City Should Attach Strings to Park District Donation
A headline in the Southern Illinoisan captured the essence of Mayor Fritzler’s proposal to give $100k of city funds to the Park District: Mayor: Let’s Give Splash Park $100k. As far as I can see, Fritzler doesn’t want to apply strings or conditions (other than that the money must be used for the Park District’s proposed aquatic center). It looks to me like he just wants to hand over the money.
I also read Fritzler’s press release on the Carbondaze Gazette blog (he doesn’t send press releases to me, undoubtedly because I’m on record as regretting my vote for him last year). It looks like he wants to use money from the city’s hotel tax, which in the past has been used to promote tourism, to fund his giveaway. He’d route the funds through the reconstructed (and, I hope, renamed) Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau (CCTB).
For the record, I’m agnostic on the aquatic center. I think Carbondale should have a public pool – in fact, I think we should have the best aquatic center between St. Louis and Nashville – but I am skeptical about the Park District’s ability to successfully manage the facility. If the Park District can drum up the roughly $625k it needs to secure the full $2.5 million federal grant, and the additional $300k necessary to provide a cushion, and it can do this entirely through private donations, I’d be surprised and delighted. It might even ease some of my anxiety about the Park District building another facility despite its inability to take care of our existing parks.
But if the funds to build the aquatic center are going to come from the city, I’d need to see some strings attached before I could support the donation. Specifically, I’d want to see the Park District agree to city annexation of all Park District-owned properties that are contiguous to the city, and I’d want the Park District to sign annexation agreements for any property it owns that is not contiguous to the city (and thus not eligible to be annexed). Those two conditions should be a minimum requirement for any city donation beyond the $10k Fritzler has already given the Park District.
Even with those conditions met, I’d still be very skeptical about a city donation to the Park District. If the aquatic center makes as much money as the Park District thinks it will, everything will work out. But what if it doesn’t make money? What if it loses money? Can the Park District support another money loser? Does it have the ability to raise taxes to support a less-than-successful aquatic center? Does the Park District have reserves that it could draw on? Or will the Park District expect the city to bail it out?
The Park District is a separate taxing body. We could debate whether we need a separate taxing body to administer our parks, but a separate organization is what we have right now. I recall that Joel Fritzler offered the fact that District 95 is a separate taxing body as a reason to oppose city funding for the summer math and reading program. Now he wants to give a separate taxing body a $100k check for a pool and he doesn’t want to attach any strings. Let’s be clear: our mayor opposes giving money to the school district to help struggling students learn math and reading, but he supports giving money to the park district for a swimming pool. Those are interesting priorities.
One of the key elements of the aquatic center campaign is the Park District’s claim that the funds for the pool will come from donations, and that tax money won’t be used for the pool. If the city gives $100k to the Park District, is that still a valid claim? It would be a donation, after all, but the donation comes from tax money. Is that better than the Park District simply using its own tax money for the pool? And it looks like the city isn’t the only taxing body contributing. I have it on good authority that the Park District has approached District 95 for a $30k donation, which it is likely to receive.
As I said above, I think Carbondale ought to have a public pool – and ideally we’d have a great aquatic center. But I am wary of allowing the Park District to build and manage it. The Park District, after all, failed to make mandated repairs to the pool at the Life Center on Sunset, which led to that pool being closed for safety reasons. Giving the Park District $100k out of city funds seems like a harebrained idea. I expect this kind of thing from Fritzler, but I hope the rest of the council won’t consent – at least not without getting Park District property annexed into the city.
Comments are welcome.