When the Glen Ellyn Park District officially unveils its new sports and fitness center Saturday, it will feature plenty of state-of-the-art facilities.
Batting cages. New fitness equipment. Indoor soccer fields and basketball courts.
And, oh yes, a price tag that's 51 percent more than residents approved in a November 2006 referendum.
In the 18 months since the district sought bids for the project, its cost has risen from the taxpayer-approved $7.4 million to $11.2 million.
Officials say the increased costs are a result of wanting to do the job right. Some critics, however, say some extra costs were improperly approved and the park board has been only too willing to provide additional amenities - no matter the cost.
In November 2006, Glen Ellyn voters agreed to spend $7.4 million for what would become the Ackerman Sports and Fitness Center at 800 E. St. Charles Road, along with a $500,000 contingency fund for the facility, which essentially will replace the Main Street Recreation Center.
Before the project went to bid, some residents asked the park board to provide more amenities. As a result, bids came in at about $9.2 million, or 24 percent more than originally budgeted.
Those extras included $900,000 to add office and storage space for the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association, plus about $800,000 in other changes and planning costs. As other items were added, the cost spiraled to $11.2 million.
Park board member Ed Hess said officials merely were responding to residents who asked the board for more space than the original plans called for.
For example, youth soccer groups said the original plan for a 25-by-40-yard indoor field would have limited use. So the board replaced it with a 40-by-60-yard field.
"After we got the referendum passed, more people started coming to us and looking at what we wanted to do," Hess said. "It ended up being a bigger project."
"Bigger" included the larger soccer field, upsized fitness center and expansion to include storage and office space for WDSRA, as well as the addition of two rock-climbing walls.
The center has three high school-sized basketball courts that can accommodate as many as 700 league participants. In addition, Ackerman will house a baseball training facility that will be run by the Chicago Bulls/Chicago White Sox Training Academy.
"If we would have done them as planned, the soccer fields would have been too small for use," Superintendent of Parks Dave Scarmardo said. "We are putting in things you really need to have a healthy athletic situation."
A new look
In August, the district borrowed another $4 million, about $3.2 million of which was earmarked for Ackerman.
But three new park board members disagreed with that approach. Melissa Creech, Julia Nephew and Jay Kinzler ran on a platform that promised fiscal responsibility and openness, and soon after they were seated in April, began gathering information about the project.
They soon came up with numerous concerns. For one, they say, the size of the complex that was used to sell the referendum increased from 44,000 square feet to 88,000 square feet, though other board members and staff say the final building size is 67,001 square feet. In addition to the higher costs, the new board members say, many changes to the plan have not followed a board-mandated approval process.
"There shouldn't be that huge a jump in such a short period of time," Creech said. "Seems to me that there are a couple of different issues in the way it has been portrayed to the public."
In December, Creech called for an external forensic audit. But that sparked a bitter public dispute between more senior board members and the newly elected trio. During an hourlong argument during that meeting, Nephew read a statement saying she had lost confidence in Executive Director Cory Atwell. Board President Sandy Minogue scolded Nephew for her comments, as some residents walked out of the meeting.
The audit was rejected in a 4-to-3 vote with dissenting commissioners saying it would be an unnecessary cost.
The flap specifically revolved around Atwell approving change orders that totaled $37,000. The board previously had required Atwell to approach commissioners before approving any changes exceeding $20,000.
Atwell said he approved the changes to keep the project moving swiftly and the change orders combined several necessary improvements.
"Looking back, it would have been smart to separate them," he said. "I don't mind getting grief for it, but it's not the whole story."
Kinzler argues the project should not even have reached that point.
He said the previous board should have admitted the project had gone beyond its initial scope when bids came in at $9.2 million.
"They wanted to do the Cadillac place and make everybody happy," he said. "I would either have found funding from other places, such as the teams or through donations, or scrap the $7.4 million plan and say, 'We made a mistake.'"
Instead, the district moved forward and more problems arose as glaring errors in bid packets were missed. Necessary components, including a limestone base for the soccer field's artificial turf, were omitted. A year later, officials had to approve a change order for the work.
"I am wondering if there was negligence in the way the bid documents were prepared," Creech said. "We should look into that because we spent a considerable amount of money to make the changes."
Scarmardo said the district is seeking ways to get that money back.
"It's not a done deal," he said. "If we can, someone will receive less money. It was an oversight. It got missed. I'm not excusing anything, but mistakes were made."
While he acknowledges taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going, he said talk about costs might be premature because the number could go up or down at any moment. Further, costs will go down when WDSRA eventually pays the district for the space it's getting.
"That's the hard thing, too," he said. "All of these arrows are being thrown around but until the project's done and paid for, the numbers will fluctuate."
The November 2006 referendum was the district's second effort to improve its recreation centers. That spring, voters had rejected a request for money to renovate Main Street Recreation Center. As an alternative, the board changed the proposal and included Ackerman.
Hess said voters who approved the new plan are pleased with the district's decisions.
"If they voted 'no,' we are never going to convince them to do it," he said. "The people who voted for it, I think, are very happy."
Atwell said he is confident that once the facility officially opens, public opinion will determine whether the higher cost is justified.
"We'll let the community decide if they think we have wasted their money or not," he said.