The Park District of Oak Park (PDOP) cites a 2019 survey of 618 households as rationale for building a Park District Rec Center.
The survey, no mention of costs, found that “nearly 50% of respondents expressed a need or interest in a fitness center, indoor pool and indoor track for their household. However, 80% of respondents stated a Community Recreation Center (CRC) is needed in Oak Park if it is constructed without a tax increase. Support was stronger for a CRC when survey respondents learned the gym space would be available to middle- and high-school students free of charge during afterschool hours” (this per the PDOP website).
According to the Cook County Clerk’s website, Oak Park has 40,814 registered voters/taxpayers.
The park district survey of 618 represented just 1.5% of registered voters/taxpayers. The “nearly” 50% (meaning less than a majority) or 309 or so respondents perceiving a need for a village rec center represented a meager .0075% of registered voters/taxpayers, and the approximate 80% or 494 or so who favored the rec center if built without a tax increase, represented just 1.21% of registered voters/taxpayers. Again, costs were not part of the survey questions.
Here’s the only relevant survey that truly matters: On Election Day, Nov. 3, Oak Park voters/taxpayers voted on an advisory referendum that said, “Shall any capital expenditure of $5 million or more by any local taxing body within Oak Park be subject to a binding referendum for approval or rejection by the voters?” The result was overwhelming, 13,178 or 78.4% yes, 3,627 or 21.6% no.
The park district has already earmarked $5 million in property taxes for this proposed facility (including a redundant pool — just cover Ridgeland Common pool and be done with it). That’s not counting another $1.5 million in property tax money allocated by Oak Park Township. This combined $6.5 million could be returned to the taxpayers. Nor does it include an $875,000 grant from the functionally bankrupt state of Illinois, nor a $2.5 million PARC grant from the state of Illinois (which may approve these allocations but may be unable to deliver the money, leaving the park district holding that bag, as has happened elsewhere).
Phase 1 is estimated to cost $18 million, of which $9,875,000 would come from tax money, assuming the state money is real, the rest from purportedly donated funds. The facility would be built on donated land, a sizable portion of Madison Street real estate, permanently removing it from the property tax rolls, a significant opportunity cost not to be overlooked. The park district board states that the facility would be permanently self-sustaining without property tax money via user fees and memberships, but they cannot guarantee that.
The scope of this project, the opportunity costs, the financial risk and the permanent park district obligation (meaning taxpayers) this facility becomes is far too large not to take it to the taxpayers in a referendum, 13,178 of whom voted to say they want to have a say in capital expenditures of $5 million or more.
To the park district board, are you prepared to ignore 13,178 taxpayers who have expressed a need to vote on such a large capital expenditure? If you are, why?
To the District 200 school board, same questions.
Jack Powers is a resident of Oak Park.