More Wilmette Park Board members lean to referendum delay

Wilmette Park Board commissioners, who want to issue $14.5 million in bonds to finance their lakefront master plans for upgrading or replacing facilities such as the Gillson Park beach beach house, have just about decided to hold off on a ballot referendum until next spring.  |  File photo
Wilmette Park Board commissioners, who want to issue $14.5 million in bonds to finance their lakefront master plans for upgrading or replacing facilities such as the Gillson Park beach beach house, have just about decided to hold off on a ballot referendum until next spring. | File photo

Now that the New Trier High School District 203 board has approved an $89 million bond referendum for this November’s ballot, the $14.5 million referendum Wilmette Park District commissioners had been crafting to fund their lakefront improvements appears headed for an April ballot date instead.

Park Board members are set to meet 7:30 p.m. tonight in Wilmette Village Hall, and that could be when board members agree to postpone ballot action until next spring, although that may be more by omission than commission, one park board member suggested Friday.

“The agenda for our meeting does not even have a referendum question on it now, which I think tells you a lot,” Commissioner John Olvany said.

Park board president James Crowley said that he believes most park commissioners don’t want to risk voter referendum overload by putting their fiscal request on the same ballot as the high school’s question.

“We’re all in the same community, we both believe that what we’re doing is important,” Crowley said. “The school facilities need to be addressed, the lakefront needs to be addressed. If we wait until April, the actual long-term effects on our plan are very, very minimal.

“If it was two years later, not this spring, that would be a different thing.”

Thursday afternoon, Crowley said he didn’t there were four votes on his board in favor of pushing for a fall ballot placement. By Friday afternoon, four other board members appeared to agree.

Park board members said they believed taxpayers would not react well to two bond referendums on the same ballot, even though the issuances – and their effect on tax bills – would be different.

While a successful New Trier referendum could hike New Trier Township tax bills by almost $17 for every $1,000 of property value, park district officials believe they’ve crafted their potential bond issuance so it would keep their portion of Wilmette tax bills flat for at least five years, with minimal increases thereafter.

The district’s referendum would, if approved, authorize the district to sell $14.5 million in bonds in two issuances. The money would pay for infrastructure upgrades at Gillson and Langdon Parks, including sewer, road and lighting repairs and improvements, construction of new Gillson beach house and sailing buildings, as well as a small washroom and storage building at Langdon Park.

The bond plan’s down side is that it lengthens the time before the district’s existing debt could be paid off.

Commissioner Shelley Shelly said Thursday that the contrasts between the two referenda aren’t enough to convince voters to approve both requests: “it just looks like too much, whether it is or not.”

She said waiting until April would allow the park board to refine its financial figures, and Commissioner Jim Brault said he believed district officials could convince property owners that their plan was solid enough to vote for.

“We’ve done a fair job of setting the park board’s finances up. We’ve positioned our balance sheet over the past six or seven years, knowing that we’d one day get to this point … I like how we’ve prepared, and we can show voters what we’ve done,” he said.

Even Gary Benz, who shepherded development of the official Lakefront Master Plan for much of the last two years, and who has been one of its most enthusiastic proponents, was willing to say that the vote should probably wait until spring.

What’s more, he said Thursday night, “I believe we have an alternative plan that would let a spring referendum work, while letting us continue to move forward on our plans.”

He referred to the idea of the possibility that the board could agree to move to the planning stage of getting consultants to create more concrete design specifications than the district now has for the plan.

“We have the dollars in the budget for that this year,” he said.

Olvany said he wasn’t disappointed in a delay: “Five months or so is not that big of a deal. We’ll have time to explain things really well to the public. If [a referendum] didn’t pass, that’s when I’d be disappointed.”

LEAVING FALL

What: $14.5 million bond referendum

Where: Wilmette Park District

First plan: November ballot

Now: April looks good

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