The troubled Carbondale Park District is apparently abandoning its interests in Turley and Tatum Heights parks, abruptly telling the city on Tuesday that it is no longer seeking lease extensions on the two sites and will cease maintenance on them Aug. 30.
In a letter sent to the city on Tuesday, park district attorney Michael Twomey said that in the time since the park district first signed the leases in the 1970s, it's taken on a number of other financial obligations, including the Superblock, Hickory Ridge Golf Course and the Super Splash Park.
"These obligations, coupled with the current COVID19 pandemic, have placed additional financial burdens upon the district that it cannot, at this time, continue to maintain without placing the district in further additional stress," Twomey wrote.
The sudden move by the park district would seem to mark a major turning point in deliberations between the two governmental bodies, which have been locked in a two-year impasse over the future of the city's parks amid the declining fortunes of the park district.
What started in 2018 with the park district asking the city for a maintenance stipend as a condition of renewing some park leases quickly progressed to a 2019 ballot referendum asking voters if the two bodies should explore merging their operations. More than 70 percent voted yes.
In the time since, however, talks between the two over how that merger might look have grown increasingly bitter and unproductive. With the park leases still hanging in limbo, the park district in January reiterated its stated need for financial help in maintaining the parks -- a proposal some on the city council at the time called "an insult" and "a slap in the face."
The cash-strapped park district remains hobbled by debt left over from the construction of Hickory Ridge Golf Course, as well as its inability to raise public funding through any mechanism other than its property tax levy, which is capped.
While the city owns the land on which some parks are situated, including also Evergreen Park, the park district also owns some of its own properties, including Hickory Lodge, the Super Splash Park and the golf course. In recent years, the park district has faced increasing criticism over the declining condition of some of those facilities.
The COVID-19 lockdown has made the park district's outlook even worse. With many of its facilities closed or public access to them greatly limited, the park district also announced on Tuesday that it will not open the Super Splash Park in 2020, representing perhaps another critical blow to its stability.
In this week's letter, Twomey said he is preparing a proposed lease to continue park district operations at the Kids Korner building, which is adjacent to Turley Park.
Twomey also said that in anticipation of the Kiwanis Club's new accessible playground equipment planned for Turley Park, the park district will remove the existing equipment.
This story will be updated.