Suburban parks bill taxpayers for Chicago hotel stays

Suburban district officials stay in Chicago during conferences

It's just 20 miles from the Oakbrook Terrace Park District headquarters to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago.

But that commute proved to be too daunting for two park district administrators and a commissioner who each cost taxpayers $921 for a weekend stay at the downtown hotel as part of the state's annual parks convention.

They weren't alone. Another 28 parks agencies from around the suburbs racked up an additional $210,000 in hotel costs, dinners, registration fees, valet parking charges, cab fares and even coat checks at the January conference, according to invoices analyzed by the Daily Herald after they were provided by the park districts to a Chicago-based labor organization that requested the information.

"It is difficult traveling back and forth," said Laura Barron, director of parks and recreation at the Oakbrook Terrace Park District. "Some of the seminars are very early, and then there are a number of different things to participate in that happen later in the evening beyond the regular education sessions."

On average, the 29 agencies spent $511 per person on the three-day conference. Oakbrook Terrace spent the most per person at $921, while at $210, Elmhurst spent the least. But none of the 29 districts analyzed spent more in total than Arlington Heights, which paid $18,664 for 30 employees, one intern and a board member to attend the conference. Not all spent the night. The trip came just weeks ahead of a failed vote to borrow $48 million to pay for major renovations at a number of Arlington Heights parks.

"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. "We do a budget every year, and we will always look at a balance between being as efficient and effective as we can possibly be."

Two groups that monitor and track government spending believe some of these park districts could be more frugal.

"People all over commute an hour to work or more each day, and not being able to drive to the city and back seems a bit excessive," said Amy Lawless, lead organizer of DuPage United, a civic advocacy group comprised of local clergy and social welfare administrators. "It does seem wasteful."

With standard rooms costing more than $130 a night for conference participants, many park district employees double-bunked at the hotel, but that wasn't the case for most of the elected or appointed board members who also attended the conference.

All seven of Lombard's elected and unpaid park district commissioners attended the conference, six of whom received hotel accommodations at a cost of $2,257 to taxpayers. Board President Jan Mills' hotel tab was $851 alone, according to records provided by the park district. In all, the Lombard Park District board members cost their constituents $5,936 for the weekend event, roughly 40 percent of the district's total bill of $15,311 for the board members and 14 employees who participated. The park district's headquarters are 23 miles from the hotel.

"We have four brand new commissioners, and I for one learned a ton and sat through some great meetings," commissioner Greg Ludwig said. "Since it's an unpaid position and I'm trying to learn as much as I can, I felt it imperative to go. This is the first I've heard of any issues of any inappropriate expense. We most definitely can re-evaluate the cost for next year."

Bill Cizek has been a park district commissioner in Oakbrook Terrace for 40 years and still believes he learns something new every time he attends the conference, like he did this year. His wife stayed with him at the hotel for the three nights, he said.

"This year, with the economy the way it is and tax dollars not being there, it was interesting to see how different park districts are being creative," Cizek said. "It's not a waste of money. We're very careful with what we do."

But some officials admit they could be more careful. Itasca Park District taxpayers covered an $854 tab for dinner for six employees at the famed Chicago Chop House. That was simply the food bill. There were no alcohol charges. Executive Director Maryfran Leno said the six were under the mistaken impression that they were receiving a lump sum to cover their expenses, but they were actually supposed to limit their spending to a set amount depending on the meal, which amounted to between $25 and $30 per dinner.

"They understand the rules now, and it won't happen again," she said.

In total, Itasca spent $7,176 to send nine employees and five board members to the conference. Almost half that cost was on the nearly $280 per person conference registration fees the district paid. Registration fees varied depending on the level of participation.

Park district spending on conferences has been scrutinized before. Many suburban park districts tightened the reins after Naperville Park District officials came under fire in 2004 for spending $26,800 to send 18 people to a national conference in St. Louis. Many of the meals included alcohol.

After that, many park districts, including Naperville, banned liquor from being a reimbursable expense. Naperville sent 16 people to the January conference this year at a total cost of $4,523, district officials said.

The annual conference is co-hosted by the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association and the Illinois Association of Park Districts. More than 4,000 people attend the conference each year. Commonly it is in Chicago, but the conference has been held downstate in the past, state parks and recreation association officials said.

Many park district officials say a key reason to send employees to the conference is to keep their certification current. However, the state has no requirement that park district employees be professionally certified.

"Continuing education for some professions - medical, legal, accounting - is very appropriate to make sure they are providing the right services to their clients," said Tom Johnson, president of the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois. "But in some instances you can create an accreditation process that may not be necessary. Sometimes they have ulterior motives by having this process as another way to make money."

There are four types of park district certifications. The most common is called the Certified Parks and Recreation Professional. It takes 20 hours of classes every two years to maintain the certification. Many classes at the conference this year were free for those who paid the registration fee, but others cost $75 extra. That included such three-hour offerings as "Communication is a Chocolate Chip Cookie" and "Choose Your Attitude."

"These certifications are saying the employees do know the highest levels and are able to work more efficiently and effectively by keeping up to date with the field and best practices," said Anne Nevel, senior certification manager of the National Recreation and Parks Association, which handles certification. "A lot of these classes are talking about saving money for their agencies and therefore saving money for the taxpayer."

Nevel acknowledged the national office doesn't audit many of the classes local parks employees take to maintain their certification.

"We keep track of the agencies themselves, but not every single class is going to go through the NRPA offices," she said.

Certified park district employees are often paid more than noncertified counterparts.

"If someone is hired and doesn't have their certification, one of the goals is to become certified and they will receive a one-time $500 increase in their salary," Leno said of Itasca Park District employees. "Six went through it this year."

That means in addition to footing the bill for certification, taxpayers are then paying a premium for those employees' services.

"It's a vicious cycle," Johnson said. "These board members need to remember what their decisions actually do for the taxpayers."

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