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In November the Chicago Park District released its 1993 budget, and the city yawned. Apparently the media had more important things to think about, like the City Hall squabble over Mayor Daley’s proposed $48 million property-tax hike. The Park District’s proposed budget received little coverage in the dailies and barely a mention on TV. “It’s as though the Park District wasn’t there,” says Erma Tranter, executive director of the Friends of the Parks, a watchdog group. “And that’s a shame.”

Indeed, the Park District has proposed raising taxes by $23 million. In dollars and cents that’s $17 more a year for the owner of a $75,000 home. Moreover, there are no apparent cuts in the budget. In fact the Park District plans to buy the old Sears headquarters on the west side and move part of its staff there.

According to a Park District press release, the tax hike is unavoidable given “inflation, poor economic conditions and escalating costs beyond District control.”

District officials also say the tax hike is the first “significant” increase in more than three years. “This budget plan shows how we’ve pared down and cut back to hold the line during these tough economic times,” general superintendent Robert Penn said in his budget statement. “We are at a point of fiscal reality where good government has to be accountable for every dollar spent on behalf of the public. This budget represents a meaner and leaner park operation.”

But Tranter and other activists contend the Park District’s tax levy has been rising for years. They also claim the district has never made a serious attempt to reduce spending by cutting staff, reducing energy costs, or reforming costly union work rules. “Every year it’s the same old thing: the Park District’s budget goes up even though the Park District says it’s going down,” says Tranter. “This year they are admitting to raising taxes, but then they make the budget process so confusing it’s hard to see how much taxes really will go up. The bottom line is that the district has not done nearly enough to trim the waste out of the budget.”

It’s not unusual for Park District officials and critics to clash on the budget. It’s a tough budget to read, much less comprehend. Park District officials are notorious for being tardy with essential details, and the result is confusion over such elementary things as the size of the work force. (The district’s public-information office says it has 5,400 employees; the district’s budget office says 7,000. Tranter, who has studied the Park District for years, believes the budget office.)

The Park District is supposed to release its proposed budget in November, giving the public at least one month to review it. (State law requires the district’s board to adopt a final budget by December 31). This year Penn released a budget statement on November 10, in which he announced the tax hike. But he has still not released a complete line-item budget. “We haven’t released a final line-item budget because it’s still being formulated,” says Park District spokesman ReGina Hayes. “Superintendent Penn is still meeting with his executive staff, trying to find ways to save money. That may mean cutting staff. We don’t know yet. The general superintendent is looking at a lot of things very carefully.”

Board members–including president Richard Devine, a close ally of Mayor Daley–have not pressed Penn to release the line-item budget. Indeed, Tranter and her group’s president, Tony Martin, have been nearly alone in demanding changes in the way the budget is handled. “Everything the district does impedes the public’s ability to analyze the budget,” says Tranter. “They have meetings at four o’clock in the afternoon, which is a time when people are still at work or taking care of their kids coming home from school. Then the district’s late releasing its budget. They may say they plan to make cuts, but we won’t know until we see that line item. If they get it to us in mid-December, that only gives us two weeks before the board has to act. It’s almost as bad as the bad old days when Ed Kelly ran the district–they used to have things like budget hearings on Christmas Eve.”

Martin and Tranter also accuse the district of making the budget look smaller than it is by not including capital-improvement costs. The Park District says its 1993 budget will be $318 million; Martin and Tranter claim it’s closer to $350 million. “If you look at their previously released five-year capital-improvement plan, you’ll see that they anticipate selling about $30 million worth of bonds in the spring,” says Tranter. “But they don’t list that in the budget. And once they sell those bonds or borrow that money it will be the taxpayer who has to pay it back.”

Park District officials say it would be irresponsible to anticipate such expenditures in a budget. “There are certain rules you have to go by in accounting,” says Terry Barella, the district’s budget director. “And one is that you don’t guess what you are going to sell in bonds. We may not sell those bonds in April. It would be parallel to saying, ‘We’re going to have a Rolling Stones concert in Soldier Field this summer.’ Well, I might like that and I might want to anticipate the revenue, but we aren’t going to appropriate expenditures based on our wishes.”

The district and its critics also disagree about the acquisition of the old Sears property. “Apparently they have hired so many new people that they have outgrown their current central office,” says Tranter. “Last year we counted 100 new people added on the corporate level. The Sears building will cost them about $1 million to buy and much more to operate and heat. What a waste.”

But Hayes contends the district may save money by buying the Sears building. “We bought that building for many different reasons. Number one, it’s a great price and it’s in pretty good condition, which means limited reconditioning is required. It allows us to take storage and other services that are currently located at several different locations around the city and move them to one central location. That cuts down on costs at those other locations.”

Hayes also says the Park District has not raised taxes in two years. Yet budget statements released by the district show the tax levy has gone from $189 million in 1988 to $250 million for 1993, a $61 million increase. Meanwhile the district’s corporate fund, from which wages and salaries are paid, has gone from $89.5 million to $100 million. Penn proposes raising it to $117 million for 1993.

“The Park District says they need the extra $17 million to pay for raises for the trade unions,” says Tranter. “But they should try to cut waste before they raise taxes.” She points to the district’s organization chart, a bewildering array of 50 squares, each representing a different department, such as Beaches and Pools and Internal Investigations. “There’s so much waste on this chart. Take the office of secretary. That used to be headed by Frank Savickas, the old state senator. Frank’s job was to go to Park District meetings. At best he showed up to maybe three meetings a year. So his assistant went. Hey, why show up if you have an assistant to show up for you? That office’s job is to prepare the agenda for each board meeting–of which there are two a month–and copy material to give to the board. For that they have five–that’s right, five–people on staff. And the Park District says there’s no waste.”

One of the first acts of any incoming superintendent is to rearrange the organization chart. “You might see a department’s name changed, but you never see it completely eliminated,” says Tranter. “In the last few years I’ve counted four new departments, most of which are unnecessary. In the old days concessions or permits might have been handled by someone out of the general superintendent’s office. Now we have a concession department and a permit department. Each of them has its own staff. The bureaucracy grows.”

Tranter also thinks the district could save money by privatizing some operations, such as Soldier Field and parking garages, and by reforming union rules. “Park employees get overtime for working on holidays or weekends, which are just the times when kids are out of school and the parks should be open. Maybe they should change the contract so employees get their days off when the parks aren’t so heavily used.”

Such changes are unrealistic, district officials contend. “These are union rules that are governed by contracts which are established after negotiations,” says Terry Barella. “It’s not something the unions are likely to give up.” He suggests Tranter and other critics hold their criticism until the final line-item budget is released. “There is a reduction in work force anticipated,” he says. “We’re still working on it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.