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Community-led Master Plan Feedback Driving Park District’s Decisions

ROCKFORD, IL – Tonight, the Rockford Park District Board of Commissioners voted to hold the line on taxes and maintain the 2018 tax levy, meaning the District will not receive any additional tax dollars in its operating funds. This is the fifth year in a row the Rockford Park District has elected not to increase tax dollars, which will now result in saving taxpayers more than $2 million.

“In spite of the District’s financial challenges, we believe holding the line on taxes is the right thing to do for taxpayers. We spent several months over the past year engaging citizens in a concerted effort to identify the community’s priorities for its park district. The resulting dataset is the most comprehensive we have gathered, and it informed every aspect of our 2019 budgeting process,” said Rockford Park District Board of Commissioners President Ian Linnabary.

The estimated increase in Equalized Assessed Value (EAV) is 3.95% compared to the 2017 EAV for Winnebago, Boone, and Ogle counties. The resulting tax rate is estimated to decrease from last year’s tax rate of $1.1371 to $1.0991. However, this is subject to change due to tax protests and appeals. EAV, tax levy extension, and tax rates are only estimates, as the actual information will not be available until spring 2019.

In March, the District began a community-led master plan process to determine District priorities and allocation of resources of taxpayer dollars. With declining revenue both through fees and a declining tax base, which are the District’s two main revenue streams, along with population and demographic shifts, it is becoming more difficult to provide the same level of service without an increase in revenue or a decrease in the District’s footprint. In September, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved master plan recommendations that represent the communities’ priorities for the District, and are the driving force behind revised District priorities and a first-ever five-year strategic plan. The 2019–2023 strategic plan includes areas to reinvest in, strategically add, eliminate, suspend, or reduce. Programs and services that are most valued to the community are: neighborhood parks, open space and trails, arts and cultural programs, community-wide events, outdoor education, swimming, and youth/teen/family programming.

“Heading into 2019 budget planning, key decisions about modifications of programs and services had already been made, thanks to the communities’ priorities and their emphasis of our core services and downsizing the District,” said Rockford Park District Executive Director Jay Sandine.

District decisions such as suspending operation of Forest City Queen and Trolley Car 36 (except for City Market, All Aglow, and private rentals) and seek privatization, keeping Sand Park Pool closed for another season due to IEPA mandated remediation, closing Alpine Hills golf course, and modest fee and membership increases in golf operations in 2019 were all part of the recommendations presented to and approved by the Board of Commissioners in September. The District still had to eliminate an $800,000 deficit to achieve a balanced budget.

A balanced budget was only achieved due to the following:

  • Six Flags leasing and operating Magic Waters Waterpark for 10 years, with three 10-year options to renew

  • Reallocation of $250,000 of Reclaiming First hotel tax funding to help reduce tax subsidy at UW Health Sports Factory

  • Non-tax revenue generators such as expanded food and beverage operations, video gaming at select facilities, increased sponsorships, and increased fees and memberships. The District has not had any major fee increases for the last five years.

  • Reduction in team members – Three full-time positions eliminated due to attrition. Since 2009, an 11% reduction has been made in full-time positions while adding more than 20 parks, playgrounds, parking areas, paths, or new recreational amenities such as Snow Park at Alpine Hills, Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, Mercyhealth Sportscore Two expansion, Olson Swedish Heritage Park, UW Health Sports Factory, and a food and beverage department.

“We continue to be unable to sustain all aspects of operations, and if we don’t find ways to bring in substantial new revenue, we will be forced to continue to cut the Park District that has been a staple of our community for 110 years. This would have a negative impact on area youth, property values, and economic development opportunities,” said Rockford Park District Executive Director Jay Sandine.

The proposed budget will be available for public review at area libraries over the next month, and a public hearing will be held at 5:00 p.m. on January 15, 2019.

Mike Costello