Four years ago, Fox Valley Park District voters approved $44.8 million in funding to buy land and renovate or build new facilities.
Since 2008, the park district has purchased 112 acres, bridged a gap on the Fox River Trail and made upgrades to Blackberry Farm, Red Oak Nature Center and Stuart Sports Complex, spending all but $5 million of the total gained from the referendum.
With the majority of the money allocated or spent, Executive Director Nancy McCaul says the park district's next few years will be about maintenance. "The vast majority of our budget is going to be maintaining what we have," McCaul said.
Budget talks for the next fiscal year are ongoing, but the park board last week approved a $22 million tax levy that does not increase from last year's amount.
"We're trying to do the right thing in very challenging times and trying to balance the short term and the long term," said park board President Rachel Ossyra. "Every dollar people pay in taxes is critical, so we take that very seriously."
McCaul said the park district accounts for about 5 percent of the typical property tax bill for the Aurora, North Aurora and Montgomery residents in its borders. She said the tax freeze means the owner of a $150,000 home could owe an estimated $5 less in taxes to the district than last year.
Residents will not notice any decrease in services or programs, McCaul said, as the park district will continue a scholarship program for families with children eligible for free or reduced lunch, subsidized programs such as the free summer playground, and grants to the Fox Valley Special Recreation Association and the First Tee of Aurora and the Fox River Valley.
But all those new acres of grassy fields don't mow themselves, and McCaul said the park district is beginning to face increasing debt repayments on the loan it took out after the referendum. Several measures are allowing the park district to maintain its facilities without raising taxes -- all while completing the last phases of work funded by the $44.8 million referendum.
The 2012 levy marks the second year in a row the park district has not increased property taxes, McCaul and Ossyra said. Dipping into surplus funds will help balance the next year's budget, as will renting part of the former administration building at South River Street Park and focusing on the core mission.
McCaul said an idea to start educating homeowners about ways to be more sustainable was struck because it does not directly advance the park district's mission of providing "fun, diverse and safe park and recreation experiences through environmentally and fiscally responsible actions."
McCaul said one such fiscally responsible action involves the use of a credit card program that allows 1 percent of all purchases to be donated to a nonprofit. Since hearing about the program, the park district filtered about $14,000 back into its coffers by first donating it to the Fox Valley Park Foundation.
Trustees also opted not to take out another loan or seek more taxpayer money through another referendum this year, and the capital improvement plan will be scaled back.
With about $9 million in debt repayments a year and costs of up to $350,000 to maintain new soccer and baseball fields at just two of the parks that have seen upgrades since 2008, McCaul said every cost-saving measure helps.
In 2013, three new baseball diamonds and six new soccer fields will open at Waubonsie Creek and New Haven parks, one of many signs that work funded by money voters approved in 2008 is nearing a close. Blackberry Farm, which received $1.5 million in upgrades, will host a grand opening ceremony this spring, and Harmony Pointe, a new facility built behind the Vaughan Athletic Center and named for its musical play structures, will be open for its first full year.
Upgrades to some other facilities, such as $9 million to add 11 soccer fields, four baseball fields and more parking to Stuart Sports Complex in Montgomery, are ongoing, but the focus no longer is on expansion and new construction.
"What's changing is really that we're focused on maintaining and sustaining everything that we put into place," Ossyra said.
The park district plans to continue seeking grants after receiving $4 million from sources like the state during the past four years. Grant funding supported projects, such as the construction of a trailhead connecting the Fox River and Gilman trails at South River Street Park that will begin this spring.
No uses are yet spelled out for the $5 million of remaining referendum funds, $2.5 million of which must go toward land acquisition. She said the park district plans to survey users next fall to make sure it is providing -- and maintaining -- park and recreation services that meet community needs.