Public Watchdog.org

How Much Is Enough – Part 2?

12.06.17

After borrowing over $20 million between 2013 and 2016 to build the Centennial water park and the new Prospect Park, one might think that the Park Ridge Park District might want to cool its jets about taking on more debt and more capital projects.

But, instead, it held a “Public Input Meeting” on November 30, 2017. The “public input” being sought? Coming up with a wish-list for borrowing and spending multi-millions of dollars at Oakton Park.

Why?

Because the Park District recently learned that the Oakton Ice Rink’s R-22 refrigerant will be eliminated by 2020, meaning that the Park District will have to tear up the rink and replace all the mechanicals to accommodate a new type of refrigerant.

But simply replacing the ice surface and mechanicals apparently isn’t enough for the Park District, even though the ice surface was replaced back in the mid-1990s because (as we recall) of cracks in the surface – and, ironically, the phasing-in of the R-22 refrigerant to replace a more environmentally-unfriendly refrigerant – without adding millions of dollars to the project for accessories.

According to an article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Pools, more ice among citizen suggestions for Park Ridge’s Oakton Park,” 12.04.17), although money for the actual replacement has been budgeted, there reportedly is no funding for any additional expansion of the ice rink or other wish-list projects at Oakton. But (per the H-A article) that didn’t stop the District from going out and hiring “Wight and Company architects and two other professional firms” to seek input from residents about what should be done at Oakton.

We’re big on “input from residents” but we’re not big on such input without any price tags affixed – especially since the Park District went to referendum on three Oakton projects in 2005-2006 – all of which were soundly rejected by the voters.

Although there is no video of the Public Input Meeting posted on the District’s website, a string of comments posted to the H-A article on the H-A Facebook page indicates the strongest support for either: (a) a major renovation of the Oakton ice rink and the addition of at least one more ice surface; or (b) a new pool, indoor or outdoor.

Back in 1994-95, the District spent over $100,000 on studies and actual plans for a Centennial water park. The then-board intended to use those plans to steamroll the taxpayers, but a group of 40 or so Centennial Park NIMBYs organized and made enough of a ruckus that the 1994-95 park board backed off and submitted the project to an advisory referendum. That project got soundly rejected by the voters, and its proponents took their cue and dropped it – until it was taken up again as one of the two referendum questions by the Park District in April 2005: The Centennial water park lost by 70% to 30%, while a referendum for building an indoor recreation center at Oakton failed 73% to 27%.

In March 2006 another Centennial water park referendum failed 69% to 31%.

And in November 2006, a $10 million plan to put a new aquatic center/water park at Oakton failed 57% to 43%.

Mindful of those failures, in December 2012 that park board chose to blow right past “permission” and head directly to “forgiveness” when it committed, based on very limited resident input, to borrow $7 million to build the current second/third-rate water park – sans the “lazy river” which was the single most wanted feature of the original design, based on 682 survey respondents – without a referendum. We wrote about it less than kindly in our posts of 12.05.12, 12.13.12, 12.19.12 and 12.29.12.

That decision by that board was both dishonest and gutless. Which, to paraphrase the fictional Dean Vernon Wormer, “is no way to go through [public] life.”

Frankly, we don’t care what the Park District wants to build at Oakton so long as it puts whatever the project(s) might be – along with a credible price tag – to referendum, preferably binding but advisory being better than nothing.

Before that is done, however, a lot more information and discussion is needed to determine what kind of project(s) deserve a referendum question, or two, or three on the November 2018 ballot. That’s assuming the Park Board doesn’t rush to judgment and try to ram something onto the March 2018 primary ballot by the filing deadline of January 2, 2018.

We trust that won’t be the case with this Park Board, the new majority of which act and sound as if they actually understand and respect the interests and concerns of the taxpayers as much, or more, than those of the users of the District’s resources. Such a rush to judgment would be a major dis-service to all the District’s stakeholders except for the highly-motivated special interests who, like their water park counterparts in December 2012, can be counted on to turn out and dominate any discussion over the next few weeks while the majority of folks who will end up footing the bills are busy getting ready for the holidays.

The deadline for putting a Board-originated referendum resolution on the November 2018 ballot is August 20, 2018. That should provide plenty of time for an intelligent, well-informed debate by both the Park Board members and the general public about what project(s) deserve consideration for a referendum question.

Because how much is enough at Oakton, or elsewhere in the Park District, is a question that needs to ultimately be answered by the countable votes of a fully-informed electorate, not by rank speculation and anecdote from a few handfuls of the specially-interested.

To read or post comments, click on title.

 

How Much Is Enough?

12.01.17

On the night of November 14, a developer’s representatives showed up at City Holl to pitch the Park Ridge Planning & Zoning Commission (“P&Z”) on letting it develop the Mr. K’s site – 1440 Higgins, currently zoned for business/commercial use – with 19 3-bedroom townhouses and an office building that the developer hoped would be enough “commercial” to sell the Commission on the project.

Given that the developer previously had sought 31 townhouses and no commercial building for the site, it was clear that the townhouses were the dog and the office building was the tail. Which is why the developer broke out the salesmanship.

So did Park Ridge-Niles School District 64, which dispatched finance guru Luann Kolstad, along with an attorney and a consultant from Teska Associates, to try to persuade the P&Z folks that this new multi-family residential development will likely add 6 to 9 kids (a conservative estimate, per Supt. Laurie Heinz’s letter) to D-64 schools instead of the 2.88 kids the developer was projecting.

One would think that Park Ridge’s oft-lamented lack of business/commercial combined with the longstanding commercial zoning of the site, in the exercise of common sense and simple math, would have made P&Z’s decision to say “no” to more multi-family development a straightforward one.

But it wasn’t.

A couple of P&Z commissioners seemed lost in the funhouse and totally overmatched by the interplay of housing density and student costs, even after a fellow commissioner correctly pointed out that 2 of the 3 bedrooms in each townhouse were so small they appeared designed solely for children. A few more commissioners seemed desperate for some kind of compromise that would avoid their having to make a decision that somebody might not like.

But as James Russell Lowell so trenchantly observed: “Compromise makes a good umbrella, but a poor roof; it is temporary expedient, often wise in party politics, almost sure to be unwise in statesmanship.”

And when we’re talking about a development that can be expected to last a minimum of 30-50 years, a “temporary expedient” – like 19 3-bedroom townhouses and some half-baked office building afterthought – is the last thing we need.

Which brings us to the key question: How much is enough? In this case, how much residential development is enough?

Multi-family residential is the lowest hanging fruit on the development tree for an older, inner-ring upper-middle class community like Park Ridge. Want to turn a quick, low-risk profit? See how many condos or townhouses you can cram onto your target property.

But at what point do more residences, and more residents, begin to adversely affect the community’s quality of life and its sustainability – whether by too many kids in our public schools, too much traffic, too many demands on our infrastructure, etc.?

The answer to that question depends on who you are and where your interests lie.

If you’re the owner of Mr. K’s looking to cash out at the highest price, you probably don’t give a rat’s derriere about what some developer constructs on that property – so long as the check clears. And in the grand scheme of things, that’s okay.

If you’re a developer looking to turn the quickest profit with the least risk, 31 townhouses – or 19 townhouses and some half-baked office building – might be your best pump-and-dump deal. And that’s okay, too.

And if you’re a local RE broker, 19 new townhouses increases your “inventory” at no significant additional incremental cost to you. And that’s okay.

Because self-interest – both enlightened and doltish – has always been with us and always will be. It’s how we deal with that self-interest that matters.

Perhaps the most important reason we have City government and a Zoning Code is to prevent selfish property owners, selfish developers and selfish RE brokers from putting their short-term profiteering ahead of the taxpayers’ long-term expense and the community’s long-term sustainability as a unique place to live.

Which means remembering that property owners are like one-trick hookers, that developers are like sharks cruising for their next meal, and that certain RE brokers are like the remoras that swim below the sharks’ mouths feeding on the scraps left over from the sharks’ larger meals.

While the owner and the developer may both be one-and-done on a project such as Mr. K’s, it’s those RE agents who will be getting the longer-term benefits from adding condos and townhouses to their residential inventory that can be expected to turn over far more frequently than commercial property or even single-family homes. That means more sales and more commissions for those agents – the gift that keeps on giving.

Once again, that’s okay.

But when you hear some of those RE agents (like, say…William Cline) pontificate in comments to Facebook posts about how “[a]ny development residential or commercial is a net positive for our community” (without and facts or explanation) and how “[o]ur codes need to shift with the needs of today’s society” (also without explanation), first do the math for each unit of these multi-family residences:

At a $16,000 cost per D-64 student, less 40% (D-64’s share) of total RE tax bill = there will be some amount of funding deficit for any residential unit with one kid in D-64 whose total RE tax bill is $40,000 or less. And every additional kid from that same unit in D-64 schools represents $16,000 of additional deficit.

For Cline and his fellow champions of higher-density residential who work on a commission basis, even a 3% commission on the sale of a $350,000 condo or townhouse means almost $12,000 of extra income – which more than covers any incremental RE tax increase they might incur from the extra students.

That doesn’t mean those brokers and developers haven’t earned their money. They have.

But it means we should all remember that it’s their pocketbooks talking the next time you hear one of them claim: “Any development residential or commercial is a net positive for our community” and that “[o]ur codes need to shift with the needs of today’s society and the public officials need to stop catering to the nimbys that have no clue how economic development works.”

And then ask to see their math.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Increasing Park District Fees: Are You F-Ing Kidding Us!?!?! – Part 2

11.14.17

Today we discuss the economics of Kathy (Panattoni) Meade’s “Are you F-ing Kidding Me” demands for low-cost – if not “free” – amenities (not “necessities”) from the Park Ridge Park District, such as  organized recreational and sports activities, assorted types of entertainment, and a variety of “classes,” “camps” and activities that effectively serve as low-cost babysitting for many parents.

But, first, we need to make sure everybody understands the basic premise underlying these Park District amenities: The Park District (like all other units of local government) has no money of its own.

There’s no “Lost Dutchman” gold mine under the Centennial Park sled hill, nor any vast Vatican-like real estate holdings in Downtown Chicago and Manhattan. The Park District gets its money from the taxpayers, either through RE taxes or user fees. And because the District’s share of our total annual RE tax bills is roughly 6%, if your total RE tax bill is $10,000 per year you’re paying a modest $600 to the District whether you use the facilities and programs or not.

We also need to make sure everybody understands the genesis of the Park District’s money problems, which occurred around 1992 when it dug itself a large financial hole by borrowing approximately $8 million – more than the District’s annual budget at the time – to build the Community Center (now the “Centennial Recreation Center”) without a referendum that would have permitted the District to specially tax the residents to cover the capital cost of that facility.

Why did those 1990-92 park board members – Garry Abezetian, Joyce Clark, Bob Hamilton, Dave Hilquist, Mike Rozovics, Roy Sues and Mary Hester Tone – authorize such a facility without a referendum?

For the same reason that the City Council in the early 2000s didn’t go to referendum for its borrowing of tens of millions of dollars to subsidize the Uptown Redevelopment project. And for the same reason the Park Board didn’t go to referendum in 2012 for its borrowing of over $7 million for the new Centennial water park:

They were afraid they would lose a referendum vote! And then they would have had to assume the political consequences if they chose to disregard that vote and do the project anyway.

So in 1992 the Park Board basically maxed out the District’s non-referendum bonding power to build whatever it could get for $8 million. And all it could get was a haphazardly designed and hastily built facility with (a) an indoor pool too short and too narrow for sanctioned swim meets, (b) two basketball courts instead of the needed four, (c) an equivalently-undersized running track, (d) an exercise room that the exercise classes outgrew within the first year, (e) a lobby providing no way to control or manage access and traffic, and (f) so many other flaws and deficiencies that in 2004 the regional manager of a national fitness chain – after thoroughly inspecting the facility – pronounced it unworthy of purchase by, or even a management contract for, that chain.

Worse yet, the Community Center debt service severely handicapped the District’s ability to maintain, repair and renovate its parks and other facilities, especially after Cook County voters (in 1995) approved RE tax caps that limited annual tax increases by the Park District to the lower of 5% or the increase in the CPI.

The District’s finances were so shaky that it began issuing short-term, non-referendum bonds to pay the Community Center’s long-term debt service. Think of it as using your VISA card to pay your mortgage – only without getting any miles or points.

Consequently, Hinkley Pool was allowed to fall into such disrepair that it was pronounced “unsafe” and closed for an entire summer until it could be rebuilt. Oakton and Centennial pools suffered similar neglect from a lack of funding.

At least 4 times between from 1995 and 2006 – in November 1995, in April 2005, in March 2006 and in November 2006 – the voters rejected referendums for new outdoor pools. That’s why the 2012 Park Board decided to build the new Centennial water park by doing exactly what the 1992 park board did with the Community Center: Max out the District’s non-referendum borrowing power without giving the taxpayers a vote.

In order to cope with the Community Center debt fiasco and the tax caps, however, the District was effectively forced to institute and/or increase user fees so that the facilities, classes, sports and recreational programs that could generate revenue would begin covering some of their own costs.

And, ‘lo and behold, it actually worked!

As we understand it, the Park District now generates almost 51% of its $20 million annual revenue through user fees. And a good chunk of the credit goes to Executive Director Gayle Mountcastle (whom we have excoriated at times for sins of both commission and omission) and those Park Board members who have supported and encouraged that user-fee strategy, including the current Board majority.

What’s wrong with paying for the amenities you use?

Plenty, if you’re a big-time user of the District’s pay-to-play facilities, classes and programs. Paying for what you and your family use is a stake through the heart of our local “freeloaders” who are constantly “looking to leverage maximum benefits for themselves, their families and their friends by shifting the costs of those benefits onto the backs of their fellow taxpayers.”

In the freeloader universe, the Park District is like a Club Med-style, all-inclusive resort where your property taxes entitle you to anything you want at no extra charge, or at a nominal upcharge. And if that means your usage is subsidized by your fellow taxpayers, so much the better! Hence the beefing about fee increases by uber-users like Kathy Meade, who believe they shouldn’t have to go to Niles, Des Plaines, Chicago, or other communities to get “affordable” facilities, classes and programs.

Why not?

We’ve always advocated for “value” in local governmental services, meaning that the quality and/or quantity of the facilities, services, programs or activities should meet or exceed their costs to the taxpayers and consumers. That being said, consumers should be able to get their value wherever they can find it.

So if Niles, Des Plaines, Chicago or other nearby communities can offer better facilities, classes and programs – or comparable ones at cheaper prices – than our Park District can, why not take advantage of those? If our residents think they can get a better deal on their amenities from other communities, they are actually doing our non-freeloading taxpayers a favor by consuming those other communities’ resources rather than our own.

Better yet, they can start patronizing PRIVATE facilities like FFC Park Ridge that actually pay RE taxes rather than consume them.

In an optimal situation the taxpayers could cover the cost of the District’s capital expenditures for the parks, playing fields and facilities, as well as routine maintenance and repairs. To the extent the costs of operating those parks, fields and facilities – e.g., the costs of combatting the wear and tear from organized and programmed usage – can be allocated to those organized and programmed users, they should be. And the entire, fully-loaded cost of programs, classes and activities should be charged to the users.

That way, Ms. Meade and her ilk can choose to send their kids to Taft High School’s “week long soccer camp for $60 for 5 days and 3-1/2 hours a day AND offer lunch and a t-shirt” (which might help explain why the Chicago Public Schools are bankrupt) while still paying her taxes to our Park District.

We call that a win-win for the taxpayers. And we encourage Ms. Mountcastle and the current Board majority to keep up the good work in that regard.

But, just for a reality check, maybe the Park Board could put a referendum question on the ballot that lets the taxpayers vote on whether they want to pay higher RE taxes so that the District’s facilities, classes, programs and activities can be all-inclusive without any user fees whatsoever.

Then those Park Board members could sit back and wait for a different kind of “Are you F-ing kidding us!?!?!” complaint – followed by the inevitable landslide of “No!” votes.

And another predictable whine from Ms. Meade.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Veterans Day 2017

11.11.17

Five years ago we printed a letter-to-the-editor penned by Park Ridge resident Joseph “Jay” Hirst back in 2007.  Mr. Hirst has updated it slightly and we thought it worthy of a revival this Veterans Day, especially because the events Mr. Hirst describes began 50 years ago today.

***

As Veterans Day approaches each year, it typically causes me to pause and consider my service in the Army, particularly my time in Vietnam. However, unlike previous Veterans Days, the approach of this date has caused me to spend significantly more time in contemplation than I normally have done in the past.

Moreover, I know why. For me, this Veterans Day represents a significant anniversary.

On November 11, 1967, elements of my unit (including me), Company N (November) of the 75th Rangers, was sent into the highlands to be attached to and to support the 173rd Airborne Brigade in securing a hill not quite 3,000 feet high (875 meters). What is so hard for me to believe sometimes is that what was three years out of high school back then for me is now 50 years ago.

For those next 12 days in 1967, Hill 875 became a battleground unlike any other in Vietnam as the 66th Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army – with its Chinese advisors – stood their ground and fought a battle of trenches and fortified bunkers more like World War I or II than Vietnam. The network of tunnels used by the NVA throughout the area made any semblance of a “front” frustratingly fluid.

With the 2/503d Battalion of the 173rd leading the way, we initiated the final push for the top of the hill on November 19th. Over the next 5 days the 173rd lost 279 of America’s finest souls killed in action while suffering over 900 wounded and a reported 33 MIA’s.

On the morning of Thanksgiving Day 1967, “The Hill” was finally taken in a cold steady monsoonal downpour made worse by the devastated terrain, the despair over the losses experienced, and just plain pure exhaustion. Thanksgiving dinner that last day was one of the most miserable meals I ever ate. And every Thanksgiving since – I remember that day with a chilling reminder I may not have had that meal or any since.

I was alive, in large part because of the heroism of Carlos Lozada. Carlos, despite being out-manned and out-flanked, was able to maintain a rate of machine gun fire that disrupted an attack of superior forces set to overrun our sector, enabling the rest of us to withdraw with five of our severely wounded. The attack had broken off when “Moose” and I went back up the slope the last time, where Carlos was found mortally wounded.

Despite the Medic’s best efforts, Carlos died before he could be medi-vac’ed. PFC Carlos Lozada was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day, a richly deserved honor. I wish I could say that I knew Carlos well and for a longer period, but in truth I knew him barely more than a week. He came across as an ordinary Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx who ultimately made an extraordinary and selfless sacrifice. And because of the extraordinary acts of this ordinary man, today – 50 years later – I still am able to say how proud I am to have even briefly served with him.

50 years is a long time and the Vietnam of then is now a long way away; yet – there are times, when I close my eyes in reflection, those events play out in my mind like they happened but a moment ago.

I think I am like most other veterans, with their own tales to tell and their own memories to share or keep to themselves as they choose. Like most other veterans, I must admit that some of those memories are painful, some droll, some happy and others melancholy. That is why I personally think the Canadian’s calling their 11th of November “A Day of Remembrance” is so appropriate.

On the 11th of this month, Veterans Day, if you are related to a veteran, know a veteran, or even see a veteran, please take a moment from your busy life and thank them for their service to our country.

Some of these veterans are still kids, freshly home from the Afghanistan, while others of us served a long time ago. And a quickly diminishing few brave souls from WWII and Korea; even longer ago. They all richly deserve credit for what they did, are doing, and will continue to do so Americans like you and I – our children and grandchildren – can have the opportunity to do what we do and be what we are.

However, if you do not happen to know or see a “Vet”, I offer an alternative – pause for a moment to reflect on PFC Carlos Lozada’s ultimate sacrifice for his unit and the “troopers” of a very proud Brigade.

To all my fellow “Vets” – Thank you for your service and your personal investment in what makes this country so unique in this world.

Jay Hirst

Increasing Park District Fees: Are You F-Ing Kidding Us!?!?! – Part 1

11.07.17

A recent Park Ridge Herald-Advocate article (“Park District budget calls for increases in cost for pool passes and camps – but no tax hike,” Oct. 25) seemed innocuous enough, reporting on recently-announced budget proposals for consideration by Park Ridge Park District Board members Cindy Grau, Harmony Harrington, Jim Janak, Rob Leach, Jim O’Brien, Jim O’Donnell and Mel Thillens.

But that article and the proposed user-fee increases caused such a firestorm of discussion on the Park Ridge Concerned Homeowners Group FB page that the page’s resident dominatrix, Kathy Meade (f/k/a “Kathy Panattoni Meade”), shut down all comments on the entire site “until further notice” because of a “spiral of cruelty.”

Ironically (or maybe not), Meade’s command decision appears to have been made less than 36 hours after she herself kicked off that “spiral of cruelty” with a class warfare mini-rant about the fee increases proposed or endorsed by those “many…park board members” who live in “million dollar home[s]” – which she began with the staid and demure:

“ARE YOU F-ING KIDDING ME!?!?!”

For those of you who, like this editor and several others, have been blocked by Meade from reading her posts and her comments because of offenses real and imagined, you can read that entire string by clicking HERE, thanks to one of our unblocked Watchdog “stringers.”

If you do, you can read on the very first page her beefs about visiting the District’s outdoor pools at “$40 for a family of 5…[to] sit in direct sun on the hot concrete”; and about “$80+ for a basketball skills class” with “15 kids…[o]ne instructor…[n]o materials.”

She pines for when “Day Camp used to be $300” (Page 32) and snarls about “the $200 basketball class and $300 drum lessons” (Page 26), and lifeguards “watching hundreds of kids for $8.25 an hour” (Page 8) – whom she wants to be paid $15 an hour (Page 28) without any clue of how to cover that 45% cost increase, other than to stick the taxpayers with it because the pools are too expensive for her already.

She did a lot of the same stuff a couple of years ago when the H-A ran an article about the Park District raising its user fees. We wrote about her entitlement mentality and her opposition to increased Park District fees in our October 21, 2015 post – which we encourage you to read so that we don’t have to repeat all those same arguments here, including our 31-word description of the kind of person for whom we use the shorthand term: “Freeloader.”

After Meade shut down comments on her post because of what she claimed was “bullying” (i.e., the assertion of points of view contrary to hers that she can’t refute other than by accusations of sexism, ageism, elitism, avariciousness, shaming, bullying, etc.) the discussion shifted to the Park Ridge Illinois Citizens Online FB page, where it raged on – apparently without Meade’s participation – until the whole string mysteriously vanished without a trace.

That’s Facebook for you. As cutting as a ginsu but as lasting as the blink of an eye.

We’re not sure who pulled the plug on that particular string of Citizens Online history but, fortunately, another one of our Watchdog “stringers” downloaded it before it was deleted; and you can read it by clicking HERE.

George Orwell warned about this kind of thing in “1984”:

“As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of the Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead. This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs-to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date….All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place.”

Not “fake news” but “fake history.” Even worse.

If not for the foresight and effort of our “stringer,” those 20-pages of Citizens Online post and comments about Meade’s “time-out” style of censorship would be lost to the ages and, for all intents and purposes, would never have existed at all.

For the record, NO PublicWatchdog post ever has been deleted. And the only comments that were not published (about a dozen over the past 10 years of this blog’s regular publication) were: (a) anonymous ones, (b) containing “personal” attacks about individuals, (c) that could not be verified as true, (d) were borderline (or more) libelous, and (e) were unrelated to the “public” lives and/or activities of their subjects.

But while this Facebook folly runs the gamut from troubling to entertaining to just plain silly, it’s merely the back story for the real issue: “How much of the cost for using Park District amenities should be borne by the users instead of the taxpayers?”

We’ll discuss who is “F-ING KIDDING”  whom on that issue in our next post.

To read or post comments, click on title.

A New “Water Problem” For Park Ridge

10.27.17

Park Ridge has a water problem, but not the one you’re thinking of.

Most residents are aware of the flooding problem. A recent report by the City’s water management consultant is estimating that remediating that problem at a 100-year storm level will cost upwards of $100 Million, not counting millions more in debt service. As we wrote in our 10.19.17 post, now the Council needs to move that plan forward to referendum so that the voters can weigh in on the relative costs-benefits.

But the first two parts of a multi-part series in the Chicago Tribune describe our other water problem: Somewhat pricey water and an aged drinking water infrastructure that may be leaking like a sieve.

According to the first Trib article (“Same Lake, Unequal rates,” Oct. 25), a Park Ridge household using 5,000 gallons a month pays $44.67 – higher than 81 of the 162 communities surveyed, including arguably comparable communities like Glenview ($34.97), Northbrook ($25.00) and Northfield ($36.34), but lower than Elmhurst ($53.26). The Trib article also points out that our water costs have increased 43% since 2013, when that cost was only $31.27.

But the more troubling information is contained in the second Trib article (“Billions lost, millions wasted,” Oct. 26) and relates to our water infrastructure.

Based on 2016 data (presumably, the most recent available), Park Ridge is losing 18.54% of its drinking water because of leaking pipes and/or water main breaks. That’s 50% higher than the state’s 12% acceptable loss standard.

The reason?

As of 2014, a whopping 61% of our 147 miles of water mains and pipes – almost 90 miles of it – was over 61 years old. And another 15% was between 41 and 60 years old.

If that’s true, we may be looking at the results of decades of water infrastructure incompetence, neglect and obfuscation. And as is too often the case with most government incompetence, neglect and obfuscation, 99% of the public officials responsible for this situation over those decades – elected, appointed and employed – are long gone from City government and, if questioned about their stewardships, will have no clear recollection of what, if anything, was discussed, not discussed, done, not done, and why/why not.

While we expect that some folks will whine about this kind of finger-pointing, Santayana correctly noted that: “’Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And repeating past mistakes is one of government’s few specialties, albeit an expensive proposition.

But the real significance of these water infrastructure shortcomings may be in relation to the planned flood remediation plan.

As it has been described, the flood remediation plan will involve opening up sizable portions of many City streets under which the sewers run in tandem with…you guessed it…water mains and supply pipes. So if those streets are going to have to be opened up for sewer work, it would seem an opportune time to also replace those old (and undersized?) mains and pipes.

Consistent with our favorite “measure twice, cut once” philosophy, opening up the streets once to correct two water-related problems would appear to be the smart approach.

That will add many additional millions of dollars, and debt service, to the cost of the flood remediation. And that might make a referendum a tougher sell – although the City Council might be able to address that problem by having two referendum questions: One for the sewer project, the second for the water infrastructure improvements.

Whatever the Council decides to do, however, needs to be done sooner rather than later.

The Council needs to get its hands around this water infrastructure problem ASAP and figure out how and how it can be done and at what cost in time to put that referendum question on the November 2018 ballot along with the flood remediation plan.

If the water problem, like the flooding problem, truly is the product of decades of neglect, then it is well past time to call the question so that the taxpayers can weigh in on both of those problems in the most meaningful way our society permits: At the ballot box.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Mayor Maloney Joins Mayor Dave With His First Veto

10.24.17

Mayor Dave Schmidt exercised his first veto of City Council action in June 2009, little more than a month after being sworn in as mayor. At that time, nobody knew whether any previous Park Ridge mayor had ever vetoed City Council action.

And as of today, that remains the case.

But although it took Mayor Marty Maloney almost six months to find a Council action worth vetoing, last Monday (October 16) night he boldly went where only Schmidt had gone before: He vetoed the Council’s October 2, 2017 endorsement – by a vote of 4 (Alds. Joyce, Milissis, Wilkening and Shubert) to 3 (Alds. Moran, Melidosian and Mazzuca) – of a major variance from the City’s sign ordinance that would permit a new sign to be erected in front of the BP gas station at 1220 West Touhy Avenue that is more than double the size the sign ordinance allows.

That variance previously had been approved by the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals (the “ZBA”) at its August 24, 2017 meeting by a 4 (members Garrick Bunting, Rebecca Leslie, Linda Nagle and Steve Schilling) to 2 (Atul Karkhanis and Missy Langan) majority for reasons that are hardly clear from reading the meeting minutes.

The BP station sought the variance on the basis that forcing it to comply with the current sign ordinance that permits pole signs of “only” 32 square feet would leave it at a competitive disadvantage with the 91 square foot sign for the Shell station immediately east of it and with the 70 square foot sign in front of the Thornton’s station a half-block further east.

As we understand it, because both the Shell sign and the Thornton’s sign were in place before the ordinance reducing signage size was enacted, those other two signs were “grandfathered” as an exception to the size restriction. That’s pretty much the accepted practice when new ordinances of this type are enacted.

But that doesn’t explain why BP deserved a variance permitting it to erect a new sign of 70 square feet – more than double what the current sign ordinance allows. And, interestingly enough, ZBA member Missy Langan appeared before the Council to request that the ZBA’s action be disregarded.

Unfortunately, the only arguments made in support of the variance by the aldermen tended toward: (a) the ZBA has recommended it; and (b) it’s a reasonable accommodation for a local business.

As Maloney’s veto message points out, the general principle behind permitting existing non-conforming uses and structures – like the Shell and Thornton’s signs – to remain after ordinances are enacted or revised is the expectation that those newly-proscribed uses and structures will eventually come into compliance through the passage of time, wear & tear, and other such factors. Permitting new non-conforming uses and structures, therefore, not only makes a mockery of the new/revised ordinance but, also, effectively creates an “arms race of sign size and non-conforming use,” according to Maloney.

Exactly right, Mr. Mayor.

We have consistently argued that laws should either be enforced or eliminated. We also have consistently stated that City ordinances – especially zoning and sign codes – are not mere suggestions to be followed only if convenient, or if the wind is blowing a certain way. The ZBA members should know that. If they don’t, it’s up to the Council members to remind them of it rather than jump on the runaway ZBA bandwagon as it leaves the reservation.

Maloney’s first veto is a big step in defining the new mayor’s philosophy of City government now that he has a mayoralty of his own rather than being the good and faithful custodian of the last two years of “Mayor Dave’s” term. Fortunately for Park Ridge taxpayers, his use of the mayoral veto to try to correct a perceived wrong is right out of the “Mayor Dave” H.I.T.A. playbook.

On that basis alone this glass is more than half-full.

Now let’s see if the Council can fill up the rest of it by sustaining Maloney’s veto on November 6.

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Burke’s $106 Million Flood Control Plan Means Time For City Council To Make Decisions

10.19.17

We’ve always liked the motto of the Public Television show “This Old House”: “Measure twice, cut once.”

That tends to be good advice in most situations, and especially good advice when it comes to the operation of government: The expenditures of substantial sums of taxpayer money and/or the undertaking of substantial amounts of public debt for some project or program.

Fortunately for Park Ridge taxpayers, the Park Ridge City Council, so far, has taken that approach when it comes to the City’s adoption of proposals for addressing the City’s flooding problems. Because of the grand scope of the flooding problems and, therefore, the cost of the projects that will be needed to solve those problems, measuring twice – or even three and four times – is the prudent thing to do.

At the Council’s September 11, 2017 Public Works Committee of the Whole (“COW”) meeting, Christopher B. Burke Engineering presented its most comprehensive flooding remediation plan to date, intended to address flooding in 13 areas of Park Ridge. The price tag: $106 million for what Burke is claiming will provide 100-year protection, even in those semi-disaster areas like Mayfield Estates and the basin just west of the Park Ridge Country Club between Oakton on the north and the METRA tracks on the south.

Just so there’s no misunderstanding: That $106 million doesn’t include the additional $10-20 million of potential debt service costs for the bonds that likely will be needed to fund this mega-project, depending on the amount and the duration of those bonds.

Flood remediation has been the 500 lb. gorilla, and a political football, in Park Ridge for decades. For most of the 1990s and ear ly-2000s our City politicians and bureaucrats not only did nothing to remediate it but, in many instances, they took a variety of actions that actually exacerbated the problems – including diverting the funds budgeted annually for relief sewers (to hold stormwater) to other more popular pursuits and pet projects.

Only after the election of mayor Dave Schmidt in April 2009 did the City begin to get serious about flooding, forming the Flood Control Task Force chaired by former public works director Joe Saccamano and comprised of residents like Gail Fabisch and Bob Mack, both of whom are career professionals in dealing with water management and flooding.

In connection with the task force’s efforts the City made Burke Engineering its flooding consultant of choice. Based on studies and recommendations by Burke, the City began some of the more inexpensive remediation projects – the low-hanging fruit – while working toward a more comprehensive and more expensive global plan, which is what Burke appears to have come back with last month.

Burke’s power-point presentation is posted on the City’s website and can be found here. And it prescribes the 100-year protection that should be the goal of any such project.

Such a comprehensive plan will not be able to be accomplished in a year or even two. It also cannot be accomplished by the City unilaterally because it will require the cooperation of the Park Ridge Park District for the detention area recommended for Northwest Park, and of the Park Ridge Country Club for the construction of the underground vault on the east side of Greenwood that will run pretty much the full length of the 3d hole, and that appears crucial to flood control in that area.

The cost of these projects will impose a substantial burden on the City’s taxpayers for years to come, no matter how successful the City’s storm water utility proves to be.

That’s why we think that NOW is the time for the Council to start taking the action necessary to determining whether there is sufficient taxpayer support to move forward with the projects contained in the Burke plan. And that should involve a referendum – the 10-letter word that terrifies and infuriates those public officials, elected and appointed, who distrust the taxpayers/voters, and/or who think those taxpayers/voters are incompetent to express their opinions about projects such as this through the ballot box.

At least two, if not three or four, current aldermen are known to have opined that elected public officials – such as themselves, of course – are elected to make these kinds of decisions, without needing no stinking referendums. And should they want any taxpayer advice, they can easily get it by talking to their constituents , a la former 3d-Ward alderman Don Bach, who once voted to give Napleton Cadillac up to $2.4 million of taxpayer money, even though he was against the idea, because he had talked to “about 30 people” in his ward who thought it was a good idea.

But make no mistake about it: NO current mayor or alderman has EVER run for the offices they currently hold on the promise that they would support the taxing, borrowing and/or spending more than $100 million on flood remediation/prevention. That means none of their voters elected them to do that.

We’ve got two elections coming up in 2018 that would be suitable for such a referendum: The primaries in March 2018 and, even better, the general election in November 2018. Both the primary and the general election regularly produce a significantly larger voter turnout than our odd-year local elections and, therefore, would be the better vehicle for measuring public support for any $100 million-plus expenditure and/or indebtedness.

Because referendum questions have to be submitted months ahead of the actual elections, however, the deadline for the Council to put a flood remediation question on the March 20, 2018 primary ballot is January 1, 2018. That might be cutting it too close, thereby making the August 20, 2018 deadline for putting one or more referendum questions on the November ballot more reasonable.

We would hope Mayor Maloney and a majority of the current Council will voice their support for a referendum on such an important issue, and do so sooner rather than later.

Unless, of course, they want to play Springfield-style politics and kick the flood control can far enough down the road that it rolls past the April 2019 City elections – when the terms of Aldermen Moran (1st), Wilkening (3d), Melidosian (5th) and Joyce (7th) will be expiring. That way, should they choose to run, neither they nor their challengers would have to handle any potentially difficult questions that might arise from the results – up or down – of a November 2018 referendum.

Hope springs eternal, however, so we’re willing to make a modest wager that the Council will move forward on the Burke plan so that one or more appropriate referendum questions will find their way to the November 2018 ballot.

But if they don’t, every homeowner in Park Ridge who has flooding problems should be demanding to know why not.

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City Getting More Into The “Business” Of The Farmers Market

10.10.17

We dislike public-private ventures where governmental bodies and private businesses combine in what should be purely private enterprises.

The reasons?

First, because those types of arrangements rarely are essential functions of governmental bodies. Second, the private-sector business people who look for such fusion opportunities tend to be a lot slicker negotiators than their public-sector counterparts. And third, even when the public officials aren’t being out-negotiated, they often end up carrying the water for some special interest or other, usually resulting in a windfall of tax dollars and no accountability.

We’ve seen that happen with boondoggles like the Economic Development Corporation, the Facade Improvement Program, the Uptown Redevelopment project and annual giveaways of taxpayer cash to private non-profit corporations like Taste of Park Ridge (“TOPR”), the Center of Concern, Meals On Wheels, and other such community organizations that went on for years with no thought whatsoever of demanding accountability for that money.

Today’s boondoggle du jour is the Farmers Market, which reportedly has been a favored special interest since the days of mayor Marty Butler.

Why did the City get into the Farmers Market business in the first place, and what was the City supposed to get out of it? Nobody seems to know. And looking back at the bare-bones council meeting minutes from 2006, when the Market’s section of the City Code was last amended, it’s virtually impossible to say.

As noted in the City Attorney’s memo dated August 10, 2017, the running of the Market has apparently been so ignored by the City that:

* the Market “has operated outside the regular budget and procurement process…”;

* the Market “has not broken even…” thereby requiring “the City to underwrite some expenses with taxpayer dollars (e.g., AT&T parking lot lease)”; and

* “despite…selling out its vendor permits for each of the last several years, the cost charged for a permit has not been enough to cover the Market’s expense, “ which has dinged Park Ridge taxpayers for about $3,000 each year.

Why, then, did Alds. John Moran (1st), Gail Wilkening (3d), Charlie Melidosian (5th), Marc Mazzuca (6th) and Marty Joyce (7th) vote to amend the Farmers Market Ordinance (Article 12, Chapter 7 of the City Code) at the Council’s October 2 meeting instead of deferring that action and re-visiting whether the Market should have a place in the City Code at all?

According to Mazzuca at the September 25, 2017 COW meeting, the Market is “tradition” and “is in our Code.”

Our Code also has provisions for “Sexually-Oriented Businesses,” “Garage or Yard Sales” and “Valet Parking Businesses,” but we’re not aware of any of those getting City subsidies or their own City committee.

Don’t get us wrong: We like the Farmers Market. This editor is there almost every Saturday, rain or shine. But that doesn’t justify the Council’s treating it like a favored child, or tying it even more closely to the City than it has been up to now.

It’s not like Park Ridge residents live in one of those food “deserts” characteristic of the poverty-ridden neighborhoods of Chicago, where the Market is our only source of fresh produce, meat, bakery, flowers, dog treats, giardiniera, and all the other things sold there. We’ve got our choice of Whole Foods, Mariano’s, Jewel and Trader Joe’s within our own City boundaries, along with a Jerry’s just over the northeast border in Niles, and a Tony’s on Greenwood just a block north of Dempster.

By subsidizing the Farmers Market even nominally (to the tune of $2,000 or so per year) the City is effectively subsidizing private businesses – most of them not based in Park Ridge or run by Park Ridge residents – who actually are competing against those aforementioned taxpaying grocery stores, and some of our smaller businesses like Dolcetti Patisserie & Café.

According to an October 3, 2017 article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Elected officials to have say over Park Ridge Farmers Market volunteer committee”), rental fees for Farmers Market vendors were finally raised this year to a whopping $14 per Saturday, or $3.50 per hour for each of the four hours it’s open. That’s chump change, although it probably explains why the Market keeps getting more vendors while increasing its City subsidies – and why the H-A reports that Farmers Market co-chair Jay Crowley wants the City Council “to explore paying someone to [run the Market].”

Gee, did anybody else see that coming?

2d Ward Ald. Nick Milissis was spot-on in calling for a review of the Farmers Market ordinance and wondering why the City appears to be getting even more involved in what should be “a private initiative” like TOPR: A private, non-profit corporation that is permitted to use City property – a portion of Summit Avenue and the “Triangle” and “Library” parking lots – but which in all other respects is treated as an entity separate and apart from the City that pays the City for the police, fire and public works services it uses.

Milissis and Ald. Roger Shubert (4th) were the only two aldermen voting against the amendment and suggesting that the entire concept behind the Farmers Market Ordinance should be re-visited.

We don’t see that happening with a Council that finds “tradition” and “it’s in our Code” handy excuses for avoiding serious policy discussions and continuing to subsidize non-essential services that aren’t being run in a self-sufficient manner, yet will continue to be run by the same people.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Biagi Invites Censure, Gets No Takers

10.05.17

At the Park Ridge City Council meeting on March 3, 2008, then-Park Ridge mayor Howard Frimark took the unprecedented step of “condemning” then-1st Ward ald. Dave Schmidt for publicly disclosing the contents of two memos about topics discussed in closed session that should have been discussed in open session.

Since history tends to repeat itself, you might want to read about that buffoonery – which led to Schmidt’s adoption of “H.I.T.A.” (Honesty, Integrity, Transparency and Accountability) as the centerpiece of his successful 2009 mayoral campaign – in our posts of March 5, 2008 and March 19, 2008.

We were reminded of Frimark’s condemnation of Schmidt as we watched the video (from the 2:51:20 mark continuing through the 3:16:33 mark) of the Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 School Board’s September 25, 2017 meeting at which president Tony “Who’s The Boss?” Borrelli ripped into Board vice-president Rick Biagi for the latter’s response to our 09.18.17 post – which we published in our 09.21.17 post and which Biagi also posted on his own D-64 Facebook page in response to e-mails he claims to have received from other constituents.

Borrelli branded Biagi’s response “malicious and disrespectful…self-aggrandizement,” and took particular issue with Biagi’s reference to “the Borrelli Doctrine” used by “a blogger” – presumably this blog’s editor, who used that term to describe Borrelli’s philosophy of government revealed by his own words: “We have to trust Dr. Heinz that she is being fiscally careful with our money.”

Wasn’t that the philosophy of the Lincoln-Way High School District 210 school board prior to the indictment of former supt. Larry Wyllie for wire fraud and embezzlement?

SIDEBAR: We’re not suggesting D-64 Supt. Laurie “I’m The Boss!” Heinz is committing any indictable acts. But any elected steward of a unit of government and the taxpayers’ money, such as Borrelli, has his head in the sand – or in another warm dark place – if he simply trusts but does not verify.

Instead of waiting for Borrelli to propose some action against him, however, Biagi went on the offensive and pointedly invited Borrelli and the rest of the Board to censure him if they disapproved of his explanation of his vote, or of his blogging/Facebooking in general.

Borrelli immediately started backpeddling, and kept backpeddling even after Biagi read his entire response into the record for the benefit of Board member Larry Ryles, who was not aware of it.

Not only did no Board member accept Biagi’s censure invitation, but Ryles noted how “very eloquent” Biagi’s explanation was. Ryles also questioned why Borrelli was so offended by the term “Borrelli Doctrine,” given that Ryles had heard it back when he was campaigning for the Board prior to last April’s election.

We thought we had coined that term, but we’ll offer a Watchdog bark-out to whoever beat us to it – if only because Borrelli needs to be held accountable for his six years of: (a) perpetuating D-64’s Star Chamber proceedings; (b) two negotiated-in-secret PREA contracts providing non merit-based raises exceeding the CPI; (c) three negotiated-in-secret extensions of Heinz’s contract, with raises; and (d) in-house rave reviews of D-64 schools even as they remain MIA from virtually every Top 100 rating/ranking of Chicago-area public elementary/middle schools, and even as the rating/ranking of Maine South – populated substantially by D-64 graduates – continues to slide.

But we digress.

We still believe Biagi and the rest of the D-64 Board effectively rewarded Heinz and finance czarina Luann Kolstad for their typical intransigence and lack of transparency – in this instance, by almost two months of failing to provide data to support those administrator raises despite Biagi’s admittedly throwing a “public tantrum” and having “pitched a fit over three separate board meetings” about such a lack of data.

Transparency is not something over which elected officials should have to bargain with highly-paid administrators: It should be expected as the sine qua non of any issue those administrators bring before those officials. And if it isn’t provided it should be demanded – with the clear message that, if it has to be demanded again, somebody will need to update their resume.

That being said, however, Biagi has shown once again that in less than six months on the D-64 Board he has caused more transparency and accountability than President “Who’s The Boss?” has mustered in his six years there.

Whether Biagi can build a consistent majority of allies (or followers) on that Board remains to be seen. We also are mindful of how service on our two local school boards has the uncanny ability to turn even ostensibly well-meaning reformers into zombie-like pawns of the teachers’ unions, domineering administrators, and an established network of consultants and vendors whose manipulation tactics seem positively K Street’s.

But if D-64 is going to turn around and start providing top-shelf educational quality and achievement for the top-shelf money it spends, it will need the H.I.T.A. of Rick Biagi.

And a few more like him.

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