Gov. Pat Quinn came to Carol Stream Monday to sign legislation enabling the park district to borrow all $37 million for park improvement projects approved by voters in a February 2010 referendum question.
The bill signing took place at the site of the park district's $18 million, two-story recreation center now under construction at Town Center at Lies Road and Gary Avenue. It's the marquee project of the district's capital construction program, which also includes ballfield upgrades and playground and trail improvements.
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And, parks officials say, without the General Assembly's approval and Quinn's signature, some of those projects might have had to have been deferred or scaled down.
Due to a decline in property values, park officials estimated the district would only have been able to collect $29 million in referendum dollars. That's when they began to lobby Quinn and legislators to ask for a change in state law that would allow the district to fully borrow all $37 million.
Officials say that will now happen thanks to the legislation, which exempts up to $15 million in referendum bond money from the aggregate principal indebtedness limit of 2.875 percent.
State Rep. Randy Ramey, one of the bill's co-sponsors, and park officials maintain the legislation won't mean any additional tax increase beyond what voters already approved in February 2010.
"The people said they wanted this, so that's why (co-sponsor State Sen. John Millner) and I decided to take the ball and run with it, even though it may not exactly go with what some of our values are party-wise," Ramey, a Republican, said. "But we wanted to do this. We wanted to get it done."
Quinn said the legislation was a bipartisan effort and "recreation and exercise is not a Republican value or Democratic value." The bill passed the Senate unanimously and was approved 80-33 in the House, with mostly downstate Republicans voting against it.
"When people voted on Feb. 2, 2010, property values were at a certain level here. And we've all known what the impact of the Great Recession has been on real estate," Quinn said. "But I think the will of the people expressed in that referendum was to build the (recreation center). It would not be fully built if we weren't able to sign this bill. Folks expressed their opinion in a binding referendum and to carry out that will, the law had to be adjusted."
Taking a page from the New Deal of the 1930s, Quinn said now may be the best time to build public works projects like the Carol Stream recreation center, along with schools, roads and rail systems.
"Sometimes when times are tough, you have to start building," he said.
The Carol Stream parks bill is something of an exception -- only two school districts have sought similar legislation, Ramey said.
He said he talked with officials from the Illinois Association of Park Districts to see if they wanted to pursue similar legislation with other park districts, but it wasn't an issue elsewhere.
Construction on the Carol Stream recreation center is expected to be complete by fall 2013. The referendum money is also funding already-completed projects, such as a $3.5 million upgrade project at McCaslin Park, a new dog park and repaved trails. Park officials are still planning improvements to Armstrong Park, where construction of two county stormwater reservoirs is under way.