Marengo Park District looks to close pool as financial woes persist

MARENGO – The Marengo Park District is contemplating closing its pool to help save a budget drowning in outstanding debt, a result, officials said, of a 2003 expansion gone financially awry.

The district has looked at closing the pool to cut costs since it continually operates at an annual $30,000 deficit dating to 2002, Business Director Heather Shepard said. It also requires about $60,000 in repairs to replace an antiquated filtration system being run by 14 filters designed for residential pools.

Shepard said the district does not have room in its budget to pay for the repairs, although officials are pursuing a grant to cover the expense.

The pool represents one of the last remaining amenities for the park district, which already has downsized its staff and shuttered its daycare operation in recent years because of past financial problems.

"Where we are at financially, how do you justify keeping the pool open," Shepard said.

If the pool does close, Marengo residents this coming summer would be left without a public swimming option. Residents' nearest options would be Woodstock or Huntley.

A Park District Board committee plans to discuss the pool closure during a meeting Wednesday evening. The board would look to make a final decision on the pool by year's end, Shepard said.

Despite ending last year with an $11,700 surplus, the district has been hamstrung by nearly $1.96 million in outstanding debt tied to a 2003 expansion to its Indian Oaks facility.

Voters at the time rejected a referendum that would have financed the expansion. But district board members proceeded anyway.

They issued bonds that were structured to escalate each year based on the assumption that Marengo and the district's tax base would grow.

The assumption failed, since Marengo and the district has seen a decline in population growth over the past five years, Shepard said. In the past four years alone, the district's tax revenues have dropped from $600,000 to $493,000 annually, she said.

The combination of escalating debt and declining revenue has put the district in a precarious position. Board members last year did manage to restructure $1.15 million in debt to level the district's annual payments, the bulk of which are set to be retired in 2020.

The district already has cut staff to three full-time employees and nine part-time employees. Demand for fitness and recreation programs has increased, but the added revenue falls short of covering the district's debt obligations, Shepard said.

The $11,700 surplus to the district's $694,000 operating budget was an improvement from past years, when the district would struggle to pay employees and its bills on time, Shepard said.

"The financial picture is looking better than where we were two years ago," she said. "My biggest concern is how to make our bond payment every year without borrowing. ... Until that bond is paid in full, I think we are going to struggle."

The district's last remaining cost-cutting idea is the pool, since it continues to lose the district money, but board members still are debating whether to proceed, board President Scott McCann said.

On Wednesday, members will begin a more detailed look at the pool's operating expenses and start discussions on a "plan of action," he said.

Members also may look to the Marengo Park District Foundation for a fundraising campaign that would target donors to help cover the pool's expenses.

"The verdict is still out," McCann said.

Officials also have entertained the idea of a referendum that would ask voters in the areas surrounding Marengo to contribute property-tax dollars to the park district. But officials are unsure whether the referendum would have a chance at the polls.

The board has discussed the issue, but members have not begun identifying specific election dates to pose the potential referendum question, Shepard said.

"I just don't know how realistic it is for people to vote to raise their taxes," she said.

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