Some cost-conscious park districts spent far less than their counterparts to attend a conference in January put on by the Illinois Park and Recreation Association and the Illinois Association of Park Districts.
Of the more than 40 park districts and public recreation organizations reviewed by The Center Square, some were far more frugal than others.
Plainfield Park District sent 20 people for a cost of about $17,000, or $850 per person. In contrast, the Kankakee Valley Park District spent about $1,000 to send 8 people, or $125 per person. Some park districts didn't send anyone to the conference.
“We didn't do hotels,” said Kankakee Valley Park District Executive Director Dayna Heitz. “If anyone did hotels, they paid for it with their own with the exception of the board president, and we just did daily. We did the no-frills registration.”
The Illinois Association of Park Districts said more than 4,200 professional and elected officials attended the Soaring to New Heights conference for the “three exciting days of quality education programming, networking and professional development.”
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. Registration for the full conference without early sessions or continuing education classes cost about $325.
“We were just trying to be very frugal with our expenses and still receive our updates and education,” Heitz said.
“The conference ... provides tremendous benefit for the people who attend,” Illinois Association of Park Districts Public Relations Director Bobbie Jo Hill said.
While local park district officials said the conference provided valuable educational and networking opportunities, some have questioned the costs and value of such conferences.
“I'm skeptical of the value,” said state Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-East Dundee. “Have they ever heard of Skype?”
Skillicorn said such spending shouldn't be allowed. But he said there’s a lot of spending that taxpayers aren’t noticing.
“No one else attends the meetings,” Skillicorn said of park district meetings. “They are effectively unaccountable and because there are 7,000 units of government, people cannot attend every meeting and these people are slipping in valet parking [and] fancy dinners under the radar and getting it [at] taxpayer expense.”
Heitz said local taxpayers should get more involved.
“They see it from one side and they really need to get to know their parks and what they're doing behind the scenes so that they understand the direction that the district's going and what we're trying to do for the community,” Heitz said. “We really try to live within our means and we tried to service the community the most that we can preserve our parks.”