A lineup of public officials and community leaders stood in front of the Collinsville Area Recreation District in 2015 and called for it to be disbanded. Since then, much has changed, but much remains the same.
The press conference was the culmination of years of financial woes and public criticism of the park district, which was heavily in debt and had abandoned a controversial project to rehab the Miners Theater. Then-board president Andrew Carruthers called the park district “an empire of excessive spending, high property taxes and long-term debt.”
Among those standing in support of disbanding CARD were Pontoon Beach Mayor Mike Pagano, Glen Carbon Mayor Rob Jackstadt, then-Maryville Mayor Larry Gulledge and then-Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan, among others from both political parties.
But the dissolution never happened. Now, a different kind of change has come to CARD, as the new district board has begun allowing individual property owners to disconnect themselves from the park district.
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Founded in 1991, the park district incorporates portions of Collinsville, Maryville, Pontoon Beach, Glen Carbon and some unincorporated areas to fund a number of area parks, along with Splash City Waterpark and Arlington Golf Course. The district has been plagued with financial problems, a high level of debt, and in 2013, 89 percent of CARD voters approved a tax reduction that cut the park district’s income by an estimated $250,000 a year.
But the dissolution never happened. Since the 2015 press conference, individual property owners had approached the board about disconnecting from the district, but there was generally little support among the board members to grant it.
The April election changed that. In an uncontested election, nearly half the CARD board changed over, and in the new board’s second meeting earlier this month, several properties were authorized to disconnect from CARD.
How do you leave a taxing district?
According to James Craney, CARD’s newly appointed attorney, state law requires that in order to disconnect from a taxing body, the property must be on the geographic edge of the district — no “islands” are permitted. The petition must be signed by the owners of a majority of the area to be disconnected, as well as other paperwork requirements.
However, disconnecting from the taxing district does not alleviate the property owner from helping to pay off the debt already accumulated. Under ordinary circumstances, approximately half of the average CARD property tax bill goes toward its accumulated debt; this year it’s 42 out of 63 cents on the tax rate because the district is catching up on some debt payments, according to CARD board member Mark Achenbach.
That means that for as much as 20 years after disconnecting, those property owners will still have to pay a reduced bill to CARD, until the current debt is paid off.
At the June 20 meeting of the CARD board, some of the properties belonging to the village of Maryville and owners of about five or six privately-owned parcels requested removal, and all were approved with only one vote in opposition, from board member Brad Sewell.
Board President Ron Jedda said he and the other board members are not encouraging the petitions for disconnection, but said that the board’s role is to receive them and respond.
“The CARD board and staff have no role in the preparation of the petitions under consideration,” Jedda said. “If you hear that the (district) is trying to get people to disconnect from CARD, that’s not true.”
Andrew Carruthers is a former CARD board president, and was the board’s attorney until a couple of months ago. He resigned when the new board took office, but said it was not out of objection to the pending disconnections.
“In the past, I represented Maryville regarding disconnection issues,” he said. “Given my history of working with Maryville on this issue, I did not think it was appropriate to remain.”
Gulldege said he had opposed Maryville’s inclusion in CARD for decades, because he saw it as double taxation. Current Maryville Mayor Craig Short said his constituents often complain, “Why am I paying for parks in Collinsville?”
“I understand people think this is an all-of-the-sudden, knee-jerk reaction. This has been coming for years,” Short said. “This is what the law allows … Not to be overdramatic, but let my people go.”
The vote came over the objections of Collinsville City Manager Mitch Bair, who said he has been trying for some time to negotiate an intergovernmental agreement for Collinsville to take back its parks from CARD. He said the city often receives complaints about the condition of the parks, as many people are not aware that the city does not maintain them.
“(CARD leaders) pretty much told us that they’re cutting the grass for the parks and they’re not putting anything else into it,” Bair said.
The relationship between Collinsville and CARD has been strained at times; the parks belong to the city, but have been leased to CARD since the park district’s inception. A couple of years ago, CARD sued Collinsville because it was planning to build its new water plant on land they said would infringe on CARD property. Bair called the suit “a blessing in disguise,” since the alternate location they chose was a better location.
Bair said the city has been trying to negotiate with CARD. “We have presented so many options of ‘legalized euthanasia,’” Bair said. In one possibility, Collinsville would sign an intergovernmental agreement with CARD to take back management of the parks; in another, to take over the Splash City Waterpark and Arlington Golf Course as well.
But the negotiations broke down over money, Bair said. He said that Collinsville does not have the money to create a parks and recreation department from scratch; it would require a $500,000 to $1 million investment to renovate and restore the parks, and about $400,000 a year to run a parks department — partially offset after improvements to the sports park from tournaments, he said.
Bair said the city wanted CARD to either compensate Collinsville for the cost of a parks department, or reduce its levy so that Collinsville could then increase its taxes to cover the cost, so that the result would be cost-neutral or a reduction for taxpayers. Bair estimated that at least 10 percent of operational costs could be saved by eliminating duplication of administrative services.
Jedda said the previous board had offered to cancel the lease agreement and give Collinsville back its four parks, along with Schnucks Park and maintenance equipment carrying a purchase price of approximately $172,000. However, he said, the board “totally rejected” the idea of turning over property taxes because it would involve sending taxes paid by non-Collinsville residents to Collinsville. Jedda said the current board has not met with Collinsville leaders since taking office.
But Bair said the city cannot justify raising taxes for parks while Collinsville residents are still paying the same amount to CARD.
“If there’s no revenue offset, that’s untenable for us,” Bair said. “We already have more staff function, and we can absorb some duplication of services; we can be more efficient. But we could not recommend that the (Collinsville City Council) raise taxes for parks with CARD’s taxes staying the same.”
At the Collinsville City Council meeting June 12, Councilman Jeff Stehman said when he went to Woodland Park recently with his grandchildren, they were in “the worst condition I have ever seen them,” including deteriorated supports on the amphitheater.
“CARD has basically said they’re not going to maintain them except to cut the grass,” he said. “We have exhausted every effort to have a voluntary agreement with them so we can provide good parks to the city.”
Mayor John Miller said that “hindsight is always 20-20.” He said for the first 15 years of CARD’s existence, the parks were managed well and the two entities worked well together. Now, he said, there has been “gross mismanagement” and the city needs to step back in.
“We can’t sit still and not do something about it,” Miller said. “These are our parks, our property. We need to demand that they step up and give back the parks, with the revenue collected for the parks.”
Meanwhile, Bair spoke at the CARD meeting on behalf of the city, asking them to hold off on disconnecting Maryville parcels and return to negotiations.
“The city is committed to a proactive solution going forward,” he told the CARD board. “From our perspective, we’ve been frustrated with the condition of the parks … what we’re asking is to take a minute and hold off on the disconnections, take an opportunity to get together with us. Once we start down this road, you’ll open up the dam.”
At the next council meeting, Bair reported to the City Council that the disconnections had been approved, and was instructed to try another round of negotiations to resolve the issue. However, City Attorney Steve Giacoletto pointed out that they’ve had the same conversations for nearly two years. “There is an opportunity here, with a new set of eyes from CARD’s perspective,” he said. “But I’d caution against a year later, having the same conversation.”
Stehman agreed. “We can’t be negotiating another two years,” he said.
CARD’s financial future
Collinsville Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendi Valenti asked the CARD board how they would manage district finances if they allowed anyone who asked to disconnect from the district.
“Do you intend for this action to force the district into bankruptcy?” she asked. “(The 2013 tax reduction) cut my taxes by $19. I’d rather pay $19 and have well-maintained parks.”
Achenbach, who was among the members elected in April, said there is “no intention” to put the district into bankruptcy. He said he did not believe the disconnections were “as dire as people think.”
“Yes, parks are a very important part of daily life, but there are lots of people in the state of Illinois without them and it’s not the end of the world,” Achenbach said. “They are not, in my opinion, absolutely necessary.”
Board member Jeanne Lomax agreed. She said she calculated that if even half the CARD taxpayers disconnected, it would double the tax rate from 7 cents to 14 cents, or an increase of $48 a year on a $200,000 house. Board member Aaron Wright said he felt the board had to accept the disconnection petitions on principle.
Achenbach said he believed if people want to disconnect from CARD and they have met the state statutes, the board should not force them to stay in. “We are currently exploring a couple of options to allow the existing facilities of CARD to reduce the expenses.”
Jedda said he does not believe the loss of this first batch will affect services, pointing out that they managed the loss of $250,000 a year from the 2013 tax cut.
“If more losses take place, the role of the board is to manage our finances accordingly,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there will be cuts.”
Bair disagreed. “If they let people out of this district, then the operational revenue keeps decreasing and the parks still aren’t being maintained,” he said.
Sewell, who was the sole vote in opposition, said there was “no stopping this,” but said he believed it would ultimately end in a referendum to raise the CARD tax rate again.
“I am not an advocate for this, but I am a realist,” he said. “This is where it is and what it will be … The past is over, that ends tonight. Now we have to determine how to move forward.”