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Things are looking brighter at Illinois state parks like Sangchris Lake near Rochester where campers sit under the lights at sunset. Photos by Chris Young.

Parks begin to address backlog of repairs

August 09, 2013 at 10:26 AM

The State Journal-Register

Help is finally on the way for Illinois State Parks.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is starting to chip away at a $750 million maintenance backlog, as money from a new $2 surcharge on license plate renewals is starting to make its way out to the parks.

Starting this year, motorists who renewed their license plates paid an extra $2 — part of the “DNR Sustainability Bill” passed by the Illinois General Assembly to provide a steady source of funding for parks and their upkeep that was independent of the ups and downs of general tax revenue.

State budget pressures halved DNR’s share of general tax revenue over the past decade or more, and maintenance at Illinois State Parks has been put off year after year.

The result was a backlog of work that kept edging higher, an aging fleet of vehicles and equipment, plus deteriorating buildings and other facilities.

Randy Hawkins, site superintendent at Sangchris Lake State Park southeast of Springfield pulls up outside a machine shed to show off the new mowing machine.

Hawkins said money finally is flowing to state parks, and Sangchris already has a new roof on its shower house, plus new sinks and countertops. The old cast iron sinks had rusted all the way through.

“Grills, pit toilets and shower buildings are first,” Hawkins said.

Sangchris also has new signs to replace faded and deteriorating ones that marked boat ramps and campgrounds.

The west boat dock is being renovated, and the parking lot is being reconstructed.

The parking lot at the West Boat Dock at Sangchris Lake is being rebuilt, along with the boat ramp.

DNR director Marc Miller said the $2 license plate fee is deposited in the Parks and Conservation Fund, one of several dedicated funds managed by the agency.

“Half of the money will go for operation and maintenance to ensure there is a healthy stay for our visitors,” he said. “And half will go towards capital improvements like shower houses, roads and roofs.”

Money has been coming in since March, allowing DNR to make some “selective hires,” Miller said.

Right now, he said managers are going through a list of capital needs and are setting priorities.

Finding funding

In all, DNR expects to receive $18-$22 million annually, with about $10 million going to operations and $10 million to capital projects.

“We started with $750 million capital backlog,” Miller said. “That $10 million a year will allow us to address the most urgent needs.”

The Sustainability Bill grew out of discussions focused on how best to fund state parks in an era of increased pressure caused by the state’s unpaid bills and underfunded pension obligations.

Entrance fees were considered, but that idea stalled as lawmakers and constituent groups grappled with how to fairly implement and collect them.

About 40 groups worked together with Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, to come up with a funding solution.

Lenore Beyer-Clow, policy director for Openlands in Chicago, was the point person in a coalition of conservation, environmental and sportsmen’s groups known as the Partners for Parks and Wildlife. The Partners formed a decade ago to combat sweeps of dedicated funds during the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Eventually, the license plate surcharge idea rose to the top, as every car with a license plate would already have paid their “admission fee” to state parks.

The Sustainability Bill also allows DNR to charge new fees for some permits it issues and other services.

The total amount expected was to be about $32 million, including $18-$22 million from license plate renewals and the rest from new permits and fees.

DNR spokesman Chris McCloud said patience is needed because license plate dollars trickle in a bit at a time.

Not all license plates are renewed during the same month.

“And it will take time to get all the projects approved,” he said.

A sign of popularity

Hawkins said he had no idea how popular some parts of Sangchris Lake State Park had become until he had to close them for repairs.

At the West Boat Dock, anglers just moved the barricades and went on in.
“The barricades had been moved across the county road and the site was full of fishermen,” he said. “We went for a week running them out of there. I had no idea how popular of a fishing spot this was. Boy, I do now.”

The boat ramp and parking area are supposed to be done by mid-October, before waterfowl hunting season.

Some waterfowl hunters draw at the East Boat Dock and then drive around to the West Boat Dock to launch because it is closer to their blinds.

Even with some projects getting off the drawing board, Hawkins said there is more to be done.

He also wants to repair a crappie-rearing pond on site with a leaky dam. That pond produced thousands of crappie every two years.

“It’s a great fishing lake anyway, and if you can throw 80,000 crappie in there every two years, without much expense …” Hawkins said.

Still, with more work to do, Hawkins is pleased with the progress at Sangchris.

“When I first got here, it was just so frustrating,” he said.

Passing by the newly renovated shower building, he points out the changes, including a new roof.

“The doors were all rusted,” he said. “The whole thing is color-coordinated now. It looks really nice.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him at

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