The Marengo Park District is asking voters in the far western Mc Henry County community if they want to investigate re-opening the shuttered “Starfish Waters” outdoor pool through a non-binding referendum question on the upcoming Nov. 6 general election ballot. The pool, a big summertime draw for the area, and a popular part of the district’s holdings, was shuttered six years ago amid financial considerations and mounting debt.
The advisory question was first considered by board members last July, and the text is rather lengthy albeit concise with it purpose. “Re-opening the pool within the Indian Oaks Park…wil require a significant property tax increase in order to pay the costs of investigating the current status of the pool, repairing and rebuilding the pool and maintaining it in the future.
“Do you support investigating the re-opening of the pool…and if so, would you approve a significant increase to your property taxes to acquire monies not to exceed $150,000 to pay for the investigation of the current state of the pool?” Voter response is being used as a gauge, and the election result is not an implemented decision.
“The park district is not advocating raising property taxes on the community, it is simply putting the question in the hands of taxpayers, as it should be,” said Marengo Parks and Recreation Superintendent Joe Vallez. “The pool’s closing was a financial decision made six years ago. Now, the next question is if it’s still operable, what will it take to get it back up to speed? Remember, it’s been sitting there all these years…what will we find?
“People have asked, when will it be opened, if it will be opened…the board continually gets these inquiries, so they decided to put the issue to rest and move forward by putting the decision to our taxpayers,” he said. “The referendum is two-fold: should the park district investigate re-opening the pool, and if so, are you willing to have a tax increase to do it?
The park district has changed greatly, since coming into existence through a public referendum in 1938. Indian Oaks Park was added in 1973, along with plans for buildings and other amenities requested by the community. Budgeting was always premised on population growth and the resultant economic growth of the area, both of which fell short of expectations and financial concerns have continued to dog the park district and other governmental agencies.
The 2008 recession and decline in residential properties contributed to budgeting issues. The 2014 closing of the “Starfish Waters” pool was expected to save approximately $32,000 that year in operational costs, while the park board secured a $75,000 loan to fill a gap in expenses for its Fiscal Year 2015 budget, which runs from May 1 to Apr. 30.
A statement from the park district said bonds issued for contractors and materials would be offset by resident usage and annual tax levies revenues would offset the bond obligations.
“Some projects went over budget, and more money was borrowed. Expected revenues were not seen. The bonding capacity of the park district was maximized. Marengo home values declined significantly, and so followed a decrease in the tax levy…scheduled bond payments still needed to be paid. Some bonds were restructured and payments have been stretched out years, even decades into the future.
The statement also said, “The park district is itself facing over $4 million of debt. There is a bond with payment due in 2020 that must be restructured as the current combined tax levy and revenues of the park district will not cover the payment. Defaulting is not an option…by cutting costs and making conservative choices, an investor will be willing to purchase a restructured version of the bond.”
Vallez entered the picture in 2014, with a history of “turning around” failing park districts. The pool was closed. The Skate Park and the two-decade old Indian Oaks playground were later deemed safety hazards, and dismantled. Repercussions from a failed bond referendum in 2013, and the subsequent sale of bonds by board members had stunted the district’s finances.
A community victory came with the replacement of playground equipment and upgrades at Indian Oaks Park. The price tag and costs of $30,000 price tag were eventually met through a consensus-building effort that resulted in funds and materials being donated from residents and commercial entities.
A volunteer work crew of 50 residents and trades people met at the park site May 13, of last year, and spent the day erecting a new playground and landscaping the surroundings. The Union-based firm of INTREN was heavily involved with erecting and putting together the new park’s components, and the installation was celebrated the following month with a June 3 ribbon-cutting ceremony. “That was a very good day,” Vallez said. “Everyone came together. A park, and a park district should reflect what the community wants.”
Vallez also noted that while the pool is only used four months during the year, like outdoor golf courses, and operational costs are factors for consideration, the advisory referendum will provide a direction for the closed pool, “put in the hands of taxpayers.”