Park District to raise property taxes, hold the line on fees to restore programming to pre-pandemic levelsFran Spielmanon November 10, 2021 at 7:23 pm

Douglass Park, 1401 S. Sacramento Drive. | Facebook

Interim Supt. Rosa Escareno said the $4 million hike allows “program expansion in youth athletics, the development of five new nature play spaces” and “continued improvements and upgrades to fieldhouses and park facilities.”

The Chicago Park District will raise property taxes by $4.3 million to restore programming and staffing to pre-pandemic levels, but hold the line on recreational fees, under a $510.9 million 2022 budget unveiled Wednesday.

Interim Supt. Rosa Escareno delivered her first budget address less than a month after replacing Mike Kelly, who was forced out after being accused of sitting on and lying about sexual harassment and abuse of lifeguards at the city’s pools and beaches.

The lifeguard scandal was the elephant in the room at the monthly board meeting, even before the board adjourned to executive session to discuss personnel matters.

Escareno looked the elephant squarely in the eye when she told the board the Park District “faces new and serious challenges” the budget will address.

“I know that we have failed too many of our staff and eroded trust with the community. This will not be tolerated. The moment requires action, change, reform and vision,” Escareno said.

“That is why, as part of our plan to restore trust with our employees and the community, we will establish a new Office of Protection. This office will intake and investigate all allegations of prohibited discrimination, harassment and abuse. … I look forward to working with you to ensure that it is appropriately funded to enact change.”

To end a frat-boy culture that has been tolerated and encouraged for decades, Escareno said the Park District will “amplify the depth and volume of staff training” to ensure all employees are “prepared to identify, prevent and report” misconduct.

“Awareness, compassion and support will be the hallmark of our organization. Every Chicago Park District employee will have the proper tools and training and will carry a responsibility to be there for their colleagues and the residents they serve,” Escareno said.

“By the end of this year, more than 3,000 park staff members will have participated in sexual harassment training. But, this work is far from over.”

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Chicago Park District Interim General Superintendent and CEO Rosa Escareno speaks to reporters during a press conference at Jesse White Park on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

The $4 million property tax increase is only the fifth in 16 years for the Park District.

It’s expected to cost what Escareno called the “average homeowner” an extra $4 a year.

“The cost of a cup of coffee,” she said.

“This increase will allow the Park District to make additional investments, such as program expansion in youth athletics, the development of five new nature play spaces, continued improvements and upgrades to fieldhouses and park facilities across the city.”

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic forced the Park District to shut down some of its in-person programs and go virtual even as it continued to serve 48,000 young people across the city.

That cost the district $85 million in revenue, including $13 million in program fees.

The 2022 budget will restore park programs to pre-pandemic levels and then some.

The $126 million investment in 2022 programming represents an $8 million increase from last year.

It will allow the Park District to restore an array of popular programs “greatly minimized or suspended” during the pandemic, including Inner City Hoops; Girls Fast Pitch Softball and Junior Bears as well as the Park Kids and Summer Day Camp.

New sports programs delayed by the pandemic will also launch in 2022.

Among them: a citywide wrestling program; “Soccer for Success,” an after-school program at 11 parks with mini-pitches serving 1,000 kids; “Culture in my Neighborhood,” a joint venture with the Chicago Public Library and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events; and an expansion of girls sports programming through the “Go Girls Go” Camp and “Girls Play” programs.

“I am proud that we are able to offer all these programs without an increase in fees, ensuring that our services remain accessible and affordable in the coming year,” Escareno told the board.

“In addition, in 2022 families in need will have access to more than $2.8 million in financial assistance. No child will be excluded from programming due to their inability to pay. In 2019, this fund sent nearly 4,300 children to day camp, made it possible for 1,100 kids to learn to swim and enabled more than 1,500 families to access vital after-school programming. We look forward to supporting these families and kids again.”

The budget also allocates $8.8 million more toward the Park District pension fund for a total pension contribution of $52 million.

Next year will be the third year of a four-year ramp-up to actuarial-based contributions that will put the Park Employees & Retirement Employees Annuity and Benefit Fund on the road to full funding.

The 2020 pension reform bill approved by the Illinois General Assembly created a “third-tier” of employees and “gave optional election to Tier 2 employees,” officials said.

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