Byline: Robert C. Herguth Daily Herald Staff Writer
Meetings held by the Arlington Heights Park District board rarely attract more than a citizen or two, and many local residents probably aren't even aware of the panel's functions.
But the five-member body has a rather large voice in the quality of life of citizens, whose parks, swimming pools and recreation programs are often affected by the elected board.
Five residents want to be on the park board, and are vying for three seats in the April 1 election.
Those running for the four-year terms are park board President Jim Radlein, park Commissioner Sandy Fernstrom, and challengers Rob Smith, Mark McBride and Tom Drake.
Commissioner Sharon Romack is not seeking re-election.
Q: Do you think children in the park district programs should have more "exposure" to religious holidays, as was suggested recently by a group of parents?
Radlein: A public body must base these kinds of decisions on the guidance and interpretations handed down by our court system. The issue goes beyond park programs. Regardless of my personal feelings, as an elected commissioner my greater responsibility is to my stewardship.
Fernstrom: If children are "exposed" to religious holidays through our park programs, this exposure should consist of what the involved parents agreed to - the cooking and sharing of ethnic foods, toys or games, accompanied by the folklore or history connected to them. By doing this, it gives them the chance to experience and share in something they generally wouldn't have a chance to within their home environment. Hopefully, this exposure will engender questions that can be answered by the children's parents after the preschool program ends that day.
The role of the park district is to provide open space, facilities and programs aimed at providing opportunities for the enjoyment of recreation programs, leisure time activities and improved quality of life for its constituents. The district does not purport to be an educational institution that operates with certified teachers of required curricula. Our staff are certified recreation specialists who are dedicated to the objectives of the district. It is not within the scope of their duties to conduct religious classes or state-mandated educational programs. I would not like to see park district programs develop into stressful or harmful emotional experiences for any participants. Instead, programs should remain oriented to their desired recreational and leisure-oriented purposes.
Smith: I believe all children and adults should be exposed to different cultures and traditions.
McBride: I wholeheartedly agree with the parent group that children in (the) park district should be exposed to religious holidays. ... I am tired of all the political correctness that exists in our society today, and would like to emphasize education of the various religions. This is NOT meant to be an endorsement of any religion, but it can be done in an educational fashion, much as was the case at Westgate School this past holiday season. In this case, speakers were brought in to the classes to discuss their respective religious practices and ceremonies. I feel the park district should do the same.
Drake: The park district should be sensitive to program scheduling as it relates to religious holidays and should continue to listen to suggestions made by parents on this and all topics. However, specific exposure to religion via park programs in my view creates a difficult precedent once it is established. There is more than enough opportunity in our community for religious exposure through churches and their respective organizations and programs. The park district should be focused on issues and activities which are non-denominational. In my view, the handling of North School Park's seasonal decorations over the November/December holiday period was a fair and good solution for all.
Q: How should the costly repairs and renovations to park district pools be handled, especially in light of financial constraints partially brought on by the tax cap?
Radlein: There is not a simple answer. Properly planned, it is quite possible to handle within the current framework of our budget process.
Fernstrom: The tax cap has adversely affected our ability to issue bonds for such purposes - bonds which the Arlington Heights Park District has historically issued for such projects in such a fiscally-responsible manner that extreme debt and hardship that might have had to be covered by increased taxes did not occur. But sadly enough, responsible governmental entities must suffer these constraints because past abuse of bonding capabilities by a number of irresponsible governmental bodies resulted in heavy taxpayer burdens in their jurisdictions.
The park district staff and commissioners are studying all possibilities for funding infrastructure repairs and maintenance. We are investigating the possibilities for matching grant funding, the limited bonding capabilities that remain, types of loans available to us, agreements, etc. In the meantime, the state associations are attempting to determine if there is a feasible legislative initiative that could be pursued to enable park districts to maintain their infrastructures. The proposed legislative platform for the upcoming session includes opposition to the Property Tax Extension Limitation Act (PTELA), which would remove or reduce the limited bonding authority provided for park districts and opposition to unfunded mandates. Also under consideration is the formation of a coalition of associations representing local government and special purpose districts whose purpose will be to work together to address the problems arising from the PTELA.
It would be ideal if we could take immediate action on the renovation program, but it would be fiscally irresponsible to blindly commit the district to such a costly project now if beneficial funding sources would arise as a result of positive legislative decisions. On the other hand, the longer we put off the repair projects, the more costly these projects become.
Smith: First of all, I do not believe any pools should be closed. I think they help build a strong community and are very important. I believe the park district needs to consider a variety of alternative revenue sources. Possible alternatives to explore include cooperative efforts with other public entities, corporate sponsorship (if done in an appropriate manner), donations, etc. Essentially, consider all alternatives.
McBride: I am not a proponent of automatically issuing more debt any time we have a major expenditure. While I am not endorsing the closing of any of our facilities, I believe thorough financial modeling and customer surveys should be done to determine if the facilities are essential to the public and if future usage levels can support keeping them. We can then do some economic analysis to determine the most prudent method to finance the renovations, either through debt issuance, revised fee structures (note that I did not necessarily say higher fees), reallocation of tax revenues from other facilities/services, or a combination thereof. In reference to my comment on user fees, having studied economics, I realize that raising fees may not always have the desired effect of raising revenues, as you often price people out of the market. Sometimes, lowering the user fee may actually increase your revenue base, as you increase the number of customers. In addition to the financial models, we need to take into consideration what the public tells us that they want and are willing to pay for. I also believe that a healthy dose of common sense is necessary when evaluating any major project.
Drake: User fees should be increased to cover a portion of the cost. Cuts in other areas of the pool budget should be considered (i.e. hours of operation, opening and closing of the season) to free up money that could be used for repairs. A schedule of renovations based on pool usage should be set to determine pool repairs, similar to what is being done within the school districts. Those pools getting most use and in the most need of repair should be prioritized. Outside funding from the business sector in the form of sponsorships or donations from swim market companies such as Speedo and Danskin should be explored. A referendum on funding should be evaluated.…