Marengo Park District closes pool to cut costs

Financial problems at park district may lead to voter referendum

MARENGO – A financial crisis at the Marengo Park District will leave residents without a public pool this summer and might force a voter referendum to improve district finances bleeding red ink.

Faced with annual budget shortfalls, the five-person Park District Board recently shuttered its "Starfish Waters" pool for the 2014 season in a cost-cutting move that should save the district $32,000 annually, beginning with a new budget in May.

The move still will leave the district with a $40,000 operating shortfall for the upcoming budget, said Business Director Heather Shepard. It comes after board members this week took out a $75,000 loan to get through the current budget year, which ends April 30.

"The hope of the park district is that it could reopen the pool in the future, but financially it's a difficult hurdle to get over," Shepard said.

The pool has operated with $30,000 annual deficits since 2002. It requires between $60,000 and $100,000 in repairs to replace an antiquated filtration system being run by 14 filters designed to support smaller, residential pools.

The 2014 closure means the many teenagers who work as lifeguards will have to find new summer jobs and officials will be forced to reorganize a few programs that use the pool.

Residents also won't have a public swimming option in their hometown – a traditional selling point for many suburban communities looking to attract young families.

The district has been working with Woodstock on extending Woodstock pool rates to Marengo residents for the 2014 season, but the details have not been finalized, Shepard said.

"The pool definitely will be a big loss to the young kids this summer," Shepard said. "They won't have a lot of options."

The pool represented one of the last remaining amenities for a park district plagued by financial mismanagement and revenue problems in the last decade. Officials have already cut staff to three full-time employees and closed the district's day care facility.

Despite ending 2012 with a minor surplus, the district has been hamstrung by nearly $1.96 million in outstanding debt tied to a 2003 expansion of its Indian Oaks facility.

Voters at the time rejected a referendum to fund the expansion, but former board members proceeded anyway with bonds structured to escalate each year based on the assumption that the district's tax base would grow.

Instead, the district's base shrunk, losing more than $100,000 in property taxes the last four years combined. Board members in 2012 restructured $1.15 million in debt and leveled annual payments to be retired in 2020.

Other financial needs are beginning to mount.

With no extra money at its disposal, the district's list of repairs has increased to 42 items, ranging from road resurfacing to new laundry machines. The recent cold temperatures blew out two furnaces and froze 33 sprinklers inside the district's main facility.

Board members will meet later in January to begin prioritizing the repairs and brainstorming ideas to increase revenue and close the shortfall.

The financial solutions may include contacting private individuals and businesses for donations. But the "number one" priority is crafting a referendum that would ask voters in Union and Riley Township to contribute tax dollars to the park district, Shepard said.

The potential referendum follows extensive efforts to shed more costs and keep the pool open in 2014, said Board President Scott McCann. Those failed efforts included grant opportunities and privatizing ownership of the pool, he said.

"We have tried every angle, and we have reached dead ends," McCann said.

Note to readers: Marengo Park District closed its own daycare operation in 2011. The Marengo United Methodist Church continues to operate the Parent's Day Out Childcare Center at the district's Indian Oaks facility.

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