A $450,000 grant to renovate and upgrade Austin Town Hall became ensnared in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s efforts to address the state’s woeful financial crisis.
Hours after taking the oath of office, Rauner enacted several executive orders, including one to freeze all non-essential state spending. That decree instructs all state agencies to halt the awarding or renewing of state contracts and grants until July. The state has a $9 billion operating deficit and an equally high unfunded pension liability. But that order puts the grant to make the 87-year-old park facility comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.
Rauner issued the executive orders in reaction to last-minute actions Gov. Pat Quinn made as he left office. Quinn granted the money to the Chicago Park District in his final days in office.
“The grant, awarded to the Chicago Park District, is currently under review and on hold at this time,” said Catherine Kelly, a spokesperson for Gov. Rauner’s office.
The $450,000 is part of $1 million needed to rehab Austin Town Hall’s exterior and interior to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.
Tebrena Howard, the park district supervisor, said the facility is in need of an overhaul. Built in 1928, the facility’s roof leaks in two different areas, she said.
The front desk in the reception area is too high to accommodate wheelchair-bound individuals and the pool area has stairs that limit wheelchair access. Also, the locker rooms need to comply with ADA standards.
“We have a lot of issues here,” Howard said, noting that these issues have been ongoing since the three years she’s been park district supervisor. “The building just needs to be ADA complaint.”
Howard noted that the facility does have a fair number of disabled individuals that use the facility. The renovations are necessary, she added.
“It would be a great service to the people in the community that are not able to get into other facilities to work out, [take] dance class or a chair exercise class,” Howard said. “We have to make it compatible for everybody.”
“The Chicago Park District will make certain that any needed ADA projects are completed at Austin Town Hall park,” Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a Chicago Park District spokesperson. “If funding is not granted, work will still be performed, but perhaps at a reduced scope.”
Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) stood with then-Gov. Quinn and other state elected officials at a press conference announcing the grant earlier this month. The grant was part of Gov. Quinn’s $31 billion Illinois Jobs Now! capital bill signed into law in 2009.
Boykin understands Rauner’s desire to fix the state’s financial woes, but the commissioner questioned why the governor would freeze spending to meritorious projects such as this. He said it took some time to get the funds under the capital bill, but Quinn “saw an opportunity to do it on his way out the door to get the funding released and so he did it.”
“For anybody, not just the governor, to stand in the way of this project is a tragedy,” Boykin said. “This is playing politics with the lives of children who live in Austin who would benefit from…participating in programs.”
He urged Rauner to visit Austin to explain his decision. The area, Boykin noted has seen its fair share of violence and a revitalized park facility would give youth a place to come after school and on weekends.
“It hasn’t been renovated in years,” Boykin said. “The people who even run the facility were really excited about the opportunity to get these funds so they can move forward with renovation [and] so kids could come to the place and wouldn’t have to worry about the ceiling falling in or the roof leaking.”