Why some suburban park districts rely more on property taxes than others

Taxpayers cover only one of every four dollars collected by the South Barrington Park District each year.

That's thanks in large part to the district's successful tennis club, which generates nearly $3 million in user fees and membership dues each year.

"We are very unique, though," said Jay Morgan, the district's executive director. "Years ago, we purchased the tennis club to help subsidize the park district's operations and costs. Our philosophy is to keep taxes low."

According to its most recent audit, only 23% of the district's revenues came from property tax dollars.

Most suburban park districts rely far more on taxes than South Barrington's, according to a Daily Herald analysis of financial reports from 60 park districts in five counties.

On average, taxpayers are responsible for 57.6% of a park district's annual revenue, the analysis shows. In 11 park districts, taxpayers cover more than 70% of a district's annual revenues.

Taxpayers in the Oakbrook Terrace Park District provide 87.8%, the largest percentage among the 60 suburbs.

"We have a smaller constituency that doesn't lend itself to more diverse revenue streams," said Shannon Elsey, executive director of the Oakbrook Terrace Park District. "We are adding more programming for youth and child care that will definitely grow our service fee revenues."

New after-school initiatives and summer camp opportunities are being offered through the district, and those should drive down the district's reliance on property taxes, she said.

"There is no one-size-fits-all approach for park districts when it comes to their funding ratio, because the scope and type of a park district's facilities, programs and services varies from community to community," said Bobbie Jo Hill, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Association of Park Districts.

Taxes and user fees are just about the only ways park districts can generate revenue.

Hill said districts without recreational amenities such as golf courses, swimming pools, ice rinks, or fitness and recreation centers, which normally charge user fees, have to lean on taxpayers more because funding for park districts is so limited.

Most state financial aid for park districts is provided for capital improvements, and that often covers less than half a project's total cost.

Hill also noted visitors to park district programs and facilities often generate sales, hotel/motel, motor fuel and other taxes for other local governments, but the districts don't receive any of that revenue.

But park district amenities don't always mean a financial windfall. Golf courses and outdoor aquatic facilities all depend on weather and are not able to generate cash year-round in Illinois.

The Batavia Park District operates the Harold Hall Quarry Beach at a loss, because district leaders say they want to keep entrance fees low. Property taxes subsidize the quarry's operations. Courtesy of Batavia Park District

The Harold Hall Quarry Beach operated by the Batavia Park District is anticipated to generate more than $400,000 for the district this year, according to the current budget. Unfortunately, district leaders expect it will cost more than $700,000 to operate for the roughly three months it is open.

"Historically and traditionally, aquatic facilities run in the red," said Allison Niemela, executive director of the Batavia Park District. "We'll never have a return on investment, and we fully understand and accept that, but we do want to make it affordable for users to enjoy it."

Property taxes are used to subsidize the quarry's operations in an effort to keep admission costs lower. More than 90% of those who visit the quarry are residents who already are paying district taxes, she said.

Batavia ended its 2021 fiscal year - the district's most recently audited year - with 77.5% of its revenues coming from taxpayers. Usually, the ratio is closer to 60% taxes and 40% fees, but the aim is a 50/50 split, Niemela said.

The pandemic and an unexpected end to a child care programming partnership with the local school district in 2021 made it "an unusual year" financially, she said.

Hill said park districts also don't follow any specific guidelines for operating amenities as profit centers.

"Some boards may also weigh other benefits," she said. "Providing first-time jobs and valuable training experiences for teens, improving physical and mental health and wellness, and offering kids constructive things to do when school is not in session are just a few of many examples that would support a decision to (subsidize with) property taxes."

Glen Ellyn's park district leaders last year used property taxes to cover just 36.9% of revenues, the third-lowest among the 60 districts.

"Historically, we've tried to target 45% tax reliance and try to drive program revenue for the remainder," said Nick Cinquegrani, the district's deputy director. "But everyone uses something of the park district, whether they realize it or not."

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