Future of Marengo pool uncertain as park district struggles to manage finances

MARENGO – With the start of summer right around the corner, many communities are preparing for throngs of swimmers at their municipal pools.

But for the second straight year, Marengo residents won’t be able to join in the fun as the Marengo Park District struggles to cope with a host of budget issues.

Park Manager Joseph Vallez confirmed Monday that its “Starfish Waters” pool will remain closed for the 2015 season.

The pool cost about $32,000 annually to operate in the past – an unaffordable amount for a district struggling to make ballooning debt payments on an old loan based on faulty growth estimates.

Repayments on the loan – originally obtained to pay for the 2003 expansion of the Indian Oaks facility – are eating into the park’s operational budget. Vallez said the district currently is trying to renegotiate the repayment plan – scheduled to be completed in 2020 – out of concern that it might not have enough cash on hand to make payments.

“Any time you’re taking money out of your operational budget, it’s a significant problem,” Vallez said.

Adding to the district’s troubles is uncertainty over money allocated through government programs. Vallez said tax revenues and state aid have been reduced steadily in recent years and likely won’t level off for another year. Meanwhile, grants the district had planned to apply for have been put on indefinite hiatus because of conflict in the legislature over the state budget.

Even if the district’s financial problems were resolved, the pool still might be shuttered.

“There are a whole bunch of fixed costs associated with pools,” Vallez said. “The reality with pools in Illinois is they are a poor investment because you’re only open 16 weeks a year.

“People have found other options for taking their children and their families,” Vallez added.

One option being considered is the possibility the pool will be filled in to become a zero-depth water park, which wouldn’t require employing lifeguards.

In the mean time, Vallez said the park district slowly is regrouping by controlling program revenue and adding value where it can. The district recently has invested in its fitness center, adding a new staff member to help run the facility.

“We’re slowly trying to get back out in the community,” Vallez said. “We’re bringing back programs, but not a huge amount. Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it well.”

Whether it will be enough to meet the recreational needs of the community remains to be seen.

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