Park funding history: a tale of split personalities

? The park district hasn't passed a referendum since 1964. They haven't even tried since getting

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By KEN TRAINOR

The history of park funding in Oak Park is a curious one, a story of split personalities. For six decades (beginning in 1912), an independent park district existed in the village, but all the recreational activities offered fell under the purview of the Recreation Department, an entirely separate entity which thrived under the auspices of village hall.

Through the years, the Rec Department had far more success passing referenda. In April 1928, a $30,000 bond issue was approved to build three "shelter houses" (known today as recreation centers). The vote was 7,419 to 4,538 (which means almost 5,000 more people voted in 1928 than in the 2003 local elections).

In April of 1931, at the height of the Depression, a $50,000 bond issue was approved for purchasing and equipping the James Barrie Playground, across Lombard from the manufactured gas plant that would eventually become Barrie Park (purchased by the park district in the late 1950s). The vote was anything but depressed (9,854 to 7,588).

In April of 1938, still in the Depression, a tax levy increase was approved 10,075 to 7,798.

And finally, a full 40 years ago, the last park-related referendum passed (once again through the Recreation Department) when, on Sept. 18, 1965, voters weighed in on a $900,000 bond issue to construct new rec centers at Fox and Longfellow parks, a complete redo of the rec center at Stevenson Park, and remodeling of the Andersen, Barrie, Carroll, and Field rec centers. The measure was approved by the paltry total of 2,313 to 679.

The year before, the park district managed to pass its last referendum?#34;a bond issue to turn Ridgeland Common from a bucolic, pastoral green space to a modern "sports center" with the addition of basketball, volleyball and handball courts, a football field, a miniature golf course and putting greens, and "hills for toboggan and sled use in winter." Only 1,600 voters turned out to approve the measure.

Apparently, mini-golf never came to fruition, and the courts seem to have been a bust. Perhaps that began to sour the populace at the end of a very active half decade, which included the construction of the Ridgeland Common Pool and Ice Rink, Rehm Pool, and the aforementioned rec center improvements.

An ambitious proposal

Perhaps such expansionism went to the park board's head because they seem to have overplayed their hand. In 1968, they came back to the voters with a very ambitious, four-issue referendum. The local press was behind it 100 percent?#34;partly because the former editor of the Oak Leaves, Warren Stevens, had previously served on the park board for nine years, seven as president. As the general chairman of the Citizens Advisory Committee that year, he was quoted at the top of a full-page ad in the Aug. 21, 1968 issue of Oak Leaves saying, "We believe that the specific improvements in the referendum represent the kind of action program Oak Park needs to retain its stable and healthy climate. It is a wise investment in a good and great village. We urge every citizen to support this issue."

Four separate issues, actually, and, as the wording indicates ("stable and healthy climate") proponents sold this referendum at least partly as a measure to calm jittery residents just after the landmark Fair Housing Ordinance had been passed the previous May.

The issues on the Aug. 24 ballot included:

1) Raising the tax levy an additional 5 cents to maintain all neighborhood parks and related facilities;

2) Another 5 cents to better supervise and police all park areas and facilities;

3) Issue bonds in the amount of $1.01 million to improve existing park areas and facilities, including the repair and expansion of the Mills House Senior Citizens Center, "replacing the present park lighting system with modern and efficient lights," replacing three park "comfort stations," and "upgrade and recondition all park areas, including baseball and football facilities, tennis courts, sidewalks, drinking fountains, landscaping, and constructing additional maintenance facilities;"

And the most ambitious measure of all:

4) Issue bonds in the amount of $2.575 million to construct new recreation facilities, including a year-round Rehm Park ice skating complex, a year-round swimming pool, and five new "creative play centers."

Clearly, the park district was thinking big?#34;in fact much bigger than any other decade in its history. Until the 1960s, they had mostly been caretakers of the village's quieter green spaces. Now they were clearly pushing the envelope into the arena of active recreation.

According to proponents, "If you own a home valued at $23,000 ($7,800 assessed value), [the referendum increase] would cost the individual homeowner an additional $18.72 a year or $1.56 a month." The total bond issue of $3.585 million, large no doubt for the time, would be "amortized" over a period of 20 years.

As the Oak Leaves ad put it, "For far less than the cost of your daily newspaper, Oak Park can offer additional wholesome and constructive recreation facilities to thousands of its citizens." Income from the pool and rink, they assured voters, "would pay for the total operational and maintenance costs."

They noted that the increasing demand for swimming and skating had outgrown the current facilities, just four years after the second outdoor pool had opened at Rehm. "In 1967," the ad contended, "Ridgeland and Rehm pools were heavily taxed with over 300,000 users recorded."

The youth population had increased rapidly during those Baby Boom years, they noted, the 17-and-under crowd growing from 8,211 in 1960 to 12,432 in 1965.

Among those who offered their names in support of the referendum were John Carmody, Vince Dierkes, Elsie Jacobsen, Dominick Meo, Marvin Nagursey, Robert Ransom and Dean Sodaro.

A resounding 'No'

But when the Aug. 28 issue of the Oak Leaves came out, the bold headline read: Voters 'Nix' Parks - All four proposals beaten by huge margin. The election drew 5,943 voters, and "the vote was considered heavy for the summer months." In fact, just a month earlier, the library had successfully passed a referendum in which only 2,010 people voted. And the park vote was a sharp increase over the 1,600 who had turned out in 1964 to approve the park district's previous referendum request.

In the aftermath, Park Board President Laurence Miller said, "I was very much surprised at the outcome. I think it's an expression of revolt against higher taxes." Park District Director Webbs Norman said, "We have our task cut out for us. ... We will make adjustments which are necessary."

Attempting to put the most positive spin on it, Norman also noted, "It is encouraging that larger numbers of our citizens are taking part in the decision-making process of the village."

"The people have spoken," intoned the Oak Leaves editorial, as it turns out, quite prophetically. "In Oak Park last Saturday, the people not only spoke?#34;they shouted. That's final ... unless and until, sometime in the far off future, sentiment swings drastically in favor of more publicly supported recreation. That could happen, although we wouldn't venture to predict when. ... Frankly, we can't expect the independent park district (or the village-supported recreation department) to do the full job of furnishing recreation for our children, senior citizens or other adults."

One last try

Yet in spite of that resounding defeat, the park district did make one more attempt?#34;two years later in 1970, when they sought funds to rebuild the 40-year-old conservatory, which had to be closed because it was falling apart. They asked for at least $85,000 upfront for repairs and a tax increase for continuing maintenance and "education" (estimated at $40-50,000 per year), and anything left over from the 5-cent levy increase would be used to renovate other park facilities "which have suffered in the past two years because of a financial squeeze on the the park district."

But the referendum, said proponents, would give the people "the final decision on whether to save the conservatory."

According to the Oak Leaves editorial on July 22, 1970, "At a time when more and more Americans are working toward a beautiful and clean environment, an investment of $50,000 a year seems like a small amount to preserve our own community.

"It should also be noted that more than half the income from the proposed tax increase would go for basic upkeep of other park facilities, which the park district has been forced against its wishes to neglect."

But, given the "final" say on whether to save the conservatory, the voters said no, 994-675.

'Consolidation' gets messy

In hindsight, of course, we know that a dedicated group of residents started a grassroots movement to save the facility, but no such redemption awaited the park district. The very next issue of the Oak Leaves contained an article titled, "New idea eyed on park merger."

According to Trustee Thomas F. Sturr, "The goal is consolidation of the park district and recreation department." Members of the park and recreation boards agreed to consider a combined board and the village attorney was directed to draft a consolidation plan.

That consolidation effort proved messy throughout the 1970s. In 1971, a proposal to dissolve the village's recreation department and turn over full control over parks and recreation to the park district, failed by one vote on the village board, and was approved unanimously by the park board. In 1974, a second proposal to turn all control to the village board was unanimously rejected by the parks, and unanimously supported by trustees.

In 1980, a consolidation?#34;of sorts?#34;was finally approved. The village began subsidizing the park district for recreation services, and dissolved its own recreation department. That model still exists today.

Throughout consolidation negotiations, no other referenda came before the voters.

The only bond issue of note?#34;and one the park board approved in part just to avoid another referendum?#34;was in 1996 for improvements to the pools, which was expected to pay for itself through increased revenues. But falling use and cold summers have turned that hope into a liability, draining funds, and leading to a decade of deferred maintenance for a park district that has already been making-do for over 40 years.

On April 5, the park district is coming before the voters, asking for a tax increase to address not only deferred maintenance and capital improvements, but also to declare recreation's independence from village hall at last.

As the Oak Leaves put it in 1968, "... unless and until, sometime in the far off future, sentiment swings drastically in favor of more publicly supported recreation. That could happen, although we wouldn't venture to predict when."

Next Tuesday will decide if that time is now.

CONTACT: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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