Park District Council Meeting

The Carbondale Park District Board and City Council take comments from the public Monday on the possibility of the city absorbing some of the functionality of the district.

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CARBONDALE — Attendance was robust, as was discussion, Monday during the joint meeting between the Carbondale City Council and the Park District Board to consider whether the city should merge operations with the district.

In April, voters approved by a hefty margin for the city to explore with the district how it could take over certain aspects of the operation and maintenance of the parks. There has been no set plan proposed, but there have been regular suggestions including the city taking over maintenance, which few disagree has been lacking in recent years as funds have shrunk.

As a taxing body, the primary source of revenue for the district is through a nominal bill put on district residents’ property tax bill. This tax has a ceiling and the district is currently hitting it, which has landed the district in the red for years on many projects, including the Hickory Ridge Golf Course in Carbondale.

The comments from the community Monday were varied but all were incredibly supportive of the parks themselves. However, there seemed to be a disconnect between the question at hand and public perception. Many seemed to stand in solidarity to keep the parks open, however diminishing the parks or the district’s offerings were not a serious conversation.

Councilman Jeff Doherty addressed the concern many seemed to have regarding closing parks.

“That’s a surprise to me. That is not at all my intent and I don’t believe anyone else that’s sitting up here,” he said.

Park District Board President Carl Flowers and Mayor Mike Henry said they treated the meeting as a public forum, and Flowers asked people to elaborate on what they believed the word “explore” meant on the ballot. Some did this, others did not.

Donald Monty said he felt that it meant “to sit down and very seriously examine all potential pros and cons. Look at all of the facts.”

“It is my hope that this 70% of voters will be heard,” Dorcy Prosser told the panel. She said it is her belief that this means citizens want change to be considered.

John Washburn told the group that he felt they needed to present a series of options, ranging from no action between the city and the parks all the way to a total take over, and ask for input.

In considering how a city and park district merger would look, many expressed concern over what could happen to the parks if they were to be enveloped by the city and financial cuts would need to be made down the line. It was suggested that the cuts would not come to the police or fire departments but would likely come from the park district line items.

“That’s my fear and as you explore the different possibilities I hope you consider ways to assuage those concerns,” Walter Ray said in his remarks.

It is important to note that a complete merger would not be immediate and may not be in the cards for the two public bodies. For the city to take over the parks, dissolving the district entirely, the bond debt incurred would need to be paid off or transferred

In many meetings prior to Monday, questions were asked about the golf course and its viability and management. For years, it has routinely run in the red financially, and the recent bond debt refinance was seen largely as a means of offsetting operations at Hickory Ridge.

Monday, many spoke in favor of the golf course, telling the civic leaders that it brings in people to town and is needed to be attractive to corporate interests who may be looking at settling in the city.

Speaking to the critics, golf course manager Mike Day said he felt like it was managed well and was an asset.

“Give the golf course a break,” he said, adding that they do a lot with what they have.

Similarly many came out to express support for the Community Life Center.

The discussion has been a long time coming and Kathy Renfro, executive director of the district, has previously told The Southern that the concept of the city taking over some functions of the park district has come up multiple times over the years. However, this most recent discussion came about after questions were presented to the city about leases between it and the district for properties like the Evergreen and Turley Parks.

Concerns about staff reductions have come up as a result of these discussions but none at the city level have proposed layoffs for redundant positions. Instead it has been suggested the city would absorb the district’s staff and perhaps shift duties until something opened up internally for their original assignment.

Following the public comment, the city discussed leases with the district. There are several expired leases which sparked recent discussion of management. While there was no actionable item on the agenda, both parties agreed to have their respective attorneys draft new, short term leases that would serve while the two bodies explored their options.

Following this were comments from the elected officials on the exploration and public comments. Park District Board Member Jane Adams said she believed the next step should be to identify the metrics needed to move forward with the discussion and potential action, and Councilman Adam Loos agreed.

He also added that the discussion needed to be in good faith. He pointed to a handbill that circulated at the Community Life Center and online that asked people to come in support of the parks.

“I feel disappointed personally because it makes this seem adversarial,” Loos said seeing the flyer.

“It is not and should be a battle,” Loos said.

“Nobody’s losing their jobs,” Councilman Tom Grant added. “We are exploring.”

isaac.smith@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

On Twitter: @ismithreports

This article originally ran on thesouthern.com.

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