Taxpayers question park district's spending on food, gifts for staff
Critics say spending on staff should go to facilities; district defends itself
Among the thousands of dollars in credit card charges for food, gift cards and employee awards under scrutiny in a small Lake County park district is one from a supermarket in Racine, Wisconsin.
Just four days before Christmas in 2013, records show a Wildwood Park District credit card was used at Pick 'n Save on South Green Bay Road to buy $120.45 in groceries that included two beef tenderloins, creamed corn, lemons, shaved parmesan cheese, crackers, butter, apple pie, bread, five pounds of potatoes and cage-free eggs.
Critics say the tab is an example of what they contend was about $6,000 in questionable credit card charges in 2014 and 2013 and vague record keeping on those expenses at the park district in an unincorporated area near Gurnee. Residents began raising questions earlier this year.
"I guess what it comes down to is should they really be doing this to begin with," said resident Brian Frederiksen, who has raised spending concerns at public meetings. "That's really the first question. From that point on, it's a matter of, 'Well do you really need this going on?' Doing it four days before Christmas, beef tenderloin?"
But Wildwood Park Director Maureen Jekot said her Pick 'n Save trip was an example of government frugality and proper credit card use. Instead of keeping with a custom of going to a restaurant for a holiday appreciation for some park district volunteers and board members, Jekot said, a down economy in 2013 led her to cook for everyone.
"It's my specialty," Jekot said of the beef tenderloin.
With roughly 4,000 residents, three full-time employees, up to 40 part-time workers and an $819,000 budget for 2015-16, Wildwood is small potatoes compared to other suburban park districts. For example, in nearby Gurnee, the park district has a $15.7 million budget and serves 34,300 residents, while the Naperville system has a $56 million budget and about 144,900 residents.
Jekot said the employee incentives, appreciation awards, meals and training food typically average 0.3 percent to 0.4 percent of annual budgets. This year's part-timers eligible for the perks have a pay range of $8.25 to $18.30 an hour, records show.
"I understand their concerns, totally," Jekot said of the critics.
Jared Labell, the director of operations for the Taxpayers United of America watchdog group who reviewed some of the Wildwood park expenses at the Daily Herald's request, said such spending may be "especially problematic" at small-budget government agencies that typically receive little media or public scrutiny. He complimented residents for raising concerns about the credit card charges.
"Taxpayer-funded agencies, like the Wildwood Park District, should not spend its limited budget on thousands of dollars' worth of appreciation dinners, gift cards and other unnecessary perks," Labell said. "Residents are rightfully upset and would like to see their tax dollars go toward proper infrastructure improvements and park services which need to be addressed instead of employee parties."
By comparison, employees do not receive meals or awards paid for with public money at the similarly sized Grandwood Park Park District near Gurnee, said board Commissioner Nancy Carlson. The district, which serves about 3,000 residents and largely relies on part-timers, gives $25 gift cards instead of cash to substitute preschool teachers, she said.
Frederiksen said Wildwood's small stature is a reason it should devote as much money as possible to park facilities. He said he started filing open-records requests for the credit card statements this year because he became curious about expenses during a long-running dispute over a water problem commonly known as "swimmer's itch" in a park district lake in his neighborhood. He and others contend the problem has not received enough financial attention -- a point disputed by Wildwood officials.
Jekot said $7,500 was spent to use copper sulfate to treat Valley Lake on Aug. 3, in the hope of getting rid of the problem.
Documents received through a Daily Herald Freedom of Information Act request show $93,636 was charged to four Wildwood park credit cards during 2014 and 2013.
Park board Treasurer Dan Van Erden said the heavy credit card use is justified because the district doesn't have a finance director and it's a more efficient way to track spending.
A Daily Herald examination found instances of vague spending justification and missing itemized receipts, but Van Erden said some steps taken late last year are now in place that should result in a greater level of detail.
For example, Van Erden said, a list of names now will be requested for documents if a general description of a group purchase at a restaurant is not clear enough to describe who attended. He said there has been nothing wrong with how money was spent.
"At the end of the day, we realized that our processes were not originally built to be able to answer detailed questions about purchases going back several years without a great deal of research," Van Erden said. "The goal going forward would be to have easier access to details for past expenses, especially requests that relate to purchases made in past fiscal years."
However, park board member Dan Bundalo said he's skeptical about the credit card spending. He said he considered the spending to be "disturbing."
Of the $93,636 in credit card charges that include equipment and office supplies, Frederiksen and other residents have identified about $6,000 for food, gift cards and employee awards in documents from 2014 and 2013. In addition to the December 2013 Pick 'n Save visit, documents show those expenses covered by taxpayers included:
• $177.20 for six "long winters nap throw" from Green 3 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in December 2014. The expense was for "staff safety annual awards" and the merchandise was shipped to Jekot's Wisconsin home. Records did not specify who received the gifts.
• $288.50 on food from Saluto's Pizza and Pasta in Gurnee in June 2014. It was listed as a "staff/volunteer appreciation dinner" with 45 to 50 in attendance. Names were not included in documents.
• $132.98 on a park district teacher appreciation end-of-year luncheon at Giordano's restaurant in Gurnee in May 2014. An itemized receipt was not available and records didn't indicate who attended the luncheon.
In September 2014, documents show Jekot mistakenly used a Wildwood Park District credit card for a $193.14 bill at Archer House River Inn in Northfield, Minnesota, while visiting her daughter at nearby St. Olaf College. Jekot later wrote a personal check to the park district to cover the tab.
"Everyone who works for the park district is, in fact, a human being," Van Erden said. "And as you know, human beings can make mistakes."
As for the dispute over whether enough money has been devoted to fighting swimmer's itch in the 12-acre Valley Lake, documents show $10,500 has been budgeted for potential maintenance uses there in 2015-16. Van Erden noted that compares to $6,656 budgeted for the district's roughly 70-acre share of the 143-acre Gages Lake.
Parasites from birds and other animals can lead to swimmer's itch, a skin rash also called cercarial dermatitis. The parasites typically are passed from the feces of ducks, geese, beavers and other animals, followed by larvae released by infected snails into lakes, streams and oceans.
During the swimmer's itch dispute with some residents last year, Van Erden said, officials initially decided against using copper sulfate as a possible solution. In September 2014, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources stocked 2,000 redear sunfish in Valley Lake in an effort to reduce the snail population by feeding off them and ultimately doing away with swimmer's itch.
Jekot said the food and other perks for the mostly part-time workforce are not taking away from spending on the parks or lakes.
"Our goal is to maintain an excellent, productive staff with the help of incentives and appreciation programs," she said.