Balanced financial plan expands thriving programs to meet growing demand, invests in park infrastructure and nature initiatives
Today, Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Rosa Escareño presented the 2023 Operating Budget recommendations to the Board of Commissioners during the public budget hearing held at Columbus Park, 500 S. Central Avenue. The $545.9 million budget is a fiscally responsible plan that places the current and future needs of the District’s patrons and its workforce first. A 6.7% increase from the previous year, the 2023 proposed budget addresses rising operating costs, investments in local parks and the District’s workforce. Highlights of the balanced Operating Budget include the expansion of youth programs and growth of thriving programs, investment in aging water infrastructure, nature areas and other capital projects that better equip the District to meet the public’s needs. Collectively, these and other measures outlined in the 2023 budget reflect the Park District’s commitment to equity and ensuring thoughtful investment in resources directed to communities most in need.
“The future of the Park District is bright as we pivot in a new direction that prioritizes the needs of families and communities across the city,” said Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Rosa Escareno. “The 2023 budget reflects our commitment to supporting hundreds of thousands of park users by expanding programming, strengthening our workforce benefits to retain and attract workers and creating a more equitable and sustainable approach to capital investments of our park places and spaces.”
An essential component of the future growth of the District is strengthening the workforce with policies that are responsive to the changing needs of our employees, and enhancing the District as an attractive and rewarding workplace. In the coming year, the District will adopt a new retention plan that includes an unprecedented parental leave for birthing and non-birthing parents, a hybrid remote work policy and flexible schedule.
In 2023, the District will dedicate $131 million to programming, a $5 million increase in resources from the previous year, which directly impacts the availability of recreation opportunities across all neighborhoods. In a normal, pre-COVID 19 year, the District garners more than 600,000 registrations including park programs and external programs that take place in our parks.
Driven by a commitment to offering safe, engaging options for our city’s teen population, the District will dedicate new staff and strengthen its coordination of resources for teen programs to ensure that thoughtful and engaging opportunities exist, particularly in community areas most in need. While youth opportunities remain the core of park offerings, the District will also evaluate adult and senior programs to make sure the diverse needs and interests of all age groups are met.
Recognized for its quality and affordability, gymnastics is one of the District’s most sought after programs. To address the ever-growing demand for the sport, the District will launch additional beginner level gymnastics at new locations, bringing increased opportunities to neighboring families. After a three-year hiatus, for certain programs, due to the pandemic, the District will return vital youth opportunities to its programming. The Endeavor youth sailing program will return to Montrose Harbor and Columbus Park, Humboldt Park and Garfield Park giving kids a chance to experience our lake and lagoons from a unique perspective while learning the fundamentals of sailing. Also, day camp field trips will return enhancing the camp experience for more than 25,000 children next summer.
Leveraging partnerships to increase after school programs that families depend on, the Park, District will work with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to bring enriching cultural programs to Douglass Park, West Pullman Park, Palmer Park and Piotrowski Park. The District will partner with After School Matters to place youth on path to careers, and celebrates the return of the Junior Lifeguard program which serves as a vital pipeline for the Chicago Park District lifeguard service. The District will once again offer seasonal lifeguards the opportunity to easily transition into year-round employment once summer ends as a strategy to keep lifeguard positions filled as a new summer season begins .
Keeping the needs of families first, the Park District will remain accessible and affordable in the coming year. The District will partially restore fees that were reduced in response to Covid in select programs. Aquatics and gymnastics fees will increase by approximately by $2 to $4 for a 10-week session, and summer camp fees will see a moderate increase but still remain below pre-pandemic rates. The District will hold the line on all other program fees in 2023. For qualifying families, this budget plan sets aside more than $3 million in financial assistance to defray program fees. No child will be excluded from a program due to a family’s inability to pay.
Thoughtful investment in Park District fieldhouses, greenspaces and other capital assets is vital. Beginning next year, the District will bring $70 million in projects to parks with a focus on the City’s South and West sides. This includes the $35.5 million from Mayor Lightfoot’s Chicago Recovery Plan (CRP) which dispersed federal dollars and other funds to catalyze sustainable economic recovery from the pandemic. CRP funds will be used for the first phase of construction of 50 additional pickleball courts throughout the city, installing new, free public Wi-Fi in 60 parks, reaching surrounding neighborhoods and construction of ten popular water spray features as part of our Chicago Splash! Program. In addition to ongoing, in-house replacement work, Parks will also continue its partnership with the Department of Water Management to replace to replace aging water service lines to help reduce the District’s water consumption and costs.
In 2023, the Chicago Park District will relocate its administrative headquarters to 48th and Western in the Brighton Park neighborhood. The new campus park and fieldhouse breathes new life into this community bringing 17 acres of parkland, open space, two turf fields and vital programming to one of the city’s most park and green deficient communities, transforming an unusable tract of land into the city’s newest park for Brighton Park residents. The District completed environmental remediation to remove hazardous materials left on the contaminated former industrial property. After acquisition, the District enrolled the site in the State of Illinois’ voluntary Site Remediation Program to ensure that site cleanup was done in a comprehensive manner and to the highest residential standard of the Illinois EPA.
The health and wellness of our residents is a core pillar of the District’s mission. As the largest Park manager in Midwest, with nearly 9,000 acres of parkland, including 2,000 acres of natural areas, Chicago’s lakefront, and riverfront parks, the Park District is the City’s leading greening steward. More than 20% of Park District properties has been converted into natural areas that greatly improve Chicago’s sustainability – providing stormwater benefits, creating new habitats for plants and animals and providing the many psychological benefits for people by having access to nature in their communities.
Our parks are at the forefront of more than 60 active research and environmental monitoring studies including the Field Museum, the University of Illinois at Chicago and The Nature Conservancy. In this budget, the District will focus on equitable investment in sustainable projects, programs, and initiatives. This includes the development of eight new nature areas and five new nature play spaces, which provide children with the physical and cognitive benefits of play along with instilling an appreciation for their natural environment. The Park District will also work with the City’s Vacant Lot Program to convert unutilized parcels into active parks.
In 2023, the fourth and final year of the actuarially based pension contribution ramp up, the District will allocate an additional $4.8 million for a total of $56.9 million to the pension fund. This strategy, along with a $25 million contribution made this year in excess of that required by statute, has contributed to a recent improvement of the District’s credit outlook by the rating agencies. A healthy pension fund not only helps safeguard the retirement of current and future retirees but also ensures the District’s overall fiscal stability which allows for the continued delivery of affordable and high quality services to park patrons.
The proposed budget also includes a modest $1 increase golf fees and a 2% increase in boat slip fees. While the District will not impose a property tax increase, revenue generated by new properties coming on line and from expiring TIF districts will be captured by the District’s levy.
The Chicago Park District’s 2023 budget recommendations can be viewed online at www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/annual-budget-process.