OP parks going to voters for cash in April

? Park district would have to make significant cuts in programming and personnel if referendum fails.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Oak Park park commissioners unanimously agreed Thursday to ask voters for a tax hike next April. If approved, the referendum would increase the park's tax by .25 cents per $100 in Equalized Assessed Valuation (EAV) and generate $2.9 million for the cash-strapped parks. Voter support would also pave the way for the district to free itself of financial dependence on village government.

The measure would cost property tax payers roughly $52 per $20,900 in EAV, or per $100,000 in actual market value; For instance, the owner of a $360,000 home would pay an additional $188 annually (see sidebar, p. 20).

The village provides the parks with $1.6 million annually, or 22 percent of the district's total budget. Last month, the park board approved a resolution committing the district to end its dependence on that funding, a strategy recommended by both a hired consultant and citizen committee, but one that some village board members expressed reservations about.

The dollars generated by a tax hike would allow the district to recoup revenue lost as a result of that separation, and would also give the parks money for capital improvements.

This is the only form of referendum that easily gives the district the ability to funnel new tax dollars toward both operations and capital improvements.

Any capital investment would likely be based on recommendations made in both an infrastructure report and the district's recently completed master plan.   

The master plan broadly suggested making improvements to existing parks, playgrounds, pools and neighborhood parks. A village-wide survey also suggested residents wanted to see significant investment made in Ridgeland Common, Rehm Pool and the Conservatory.

Beyond recommendations in those reports, however, commissioners did not indicate that they intend to bring any particular large-scale project before voters. Commissioner Mark Gartland said he believes residents would be more likely to support a referendum if they could later be involved in what the district spent the money on.

"If there's any town in Illinois that likes to plan, it's Oak Park. We'd be more successful to say 'we don't even have money to plan,'" without passage of a referendum, he said.

If a referendum is not successful, the parks would have to make significant cuts in services and personnel, district staff told the board.

As the park board prepares to seek community support for the tax hike, one question that has already surfaced is to what level, if any, the village would cease to levy the dollars it currently turns over to the park district if a referendum is approved. The $1.6 million the village gives the parks comes from its general corporate fund. Property taxes dollars only comprise 25 percent of that fund, said village finance director Greg Peters.

WEDNESDAY JOURNAL could not reach Village President Joanne Trapani regarding whether or not she believes the village should continue to levy the $1.6 million.

However, park board member Tom Philion last week suggested the district focus its referendum campaign on its needs, rather than count on the village to take a position on the issue.

"We can ask them for plans for that allocation, but I'm not optimistic," he said. "The issue is can we support it without the diminishment. I'd like to keep the focus on the park district and our needs."

The park board must still approve a formal resolution, and officially file papers by the end of January, before the referendum can be placed on the ballot.

CONTACT: kgrayson@wjinc.com

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