Imagine if you could get a credit card with a .67 percent interest rate and a $3.5 million limit.
That's essentially what happened for the Decatur Park District last week after it secured a AA- bond rating on two bonds it was issuing to pay for capital projects. Ten institutions went into a bidding war over a $3.5 million bond issue the park district was selling, with the end result that it will pay about $27,000 over two years to borrow the money.
David Phillips, senior vice president of the company that worked with the park district on the biding process, told me that the low interest rate spoke very highly of the district's financial management practices. Given the district board's constant discussions about right-sizing, cutting costs, raising fees in some cases and keeping taxes level, I wasn't too surprised.
With fiscally negligent-to-the-point-of-malice state government bleeding its problems into many local governments and social services, it's nice to see the park district doing so well by comparison.
So what is their secret?
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Having had several long conversations with Rodney Buhr, the park district's chief financial officer, I can tell you that the park district staff knows where money is going at all times. They are transparent about it, often producing copies of audits, budgets and other financial documents before I have a chance to ask for them. Buhr always takes enough time to make sure I fully understand his answers to my questions.
Park district commissioners are constantly discussing ways to raise money, from reassessing the fees they charge recreation groups to recouping the tourism dollars they bring to town. Not all of these talks translate to action, but they are frequent and they are out in the open.
Compare this with the state's budget process, which largely happens behind closed doors at the end of the legislative session. The budget is spread out over hundreds of pages, several bills and amendments, in what may be the least comprehensible format ever. Figuring out whom the state owes, which the Herald & Review and other Associated Press members did for a project last year, is like being trapped in a spreadsheet nightmare.
I understand that the state's budget is bigger than the park district's, but I think state lawmakers could take some notes. In the end, the park district has mastered one simple concept that state hasn't: balancing a checkbook.