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Dear Citizens of Carbondale,
In a recent editorial written by the Carbondale Park District Board, commissioners claimed to clarify aspects about a proposed merging of operations between the City and the park district (CPKD). In their effort to provide clarification, sadly, they made false accusations, left out important details, and hence misled readers. This back-and-forth discussion has been unproductive, inconsiderate, and has only confused the City Council and residents.
It is important to note, the opening paragraph of their editorial states that members of the Council proposed the idea of merging operations, which is not true. Formal conversations between the two bodies began in early 2018 when on January 11; the City Manager was invited to meet with the CPKD Executive Director and board attorney to talk about leases at Turley Park, Tatum Heights, and Pyles Fork Creek Greenway. It was at this meeting that the CPKD asked for a $150,000 annual stipend to subsidize the park district’s costs to maintain the various city-owned properties that they maintain as parks. It should be noted that the park district has refuted that this request was made, claiming they asked for a one-time cash payment of $150,000. For clarification, the City’s understanding of a stipend is consistent with Merriam-Webster’s definition, which is “a fixed sum of money paid periodically for services or to defray expenses.” The City has always been clear on what was requested by CPKD and the Council has consistently rejected this proposal.
Regardless of this confusion, both boards agreed to meet on February 27, 2018, and the result of that meeting was that each body would establish a committee to negotiate new leases. As the CPKD asserts, the committees met throughout the spring and summer of 2018. At the second meeting on June 21, three options were discussed. They included the City providing a one-time injection of cash to upgrade the parks, an intergovernmental agreement for the City to agree to provide some administrative services to the CPKD, and that the City and CPKD enter into an intergovernmental agreement to consolidate with the CPKD becoming a division of the City. The most important thing for residents to know is that the CPKD, not the City committee, initiated the idea of consolidating. The idea was offered by a long-standing member of the CPKD’s Finance committee who commented that the City’s ability to provide multiple revenue sources could help offset the district’s financial constraints of relying only on a real estate tax levy. The CPKD agreed to discuss these three options at their July board meeting, which was later canceled. They agreed then to discuss them at the August meeting but did not. Following no CPKD action, the committees met one final time on September 20 when CPKD offered new requests that included negotiating new leases with shorter terms and for the City to replace the bathrooms at Evergreen Park.
The CPKD is correct that on December 11, 2018, the City Council approved an advisory referendum to be placed on the April 2019 ballot asking voters “should the City of Carbondale and the Carbondale Park District explore merging operations?” The outcome of the referendum was that 71% of voters agreed that the two bodies should consider exploring options to merge operations. In spite of the overwhelming support for the idea, the CPKD has continued to maintain that the voters could not have understood what they were voting for. We find this notion insulting and believe our electorate deserves a little more credit.
Following the referendum, both boards met on August 12, 2019, and agreed to move forward with a lease extension, not to exceed two years. The City will gladly take the blame for not submitting a proposed lease to the CPKD until December. However, the CPKD’s claims that both parties agreed to exchange data deserves some critique. The City has provided any and all information requested by the CPKD in a timely manner. The CPKD has delayed responses to information requests and has actually required the City to submit FOIA requests for information that any citizen is legally entitled to. In addition, the information that has been provided to the City has been incomplete. Our residents should ask themselves if this sounds like a body that is ready to honor their agreements.
Finally, the CPKD article actually makes arguments that seem to support the exploration of merging operations. They are correct when they state that they are constrained by property tax caps. Seeking additional revenue through property taxes would require the voters to approve a referendum to raise property taxes. The City, on the other hand, as a home rule community, is not constrained by tax caps and although we have historically maintained an artificially low property tax levy (3% of your real estate tax bill), the City could raise the levy to support park functions, but do not have any plans to do so. In addition, the City’s home rule powers allow us to raise or create sales taxes to fund city services and investments. A sales tax is actually a much fairer way to fund parks and recreation as non-residents, who use our parks, facilities, and programs, pay sales tax when shopping and dining in Carbondale, but do not pay property taxes, which is the major source of Park District funding. Although new taxes are never popular, there is no doubt that the City has proved adept at using the new revenues created in 2016 (food and beverage and packaged liquor tax) to fund improvements throughout the community. We frequently receive comments from residents stating that they cannot remember a time when so many road and sidewalk projects were underway. They also comment on how beautiful the streetscape project along S. Illinois Avenue is, and how it has transformed our downtown. In contrast, the CPKD has been unable to find the resources to perform even the most basic maintenance, like filling potholes, which the City has done twice for them in the last year at Evergreen Park.
It should also be noted that in 48 of 50 states, parks and recreation are operated under city government, as well as, in many cities here in Illinois. In the park district’s editorial, they questioned whether parks would be a priority for the City. Our answer to that is yes, unreservedly. Parks are a basic service for the community and would receive funding for operations in the same manner as all other City operations.
The City will continue to honor our voters’ wishes and explore what merging operations could look like. Of course, it would be a much easier process if the CPKD would be more cooperative. It will probably involve more joint meetings. The City requests that the CPKD extend their next meeting invitation to the Mayor and City Council, as no one received the last two invitations that the CPKD claims were made. Our biggest request though is that the CPKD honor you, the voters. We will not know if merging operations makes sense until we have given the idea our due diligence. We won’t know until we do the work that 71% of our voters asked us to do on April 2, 2019.