Public Watchdog.org

Park District’s “Green Space” Fund: The Slush Beneath Our Feet?

05.23.18

In our 04.03.2017 post we endorsed the candidacy of Harmony Harrington – along with candidates Jim Janak, Rob Leach and Jim O’Donnell – for election to the Park Ridge Park District Board of Commissioners. One reason for that endorsement was her professed support of referendums “for major capital projects outside [the District’s] current means.”

Since then we have applauded – in our 07.07.2017, 08.16.2017 and 11.07.2017 posts – several of the things she and her colleagues have done, or refused to do, while in office.

So when Ms. Harrington proposes that the Park District create a “Green Space Acquisition Fund” for the tail-wagging-the-dog purpose of buying land for parks should land become available, we have to wonder what the heck she’s thinking – because building up a pool of money for green space acquisition is a bad solution looking for a non-existent problem.

Unfortunately, the most plausible explanation for her off-the-reservation proposal is that she is trying to create a “slush fund” to provide an ongoing “current means” for the District to fund land (i.e., “capital”) purchases without having to get taxpayer approval via referendum. In other words, the slush fund becomes a convenient way to end-run her pro-referendum campaign position.

Harrington’s proposal comes at the same time a bunch of vocal folks are pressuring the District to spend as much as $2.3 million (or maybe less, if one believes there’s a lower appraisal that the District continues to hide from the taxpayers for unknown and/or specious reasons ) to purchase a tiny 3/4 acre parcel of land along Busse Hwy. in a business-zoned district that they call “Shibley Oaks.” They say they want to save the old oak trees on the property and to have their own neighborhood park in which their kids can make snow forts in the winter.

$2.3 million sounds like a boatload of wampum for several old oak trees and snow forts.

Could it be that Harrington’s idea is shameless pandering to that Shibley Oaks constituency? Such a suspicion draws support from a May 8, 2018 article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Park Ridge park commissioner seeks creation of ‘green space’ fund to buy future land”) which reports that Harrington cited the interest in the Shibley Oaks purchase as one indication that residents of Park Ridge desire more green space.

No, Harmony, it indicates nothing more than that, at most, 700+ residents of Park Ridge – out of the Park District’s approximately 24,000 voters and 37,000 residents – were willing to sign a petition asking the District to buy that property using tax dollars confiscated almost entirely from their fellow taxpayers who may or may not want their money spent that way.

As we noted in our post critical of the Park Board’s secret Shibley Oaks discussions, the District doesn’t need a readily available slush fund in order to buy available land, or even land that’s not technically “available”: The District has the right of eminent domain and can acquire any property it wants at its fair market value via condemnation should the owner not want to sell it voluntarily. And the District can tie the exercise of that condemnation power to taxpayer approval via a referendum.

But that’s not as convenient to special interests – like the Shibley Oaks crowd – that disingenuously claim they speak for the majority of residents but who never seem to want to let those taxpayers actually speak for themselves through their referendum votes.

That got us thinking about an alternative to Harrington’s slush fund, at least as it applies to the postage-stamp Shibley Oaks parcel: Let 400 of those 700+ petition signers pony up $5,000 each to purchase that parcel, assuming that the owner would be willing to part with it for $300K less than its $2.3 million list price (We’d bet a crisp new $1 bill that the owner would).

Once The 400 buy Shibley Oaks, they can donate it to the Park District under certain contractual terms and conditions, such as:

(a) The 400 get naming rights to the new park, if they want them;

(b) they get their names on a bronze plaque affixed to a granite marker, if they want it;

(c) they get a priority for things like picnicking, snow fort making, squirrel watching and tree hugging; and

(d) should any of those oaks die or get struck by lightning, they get priority rights to the lumber.

Who knows, maybe there’s a wood-worker dad among The 400 who could produce a collection of “Wonderboy” bats from that lumber, either for the baseball/softball-playing children of The 400 or to sell on e-bay.

And if 700 petition-signers contribute equal shares, the cost per petitioner drops from $5,000 to a bargain-basement $2,860. At that price they could put the contributions on their Mastercards or Visas and earn some travel miles.

That’s all it would take to save the Shibley Oaks.

No slush fund to be squandered by this Board or its successors. No annoying referendum to prove that the 700+ petition signers don’t represent anything close to a majority of taxpayers. No muss, no fuss. Just a bunch of public-spirited citizens putting their own money where their mouths are.

If Frank Capra were alive he just might make a movie about it.

But don’t hold your breath.

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