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posted: 5/15/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: Review, choose conference costs wisely

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

In March, Arlington Heights voters rejected a plan from the Arlington Heights Park District to borrow $48 million to renovate four of its main parks. In our endorsement of the project, we recognized the concerns of those who said such a request in these hard economic times was not wise. However, we urged a yes vote because it could have been a cost-saving opportunity to do the work now because of lower construction prices and interest rates.

Anytime we endorse a referendum question that will increase taxes we are wary. We certainly like to see that the taxing body has done a credible job in keeping its costs low and is spending wisely.

So imagine our disappointment in the park district when our Suburban Tax Watchdog columnist, Jake Griffin, reported last week that in January the Arlington Heights Park District spent $18,644 to send 30 employees, one intern and one board member to the annual state parks conference in Chicago. It was the most spent by 29 park districts in the suburbs analyzed by Griffin.

Thirty people? Granted, not all stayed overnight for the three-day conference, but some did. While the amount is marginal compared with the borrowing the district intended to do, it raises a red flag as to how they determine the best course of action when spending money. Couldn't half that number have attended the conference and brought back information to share or teach to the others? Wouldn't that be a nod to efficiency?

"There's no question it's a significant amount of money, but we place an emphasis on our staff to perform at exceptional levels and this is a way to be trained to do that," said Arlington Heights Park District Executive Director Steve Scholten.

As Griffin pointed out, they certainly were not alone in spending money to attend the Chicago "Soaring to New Heights" conference. The suburban districts spent more than $212,000 on hotel costs, dinners, registration fees, valet parking, cabs and coat checks.

We do not discourage training. We also understand that some of the attendees do need to spend the entire time at the conference. But did six of Lombard's elected park commissioners need to stay in the city at a cost of $2,257 for hotels alone? The district spent a total of $15,311 for the board members and 14 employees to attend the conference.

What's more appalling is the answer Griffin got from one board member when questioned about the costs.

"This is the first I've heard of any issues of any inappropriate expense," said Commissioner Greg Ludwig. "We most definitely can re-evaluate the cost for next year."

You think? Shouldn't an elected park board member have already wondered why that many people need to go and questioned why more couldn't drive or take a train back and forth rather than staying overnight?

Other districts were much more frugal. We urge all suburban districts to re-evaluate for next year the benefits of the training versus the cost of sending so many people.

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