From Center Square, which seems to have absorbed the Illinois News Network:
Local taxpayers spend more than $270,000 on park district conference
Valet parking, lobster, luxury hotel stays add to conference costs
- By Greg Bishop, Cole Lauterbach and Brett Rowland | The Center Square
Local taxpayers across the state paid thousands of dollars for elected officials to attend a three-day park district conference in Chicago.
The trip in some cases included luxury hotel stays, meals at high-end restaurants, valet parking and other perks with no direct benefit for the residents picking up the tab. This conference and others like it have led some lawmakers to try to pass legislation to prevent what they see as unnecessary spending.
“This is effectively a free party for elected officials,” said state Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-East Dundee.
“We’re seeing costs of valet parking, dinners, hotel costs and some of these districts are close [to Chicago].
“Some of these people can take the train.
“It only cost six or seven bucks to take a train.
“You don’t have overnight parking. You don’t have valet parking.
“You could take the train.”
Plainfield Park District officials spent $17,113.12 for 20 people to attend the conference put on by the Illinois Park and Recreation Association and the Illinois Association of Park Districts. Plainfield Park District Board members and employees initially put a $3,200 bill for a dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse on a district credit card. They later reimbursed the district for all but $400 of that meal. Other park districts also dined on the taxpayer dime.
Taxpayers in Champaign Park District picked up the tab for a $772.45 dinner. Mokena Community Park District officials spent $751.22 at Maggino’s Little Italy one night and $298.09 at the Green Door Tavern another night.
Huntley Park District officials spent $514.54 on dinner at McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood & Steaks one night. Taxpayers paid the bill, which included $126 for three orders of lobster thermidor at $42 each.
Asked about the purpose of that meal, Huntley Park District Executive Director Thom Palmer responded:
“Dinner; walking distance from the hotel and reduced pricing during Chicago Restaurant Week was the motivation to select this particular restaurant.”
A review of conference expenses from 43 park districts and municipalities throughout the state showed significant spending differences. Documents obtained through the state’s Freedom of Information Act showed these districts spent a combined $271,722.89 to attend the convention.
Of those districts, the Chicago Park District, the largest such district in the state, spent the most. The Chicago Park District spent $42,540 to send 85 people to the conference. That total included registration costs and professional memberships for all of those who attended.
The Village of Algonquin, which has a recreation department that serves the municipality’s 31,000 residents, spent the least of those who attended.
The village sent one person to attend one day of the conference.
Its total cost was $252.14.
Some districts didn’t send anyone to the conference.
While certain districts spent thousands of dollars, others spent considerably less to attend the same conference, highlighting differences in local spending policies and practices of districts across the state.
Crystal Lake Park District spent $14,781.59 to send 20 people to the Soaring to New Heights conference.
That total included $5,486.84 for hotel rooms at the Hyatt Regency.
Batavia Park District, which is located further away from Chicago than Plainfield, spent $10,490.67 to send 25 people to the conference. Some of those employees paid the district back for half of the cost of their hotel stays. Some Kankakee Valley Park District employees paid for hotels at their own expense. That district spent $1,008.77 to send eight people to the conference.
The Illinois Association of Park Districts is a nonprofit research, education and service organization. Its members are the park agencies, which are taxing bodies funded partly by tax dollars. The association has about 300 member agencies. It charges membership fees based on a multiplier of each taxing body’s tax extension totals and the equalized assessed property value within the taxing body’s boundaries.
The Illinois Park and Recreation Association, which provides education, networking and other resources to park professionals, offers individual memberships. The Illinois Association of Park Districts and the Illinois Park and Recreation Association co-sponsored the annual convention held in Chicago.
This year’s convention, Soaring to New Heights, was held from Jan. 23-25 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who had just been inaugurated, spoke to attendees.
Pritzker’s family owns the Hyatt chain.
The Illinois Association of Park Districts said the 2019 conference featured more than 4,200 professional and elected officials for “three exciting days of quality education programming, networking and professional development.”
The two organizations offered a variety of registration options for the conference. Registration for the full conference cost about $325, but there were some discounts offered. Of the conference expenses reviewed, registration costs ranged from $89 for a single session to more than $500 for the full conference plus additional early sessions and continuing education classes.
Illinois Association of Park Districts Public Relations Director Bobbie Jo Hill said the conference offered a wide range of benefits.
“The conference … provides tremendous benefit for the people who attend,” Hill said. “There are nearly 200 educational sessions that take place. Topics range from crime and safety, youth risks, to funding, legal, and legislative developments. It is just packed with opportunities for them to take ideas back to their agencies.”
Hotel stays add to taxpayer costs
For many districts, hotel stays added thousands of dollars in conference costs that were passed on to taxpayers.
For example, of the $17,113.12 that Plainfield Park District officials spent on the conference, $5,631.21 was for hotel rooms and another $759 was used to pay for valet parking.
A few park districts within commuting distance of Chicago, including those served by Metra and other public transportation, have considered nixing hotel stays altogether.
Dave Peterson, the executive director of the Dundee Township Park District based in suburban Carpentersville, said he’s wrestled with the hotel question. He said many of those who live in the suburbs of Chicago commute to the city daily. He said he hasn’t pressed the issue because of the long hours employees put in during the conference, sometimes starting educational sessions as early as 7 a.m. and staying long after 5 p.m. for networking and other events.
Peterson said the cost of attending the conference is worth it for both employees and park district residents.
“We encourage [employees] to pursue further educational opportunities and professional development,” he said.
That translates to better service and programming for the residents the park district serves. He also pointed to an even more tangible benefit. The district saved thousands of dollars on playground equipment by committing to buy from a vendor at the conference that was offering special pricing for the event, Peterson said.
Conference spending questioned
When told about the spending of various districts, Skillicorn, R-East Dundee, was emphatic.
“These elected officials need to pay the money back,” Skillicorn said.
While he said conference could be valuable for those running the day-to-day park district operations, Skillicorn said elected members shouldn’t get the perk.
A fellow Republican, state Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, said local taxpayers should decide if attending the conference is worth the cost.
“I put this on the local taxpayers,” Batinick said. “And this is something that I talked about a lot is that locals on issues, good or bad, they have a better idea of whether something is worthwhile.”
Hill said each park district decides if the conference is worth the money.
“It is up to each individual park district to determine their budget for attending the conference and I think what a lot of people need to understand is research shows that statewide more than 50 percent of our district revenue comes from non-tax sources,” Hill said, including from fees, donations and endowments.
Skillicorn said he’s filed legislation to address such spending.
One measure that’s stuck in the House Rules Committee would prohibit payment from a county or a municipal government’s share of the state’s Local Government Distributive Fund for payments for travel, lodging, or dining.
Previous investigations of other taxpayer-funded junkets of municipal officials attending the annual Illinois Municipal League conference and school officials attending the Illinois Association of School Boards showed thousands spent on hotels, dining, valet parking and more.