and natural beautification:
Got me there! … worth millions of dollars? uhhh?

Preservation of select existing trees:
Well, knowing Park Ridge park authorities, this will happen anyway, weather it’s a park or housing.

Another consideration is … isn’t it good to get residents out and about to surrounding parks with different amenities actually good for local businesses?

I don’t understand the benefit of satisfying a statistic, only to raise our taxes, despite the low ball figure presented.

In closing, it’s not about the statistic for acres of parks per acres in the town…it’s how we best use the parks we currently have and what amenities are available at each location to avoid redundancy in any given area and for each amenity to have the most utilized focus for the best bang for the buck. To me, it’s not about the money but more about common sense.

Thanks for listening,

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve always been more than a little skeptical about that parks-per-acre statistic. But you make a number of good points.

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