A rendering of the community center proposed by the Park District of Oak Park. | Provided

The funding of Park District of Oak Park’s (PDOP) Community Recreation Center (CRC) raises questions and reveals transparency and accountability issues.

On Oct. 14, the PDOP commissioners voted unanimously to issue up to $6 million in debt certificates, a funding tool that allows elected officials to bypass voters in borrowing money. Any time a taxing body issues debt certificates, it’s a red flag for taxpayers. Think of debt certificates as non-referendum bonds but with no recourse for taxpayers and with higher interest rates, as they’re repaid via budget appropriation/surplus which isn’t guaranteed.

The PDOP issuance of debt certificates ran under the radar and was buried in a Nov. 1 Wednesday Journal story, in which PDOP Executive Director Jan Arnold stated “adamantly” that the $6 million raised by the debt certificates will not go toward funding the CRC and instead will fund the Capital Improvement Plan. Yet based on its scheduled expenditures and funding through 2025, there’s no need for the $6 million once the CRC is removed from the plan. Arnold’s statement was walked back in a recent email exchange which referenced the plan, and she now says the $6 million may be used to assist with cash flow for the construction of the CRC.

Only $2.5 million in private cash donations have been received for the CRC. While the PDOP Foundation says it has a couple million more in pledges, the project is still reportedly $5 million short of its goal, which raises questions. Why begin construction when the funding is not secured, and will taxpayers be on the hook for up to $6 million?

The PDOP already shifted $5 million in capital funds to help finance the $22 million CRC. Their ability to amass millions in excess capital highlights an issue: either the PDOP is levying too much money from taxpayers and/or its user fees are too high, as the majority of their revenue comes from property taxes, with the rest largely derived from user fees. As such, why doesn’t the PDOP lower its levy and/or reduce its user fees to avert the buildup of millions of dollars in surplus funds?

Another question pertains to the PDOP’s recent request for $2 million of the village of Oak Park’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding which appears earmarked for the CRC. The PDOP says it needs the money because it suffered severe economic impacts due to the pandemic, yet it ended 2020 on a positive note with an increase in net position of $3.1 million. As of May 2021, the PDOP had $16.3 million in total cash available to the district (fund balances). Given its strong financial position, they don’t need the ARPA funds.

The issuance of up to $6 million in debt certificates, its spending of $5 million in capital funds, and its $2 million ARPA request all to fund the CRC — a major capital project that the PDOP declines to put before voters for funding approval — raise questions of transparency and accountability to taxpayers.

Monica Sheehan is a resident of Oak Park.

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