Taxpayers in the Collinsville area could see a 25 percent reduction in a portion of their property tax bills if voters cast their November ballots in favor of dissolving a park district that no longer oversees any parks.
As the Collinsville Area Recreation District, or CARD, began winding down its operations after years of financial woes, it started transferring the parks to Collinsville and Maryville.
Leaders in those communities had to find a way to pay for the parks they acquired, though they believe the quality of the parks will improve under new ownership.
Established in 1991, CARD racked up more than $21 million in debt as board members approved taking out bonds to pay for new parks. Residents in portions of Collinsville, Maryville, Caseyville, Glen Carbon and Pontoon Beach have paid for that debt as well as CARD operations for decades.
"It was a very expensive layer of government," Collinsville City Manager Mitch Bair said.
Residents in the district will continue to pay off that debt over the next 20 to 25 years, but they could still see a savings if they vote to dissolve CARD.
Instead of paying for both the debt and operations, taxpayers would only pay for the debt, eliminating at least a quarter of the CARD district portion of their tax bill, says CARD Executive Director Doug Erhart.
"If there were no CARD district, then the only thing the taxpayers would be responsible for the debt instead of actually paying to operate CARD," Erhart said.
But now the task and cost of maintaining the parks has shifted to the cities that acquired them.
Collinsville will operate Willoughby Heritage Farm, Splash City Family Water Park, the Woodland, Glidden and Morris Hills parks, and the Jaycees Sports Complex. Maryville acquired Pleasant Ridge Park, while operation of the Arlington Greens Golf Course went to a private entity, Star Golf Management Company.
The Collinsville city manager said the parks will come at an added expense to the city, but leaders have enacted measures to avoid a property tax increase on city residents.
On May 1, two new taxes went into effect in Collinsville — an increased tax on hotel and motel stays, and an expanded food and beverage tax. Previously, the city only collected 7 percent on hotel and motel stays, but will now collect 9 percent. The 1 percent food and beverage tax was expanded from only a part of the city to cover the entire city.
The expanded food and beverage tax is expected to generate an additional $204,000 annually, Bair said, and the increase hotel tax should generate at least $343,000 annually. Revenues from park rentals and concessions will supplement those tax dollars.
It's not yet clear exactly how much it will cost the city to run the parks, Bair said, but he expects the increased taxes to generate enough revenue. The city budgeted roughly $500,000 this year to the newly formed Parks and Recreation Department for improvements to five parks, not including Willoughby Farm or the splash park.
Kimberly Caughran, director of the parks department since its inception in January, said the city's $500,000 budget for parks is a starting point for improvements.
"But due to constant changes, we are just kind of making it up as we go right now. We're being responsible in our spending while trying to address the needs," Caughran said.
Caughran said in her first year on the job, she plans to focus on improving the basics at Collinsville's parks, which residents have said fell into disrepair under CARD.
"We're coming up with a regular maintenance schedule and trying to put a master plan in place that would help us decide what projects to do and when," Caughran said. "A lot of the parks have good bones. They’re pretty parks, but they need attention and need regular maintenance, and that’s what we’re trying to do."
Caughran secured two grants to help pay for improvements at Woodland and Glidden parks. New picnic tables, playground equipment and bleachers are included in the upgrades.
The village of Maryville recently used two grants to pay for improvements at Pleasant Ridge Park, a 60-acre park located off Pleasant Ridge Road. Maintaining the park is expected to cost between $40,000 and $50,000 annually, according to village records.
Mayor Craig Short was not immediately available for comment.
Despite the changes in ownership and operation, Carol Frerker, supervisor of Willoughby Farms, says she believes the new arrangement will be positive.
"I think there are many advantages. We still look at the farm mission being preservation of natural resources, but we will have more resources to draw upon to make changes for the better," Frerker said. "Hopefully that would include more people that come out here for activities, including more programs, just being able to maintain and hopefully even expand."
Frerker said she hasn't heard much from the community about the changes mainly because the changes haven't been visible.
"Nobody notices on the outside," Frerker said, "which is more of a good thing because they don’t notice a change."
While the transfer of the farm and the splash park is already completed, CARD will continue to operate the splash park through the end of the summer. Collinsville will take over operations in the 2019 season.
Before the measure can be placed on the ballot, proponents of dissolving CARD must gather and submit signatures to the Madison County Clerk's office. If the clerk approves the signatures, the measure would be placed on the ballot for voters in the Nov. 6 General Elections.
Editor's note: The original version of this story did not reflect the fact that only the CARD portion of the tax bill will be reduced. This story has been updated to clarify that fact.