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Our View

Our View: More details needed on park policing plan

While it’s important to vote in any election – and the upcoming April 2 consolidated election is no exception – it’s equally important to know exactly what it is you are voting for.

The upcoming Joliet Park District tax referendum is a perfect example of that axiom.

On the surface, the issue seems pretty straightforward: the district wants to raise taxes by 58 percent to raise $5 million annually for park operations and maintenance. Homeowners now paying $144 per $100,000 of assessed value in property taxes a year to the district would pay $229 per $100,000 of assessed value.

The issue follows a $19.5 million capital referendum that voters overwhelmingly approved in November 2014. But while the district was able to deliver on promised park renovations and improvements, it is now operating at deficit. Officials say the district is not taking in enough money to cover operating and maintenance costs.

So how would the $5 million be spent? Officials don’t have a specific to-do list, instead explaining that the referendum will affect the district as a whole. 

“The funds will be used for every facility,” Deputy Director Brad Stabb said. “It could affect everything from softball to golf, from the ice arena to the water park.”

Yet it turns out there is one specific operating cost being considered, an arrangement with the Joliet Police Department.

According to Commissioner Joe Clement, the district would use off-duty police to patrol parks, primarily on weekends, for liquor and other violations.

The policing idea isn’t a new one; it mirrors a 1990s plan that paid Joliet police overtime to police parks after hours.

And perhaps it’s a good idea, especially considering the money invested in creating the Nowell Park Recreation Center and improvements at Pilcher Park – both keystones of the 2014 referendum.

Certainly such a plan would be popular with East Side residents – as well as police.

On the other hand, there does not appear to have been many police incidents or complaints of slow response times reported at these or any other park district facilities in recent years – at least many that The Herald-News has reported on.

And if the park district is already having trouble covering operating costs, is spending money on a new policing program really the best use of limited tax dollars?

Also, it’s important to note that the cost doesn’t end there; any overtime costs also are reflected in police pensions, for which taxpayers also are responsible.

The board hasn’t said how much this program would cost, or when it would be implemented. But should the referendum pass, the district will prioritize spending, said board President Sue Gulas, noting that “park police is definitely toward the top of the list.”

Yet going back to the past system of using two police officers to patrol the entire district could prove challenging. 

“We have 65 parks,” Gulas said. “That’s a lot of policing.”

It’s a complicated issue, and one that merits careful consideration by Joliet taxpayers.

We believe the board needs to provide voters with a clearer picture of why the park policing plan is necessary, what it will entail and how much it will cost.

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