Urbana Park District tax issue defeat to bring cuts

Urbana Park District tax issue defeat to bring cuts

URBANA – With the narrow rejection of a proposed tax increase Tuesday, the Urbana Park District board is now faced with likely budget cuts, officials said.

Park officials said it is too early to say whether they will propose another property tax increase for the November election, though they say it will undoubtedly be discussed in coming months.

The park district had asked for a 25-cent per $100 of assessed valuation increase in the district's overall tax rate, which would have raised the rate to 95 cents overall. But voters rejected the increase 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent, with 3,448 opposing the increase and 3,384 in favor.

The 64-vote losing margin was a disappointment to board President Michael Walker, who said the district needed the additional $1.4 million the rate increase would have generated not only for major capital projects, like renovating Crystal Lake Pool, but also for more basic things, like park maintenance and replacing outdated playgrounds.

"We're facing some cuts," he said. "We will try to do them as best we can, but there will be some."

Walker noted that even if a fall tax increase were proposed and approved by voters, the district wouldn't see that money until June 2009.

Park district Executive Director Vicki Mayes said the budget cuts could show up in the form of less frequent grass mowing during the late spring, before summer workers are on the job, or in the removal, instead of replacement, of outdated playgrounds in neighborhood parks.

"We get about $113,000 in new money every year," Mayes said. "One playground costs $50,000. We'll have to make some decisions about older playgrounds."

Mayes said that even though the vote was close, "we do have a result, so we have to follow that result from our citizens and begin looking at things we can do to reduce services to fit the budget we have – and that's the hard part."

Walker said that when the park district first proposed the tax increase last fall, the deteriorating national economy wasn't as big an issue as it is now. He said he thinks the economy was the main reason the proposal went down to defeat.

"The people I've talked to don't feel economically secure," he said. "That the vote was this close shows how important the parks are to people."

He did offer that "perhaps we were overly ambitious in the scope of things we wanted to do."

Besides a $5 million pool renovation, with a destination playground and a spray field, the park district also promised it would use the additional money to add more walking and bicycling paths, to rejuvenate neighborhood and community parks and to update Crystal Lake Park in general, including adding new restrooms, a loop walking trail and a new park entry.

Walker said he did not think the park district's six-day Chautauqua last fall, held to celebrate the park district's 100th anniversary, was a factor in the outcome.

The district spent $200,000 to stage the event, including $61,000 in property tax income, but attendance was poor. Park officials largely blamed cool, wet weather for the low attendance.