Why suburban public pools cost taxpayers an extra $3.3 million
Taxpayers in at least 30 suburban park districts and municipalities will spend more than $3.3 million to cover public pool operations even if they never dip a toe in the water this summer.
That's because pool budgets rely on additional tax dollars to cover operational expenses of local pools, water parks and aquatic centers, according to a Daily Herald analysis of 46 public pool budgets.
The combined budgeted operating costs for pools in those 30 park districts and towns this year is nearly $14 million, while the anticipated revenues are at roughly $10.6 million, according to the analysis. The budget gaps are as little as $12,770 in Itasca, but as large as $503,262 at Aurora's Fox Valley Park District.
"Aquatics is not an area you can do on the cheap," said Tom Mammoser, executive director of the Dundee Township Park District. "There's an expectation that park districts will provide an aquatics program and tax dollars will be used for that operation."
Dundee Township officials expect a $249,391 aquatics budget gap this year. It is one of eight suburban park districts or towns that will need an infusion of tax dollars of more than six figures to cover pool costs, according to the analysis.
While the analysis also showed 16 public pool operations anticipating profits, in many cases that would buck historical trends or is due to different accounting practices.
The Arlington Heights Park District budget assumes a $332,758 surplus from pool operations this year, but that doesn't account for all costs, officials there said.
"Although you do see a surplus in our budget, it's not taking into account maintenance costs," said Brian Meyer, the district's director of recreation and facilities. "I would say it's probably break even more than anything."
Meanwhile, Glen Ellyn Park District officials are anticipating a modest $14,356 surplus at the end of pool season. But in recent years, the pool's financial performance has been in the red.
"Our philosophy is to be self-sustaining if not make money," said Kathleen Esposito, the district's superintendent of recreation. "We've lost money recently strictly on some repair issues. If everything works, we'll make money and won't be subsidized at all."
The weather also plays a big part in the financial success of suburban public pools. The past two summers have not produced moneymaking weather, finance officials complained.
"We've always had revenues exceeding expenditures," said Mike Szpylman, Gurnee Park District's superintendent of business. "The past two years have been anomalies. In the past, we've made money and been able to set it aside for capital items."
While Gurnee parks officials are anticipating the pool turning a $7,658 profit this year, the pool lost more than $50,000 last year, according to the district's budget.
Officials at the World Waterpark Association, a trade group that caters to both public and private aquatic centers, said a growing trend nationally has been public-private partnerships. These partnerships guarantee governments a certain amount of revenue each year for fronting the cost of building aquatic centers or water parks.
But in most of these cases, it's a multimillion-dollar taxpayer investment to create a massive entertainment complex.
The suburban landscape is riddled with public pools, water parks and aquatic centers competing against one another.
It's created a glut of entertainment options and helped keep admission rates low, parks and recreation officials said.
Despite updated water slides and family-friendly amenities, Wood Dale is also expecting to dip into tax revenue to cover operations at what its director called a "modest aquatic park."
"I think there's a degree of the community that does go elsewhere because it has a little more to offer," said Wood Dale Park District Executive Director Matthew Ellmann. "Society as a whole, people want the more, the new, the next greatest thing. At some point we'll have to address that."
But Mammoser worries that an arms race among suburban aquatics programs will only lead to higher taxes or neglect of other programs.
"If you try to keep up with the Joneses, then everyone becomes a Jones and you don't distinguish yourself, and then you can't afford to distinguish yourself in other ways," he said.
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