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Governments collect tax dollars to pay for vital public services.

At the local level that means paying for services that ensure communities are safe by providing police and fire protection.

It means keeping roadways maintained so residents can travel safely to and from jobs, contribute to the local economy, and otherwise participate in the community.

Local tax dollars are needed to pay for schools to educate our younger citizens. And they pay for public servants to maintain parks, waterways and recreational areas.

Unfortunately, there are far too many things taxpayer dollars are spent on that they shouldn't be. And that's one of the reasons Illinoisans pay among the highest taxes in the U.S.

The Center Square this week highlighted some of that misspending in its investigation into the use of tax dollars on an annual conference for park district staff and board members.

Our reporters filed Freedom of Information Act requests with 43 park districts and municipalities throughout the state to analyze how much they spent and on what.

Some highlights:

• The Chicago Park District spent $42,540 to send 85 people to the conference put on by the Illinois Park and Recreation Association and the Illinois Association of Park Districts.

• Plainfield Park District officials spent $17,113.12 for 20 people to attend the conference. Attendees initially charged a $3,200 dinner bill from Morton's Steakhouse on a district credit card, but they later reimbursed the district for all but $400.

• Taxpayers in Champaign Park District paid for a $772.45 dinner.

• Mokena Community Park District officials spent $751.22 in taxpayer money at Maggino's Little Italy one night and $298.09 at the Green Door Tavern on another.

• Huntley Park District charged taxpayers $514.54 for dinner at McCormick & Schmick's Seafood & Steaks one night, which included $126 for three orders of lobster thermidor at $42 each.

In total, $270,000 in taxpayer money was spent by the 43 government bodies on the junket held from Jan. 23-25 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

Not all park districts overindulged.

The Kankakee Valley Park District spent about $1,000 to send 8 people to the conference. Many park districts didn't send anyone.

While using tax dollars to pay for $751.22 restaurant tab might not seem like a huge deal, this kind of outrageous spending adds up. The Center Square previously investigated Illinois municipalities and school districts and found similar abuse of taxpayer dollars.

Sadly, some public officials think they can use tax money as their own private slush funds.

Despite what your local park district director might tell you, dining on lobster thermidor is not a vital public service.

Taxpayers need to hold them accountable.

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Dan McCaleb is news director of The Center Square, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a non-profit media company dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. His columns include his own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. Contact Dan at dmccaleb@thecentersquare.com.

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