Did suburbs get their fair share of state's park improvement grants?
Some don't get state grants, but not all park leaders think they were shorted
With nearly $60 million in state grants up for grabs among more than 200 park districts, forest preserve agencies and municipalities to help build or renovate outdoor amenities, Schaumburg Park District Executive Director Tony LaFrenere was hopeful a $1.6 million revitalization project at Olympic Park would see some level of funding.
But when the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Open Space Land Acquisition and Development grant recipients were announced days ago, Schaumburg's was among 100 rejected projects instead.
"Sure, we were a bit disappointed in not receiving any funding in this round of OSLAD grants," LaFrenere said. "But we still feel grateful that IDNR and state legislators support this very worthwhile initiative that assists park districts with critical projects for their respective communities."
Though projects in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties accounted for nearly $35 million of the allocated grant funds, some argue that given the funding source is real estate transfer taxes, the suburbs still got short shrift.
Because property values are higher in the suburbs, transfer taxes from property sales are significantly higher than in other parts of the state, making the suburbs responsible for a higher percentage of the OSLAD grant fund pool.
"This is one of a long list of government programs that move dollars out of the suburbs to downstate and Chicago," said Collin Corbett, a longtime Republican political operative who heads Cor Strategies. "This is a common problem in Illinois, and it's really the suburbs that get shafted the most."
But others argue spreading the money around Illinois is healthier for the state as a whole.
"Low-income, distressed communities wouldn't generate a lot of revenue through the real estate transfer tax but would certainly benefit by having the kind of projects, like picnic and playground facilities, sports courts and those kinds of things, that are funded from this kind of grant," said Ralph Martire, executive director of the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. "It's an equity issue. Some communities wouldn't have the capacity to do that without these grants."
Meanwhile, some complain politics played a part in the decision-making process with Democrats at Illinois' helm.
"We're in one of the reddest counties in the state," said Eric Miller, a village trustee in Poplar Grove just outside Rockford in Boone County. "Without a doubt it was politics, and it's not just these OSLAD grants. It's all part of the game Springfield plays."
Poplar Grove sought funding for a park project in conjunction with neighboring Belvidere Township Park District, but it was denied. A second request from Belvidere Township for another park also was denied.
Stalwart suburban Republican communities such as Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Sugar Grove and Hawthorn Woods also had projects rejected. Aurora -- led by Mayor Richard Irvin, who ran as a Republican in the primary last year to unseat Democratic incumbent Gov. J.B. Pritzker -- also got nothing in this round of grants.
"You can certainly see a bit of hyperpartisanship that Pritzker has fostered coming through in this funding," Corbett said. "If you happen to live in a blue community, you're going to get much better representation from Pritzker than you will if you live in any other community."
Officials from the governor's office note that many communities that received no funding in this round received grants in recent years.
"Gov. Pritzker has lived up to his pledge to serve the entire state by investing in underserved communities from New Milford to Louisville," spokesman Alex Gough said. "This year's awards build on the millions of dollars already committed across the state over the past four years, while also creating more equitable outcomes."
In addition, many park district officials don't believe their projects were caught in the middle of some political kerfuffle and are quick to defend the funding mechanism for the grants.
"Politics wasn't something that came to mind when I saw the results," said Wheaton Park District Executive Director Mike Benard. "Like most park districts, we typically are down the center aisle and aren't partisan players."
Bartlett Park District Executive Director Rita Fletcher also doesn't see her project's rejection as political maneuvering.
"We're not a political entity," she said flatly. "I always think it's a positive that it's not that way."
Both directors noted that because the state placed an emphasis this year on funding projects in "distressed communities," a designation determined by poverty levels and land value in a particular area, that funding already was going to be harder to come by.
Nearly a quarter of all grants funded went to distressed communities this year, up from just 4% last year.
"In our case, this particular project we put out there might not be as strong as other projects we've put out before," Benard said.
Agencies apply for these grants each summer. This is the highest total amount the state ever has awarded. Each request is reviewed and scored on a set list of criteria. In many cases, the state also sends IDNR staff members to visit the sites before making a final decision.
"We are keenly interested in our score and will find out," Benard said. "I don't know that I'm getting a microscopic autopsy on my grant, but I do get a chance to hear feedback when I ask for it from the state."
This round, 23 suburban Cook County projects received funding totaling $11.7 million, including 14 that received the maximum $600,000 allotment.
DuPage County agencies saw 15 projects funded, totaling nearly $7.5 million. Ten projects there received maximum funding.
In Kane County, five projects were funded, all of them receiving the maximum amount.
There were 12 Lake County agencies receiving OSLAD funds totaling almost $6.7 million; six got the maximum.
In McHenry County, five projects were funded for a combined $2.1 million, while three received maximum funds.
Eight Will County projects received a combined $3.5 million, with four receiving the max amount.
Pritzker announced last month in his budget address that $56 million had been earmarked for OSLAD grants in the next fiscal year. Applications for the next round of grants will be due later this year.