Snow probably kept people away from the Joliet Park District’s first public pitch for its proposed tax increase at an open house Saturday morning.
But park officials got a good warm-up for two upcoming public forums on the April 2 referendum when one area resident grilled them with questions.
The park district is seeking a 58 percent increase in its property tax rate.
Park officials want to make their case to the public at three forums.
But their voices echoed in the mostly empty hangar at Joliet Regional Airport, where only five people showed up for the first forum as the last of 4.3 inches of snow measured at the airport was falling.
Park Board President Sue Gulas said the low turnout “was totally due to the weather.”
But one outspoken taxpayer at the meeting suggested lack of public attention to local government will lead to low turnout at the election, as well.
“It’s a shame that more people don’t come out and vote,” said a man in a Bears sweatshirt and a baseball cap. “You’ll see it’s a small minority that’s going to make a decision for the majority.”
The man later refused to give The Herald-News his name. He did say he actually lived just outside Joliet, but has a son who lives in the city and could not be at the open house.
The tax increase will add an additional $85 per $100,000 of assessed valuation to a homeowner’s tax bill, or $120 for the average home in Joliet before senior and homestead exemptions, park officials said.
Park District Deputy Director Brad Staab said the $5 million in additional revenue generated by the tax increase is needed to maintain park operations.
Staab pointed to 65 parks, 23 facilities totaling 282,000 square feet and three golf courses in describing the scope of the park district.
“From the East Side to the West Side, the Joliet Park District touches the lives of just about everybody,” he said.
Staab pointed to the roof overhead the small audience in the 90-year-old hangar as an example of needed maintenance.
“If it were raining right now, we’d be getting wet,” he said. “The roof does not keep water out of this facility.”
However, the unnamed taxpayer, the only one asking questions at the forum, described the tax increase as “an absurd amount of money to ask to do more maintenance” and questioned why the park district does not charge higher rent to airport users.
“How can such a building 90 years old get in such deplorable condition and not be continually maintained, especially when you have big-ticket users like ComEd?” he asked.
Part of the hangar is rented to Haverfield, a company that provides helicopter services to ComEd, for $24,000 a year.
Airport manager Jennifer McFarland said the rent is comparable with other community airports.
Park officials said they are already too dependent on revenue from programs and operations.
“Most park districts operate 50-50 – 50 percent tax and 50 percent programs and fees,” Staab said. “We’re skewed very much the other way.”
He said the $8.8 million the park district gets from property taxes amounts to 32 percent of its revenue.
Gulas said program fees have been increased, and other measures have been taken to reduce costs and raise revenue.
She said the district has reduced staff through attrition, renegotiated the lease for the restaurant at Inwood, rented space to ATI Physical Therapy at Inwood, and extended the life of equipment to avoid replacement costs.
Upgrades at the Inwood ice rink have reached the point of urgency, she said.
“In a two-year time frame, the cooling system underneath the ice – you’re not going to even be able to get parts for it anymore,” Gulas said.
She said the park district has taken care of its maintenance needs “behind the scenes without crying wolf,” but has reached the point where it needs more revenue.
The next two open houses on the tax referendum will be:
• 6:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at Hartman Recreation Center, 511 N. Collins St.
• 6 p.m. March 12 at Kathy Green Multi-Purpose Center, 3000 W. Jefferson St.