Park districts across Will County spent tens of thousands of dollars to attend a three-day conference in January in downtown Chicago, leaving taxpayers to pick up the bill for luxury hotel stays, expensive meals and valet parking for elected officials and employees who live and work within commuting distance of the city.
A review of conference expenses from 43 park districts and municipalities throughout the state showed significant spending differences. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed these districts spent a combined $271,722.89 to attend the Soaring to New Heights conference put on by the Illinois Park and Recreation Association and the Illinois Association of Park Districts.
The 10 districts wholly or partially located in Will County that provided receipts from the conference spent a total of $90,967.32 on the conference.
Although some of the districts, Minooka and Braidwood for example, sent no representatives, others spent thousands of dollars sending up to two dozen employees or board members from their district. In most cases, the spending was entirely taxpayer-funded.
The Plainfield Park District spent $17,113.12 over the course of the three-day event, sending 20 people and paying for 17 multinight hotel room stays at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, where the event was held. That total included $5,631.21 for hotel rooms and $759 for valet parking. With the exception of the Chicago Park District, which sent 85 people, Plainfield taxpayers paid a higher cost than any other of the 42 districts examined across Illinois.
Plainfield Park District officials said they strive to be up to date on training to best serve their district and were honoring an employee who received an award from the association along with dinner for his family paid for by the park district.
“The Plainfield Park District budgets $1,000 annually per staff member for training and professional development,” Plainfield Park District Commissioner Mary Kay Ludemann said. “This amount represents less than 1% of our total operating budget.”
She said the Plainfield Park District has been awarded an “Illinois Distinguished Accredited Agency,” with multiple board members classified as “Distinguished Board Member Certification or Master Board Member Certification,” all titles at least partially endowed by the Illinois Association of Park Districts that holds the annual event. Because of the employee’s award, Ludemann said the district spent more this year.
Plainfield Park District’s 2019 budget calls for using $3.8 million in reserves to make up the difference between consolidated revenue of $9.64 million and consolidated expenditures of $13.7 million, according to budget documents. The Park District gets about 75% of its revenue from property taxes.
The district is home to about 100,000 people, according to a 2015 assessment.
Taxpayers in nearby Lockport Park District paid for 18 conference attendees, including three spouses, for a total cost of $14,072.42.
“We have $65,800 budgeted this year for all staff and commissioner conference and trainings,” Executive Director Bill Riordan said in an email.
One thing Plainfield and Lockport park districts had in common were receipts for upscale restaurants.
Lockport taxpayers handed Stetson’s Modern Steak and Sushi $433.26 for an unknown number of guests, and paid $126.23 to Giordano’s that Commissioner Jim Louch listed as taking “representatives from Will County out for pizza.”
Plainfield Park District officials charged a $3,200 dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse to a district credit card, but nearly everyone paid the district back for their meal. The district bought dinner for an employee and his three guests. The employee was named the Illinois Park and Recreation Association’s Young Professional of the Year.
Lawmakers in Springfield have tried to pass legislation to limit this type of spending but to no avail.
“The locals, on issues good or bad, have a better idea whether something’s worthwhile,” said state Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield. “We’re glad the people are talking about this, but ultimately it comes down to local taxpayers paying attention to how their tax dollars are spent.”
Although they’re not as costly as school districts, a park district line item often is a significant portion of a homeowner’s property tax bill in suburban Chicago. Statutorily, park districts in Illinois may levy up to 0.12% of the value of all taxable property in the district.
The Joliet Park District sent 16 district officials for a total cost of $13,641.38. That was the third-highest total cost of the districts reviewed that were located wholly or partially in Will County.
“We’re the third-largest park district in the state. We have more staff than anybody else,” Joliet Park Board President Sue Gulas said.
Gulas said the decision to attend the conference was made in November or December but before the board decided to seek a property tax increase from voters.
The Joliet Park Board in January voted to put a referendum on the ballot, seeking a 58% hike in the property tax rate. Park officials described the district in the ensuing months as being in a fiscal crisis, but voters turned down the referendum. The Park District since has decided not to open the Splash Station Waterpark, as it seeks to recover more than $500,000 through cost cuts or new revenue.
Cost cuts include at least a temporary freeze on travel.
Gulas said the board will decide in November or December whether to attend the annual conference again in January 2020. Gulas, who attended the conference in January, said there are sessions at 8 a.m. and in the evening, which leads to the overnight stays. The conference is the one time a year that park officials from across Illinois get together, she said.
“We learn a lot from other park districts – sometimes from smaller park districts that might have ideas,” Gulas said.
• Herald-News reporter Bob Okon contributed to this report.