Under the weight of $45 million in long term debt, local leaders want voters to decide whether to dissolve the Collinsville Area Recreation District (CARD) and have its assets managed locally.
Former CARD board member Andrew Carruthers, who spoke on behalf of a bi-partisan group of elected officials, said approximately 5,300 signatures will be needed to get a referendum on the primary ballot in March.
If it passes, CARD would be dissolved after the election results are certified.
Carruthers said the only way the district can sustain itself is to raise taxes or take on more long-term debt, "or both."
The district includes all of Collinsville and unincorporated Collinsville Township, as well as parts of Maryville, Glen Carbon and Pontoon Beach. Last year those property tax payers were levied $2.6 million. Expenses minus amounts recovered in service charges and other contributions were $3 million.
Carruthers said details as to how the assets would be divvied up has not yet been worked out.
Of all the park districts in Illinois, CARD is among the most financially unstable, he indicated.
"Other park districts have little or no debt," he said.
He praised the current board of trustees for its management, and criticized previous boards for their mismanagement. They didn't live within their means, and levies went "up and up," he said.
One of the biggest drains on CARD's budget is the Arlington Greens golf course in Granite City. The district purchased the course out of bankruptcy in 2007 for $5 million and took on additional debt for equipment.
Carruthers said the district has been making interest only payments of approximately $300,000 per year on that loan, and principal will be added to the interest payment soon.
He emphasized that while tax payers would still be on the hook for another 19-20 years to pay off existing debt, they would see an immediate decrease in their tax bill because CARD operations would have ceased. Using a $175,000 home in Maryville as an example, he said a property owner's bill would be halved, from $300 to $150.
Not all in the audience were thrilled at the prospect of dissolving CARD.
Some expressed doubt that taxpayers would get relief, saying the burden would just shift to another levy. Carruthers said that where park districts already exist, duplicate services exist and can therefore absorb costs.
One wondered why not sell assets to reduce debt. Carruthers said a "fire sale" would not be in tax payers' best interest if they can't get top dollar for an asset such as the golf course.
Another asked for specifics in writing, and Carruthers said that the group supporting dissolution would provide details on a Facebook page that will be created.
County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan said dissolving CARD will "give tax payers a break."
He said that if proponents can't convince tax payers that it's a good deal, "then it's not going to pass."
State Rep. Dwight Kay (R-Glen Carbon) said he believes that smaller government tends to be "better government."
He said that if a community wants to create an entity such as CARD, "you'd better make darn sure you oversee it."
"CARD was really over the top with how it spent tax payers dollars," he said.
Private sector operators, which have to live under balanced budgets to survive, may be better suited to manage recreational enterprises, he said.
Carruthers said there would be a kickoff to the petition drive on Saturday morning at the Maryville Community Center. While approximately 5,300 signatures will be needed to get the referendum on the ballot, the group will aim for 6,000.