Public Watchdog.org

D-64 Has Rodeo, Needs Goats

01.25.15

How many of you know about or remember Park Ridge-Niles School District 64’s current “five-year plan” – “A Journey of Excellence” – to accelerate the use of technology from 2010 to 2015? If you don’t, there’s no need to get your undies in a bunch, because it is expiring this year.

We’ve written about “A Journey of Excellence” and what appears to be its lack of meaningful academic achievement in the past, including in our 05.15.09, 09.16.09, 06.06.11, 09.08.14 and 09.18.14 posts.  We’ve noted how D-64 keeps getting away with spending hundreds of millions of our tax dollars doing what legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden always discouraged with the warning “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.”

But if you have a perverse fascination for trying to figure out how D-64 keeps getting away with it, you might actually enjoy D-64’s website history of the expiring “Journey” – starting with the “4-page PDF list including Action Plans” (with its page 2 commitment that “Student performance on the…(ISATs) will always compare favorably with other high-achieving districts”) and the colorful “Strategic Plan Implementation Schedule 2012-13″.

Not surprisingly, we couldn’t find any reports, presentations, news releases, or any other form of communication on that “Strategic Plan” webpage – the latest of which is dated April 22, 2013 – that actually shows, or even talks about, how D-64’s ISATs “compare favorably with other high-achieving districts.” In fact, we Googled for a solid 20 minutes and could not come up with one instance of D-64’s Board or administration providing any objective and/or numerical comparisons of D-64 ISATs that demonstrate favorable comparisons with other “high-achieving districts.”

That’s because D-64 has learned that dangling the carrot of increased achievement is a great marketing tool for convincing wishful parents and gullible taxpayers that there really are silver bullets for achieving academic excellence; and that D-64 has come up with them through its latest five-year plan. And once that convincing has occurred, making sure those parents and taxpayers don’t realize they’ve been snookered is the key to D-64’s ability to dangle another carrot in front of them five years later.

Which is what it’s doing with the announcement that it is forming a 30-35 member “Strategic Planning Steering Committee” to help the District create a new five-year plan that will “identify the most important challenges District 64 will need to address in the next five years, and how the District might go about planning for those challenges,” according to Supt. Laurie Heinz.

For those of you who have been through these goat rodeos before, you won’t be surprised to read such cliches as “community-driven strategic planning process” that will involve “a wide range of community stakeholders” and allow “all stakeholders…to contribute their ideas and vision” by…wait for it…”completing a survey or participating in a focus group.”

What would one of these rodeos be without stakeholders, surveys and focus groups?

And just for good measure, the committee “will be guided by a highly experienced, outside facilitator” who will be paid a sizable chunk of our tax dollars to make sure all the goats get herded in exactly the direction the D-64 administration and the Park Ridge Education Association (“PREA,” a/k/a the teachers union) want them to go.

It won’t be as impressive as John Wayne surveying a herd of steers and saying “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt,” but it’s likely to be as close as you’re going to get with goats and government.

At the risk (albeit a minute one) of taking away all the fun, expense and faux suspense of this strategic planning goat rodeo, however, we offer the following “challenges” D-64 will need to address within the next five years:

1.  Improving the quality of D-64 education so that student performance and other measurable values actually provide a formidable incentive to our higher-achieving and more demanding current residents to stay here rather than to emigrate to Glenview, Northbrook, Northfield, Wilmette, etc. for their better-scoring school districts; and a formidable incentive for such achieving/demanding non-residents to relocate to Park Ridge instead of to Glenview, Northbrook, et al.

2.  Negotiating a taxpayer-focused collective bargaining agreement with the PREA in 2016 that ends automatic annual raises to teachers for no improved student performance. During the five years of “A Journey of Excellence,” base teacher salaries have increased a total of 11% (not counting “step” and “lane” increases, or any “spikes” for soon-to-retire teachers in order to juice-up pensions) while student achievement based on ISATs appears to have been flat or declined in comparison to “high-achieving districts.”

3.  Convincing folks whose kids have finished using D-64 (and D-207) education that such education will continue to improve and provide an increasing cost-benefit value that will ensure continued appreciation of their home value, thereby discouraging the economic death spiral of current/imminent net-payers selling their homes to current/imminent net-users – the former of whom pay roughly $4,000 of RE taxes to D-64 while the latter of whom pay that same $4,000 but take out $14,000 per kid of “free” education.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for D-64’s Board, administration, or any “highly experienced outside facilitator” to focus on these kinds of “challenges.” They’ll be too busy trying to herd the goats into the pen they’ve already chosen for the next five years.

Just as soon as they declare the most recent five-year plan a shining success simply because it put an iPad or Chromebook in every kid’s hands.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Council COW Refuses To Be Stampeded, Saves Taxpayers $1.167 Million

01.19.15

The Park Ridge City Council made a wise decision last Monday night at its Committee of the Whole (“COW”) meeting when it reached a 5-1 consensus not to proceed with $1.167 million worth of engineering work in furtherance of a $48 million flood relief project for the west-of-the-Country Club area.

The $48 million project, if built, would include 19,000 feet of new storm sewers and a whopping 32 acre-feet of water storage, most of which would likely require a massive vault under part of the Park Ridge Country Club. But despite the size and cost of the project, it would only provide protection from 10-year floods and not from the 100-year floods that have plagued Park Ridge in recent years.

From a cost-effective public works perspective it was a pretty easy decision.

Heck, even the folks from Christopher Burke Engineering – who could have pocketed that $1.167 million fee with no concerns for whether or not the $48 million project would ever be constructed – acknowledged it would cost way too much for way too little real protection.

But political considerations tend to exert a lot of influence on these kinds of decisions, especially when special-interest groups make their presence felt.  And that was the realm in which 5 of the 6 aldermen in attendance stood tallest last Monday night.

Led by Public Works chairman Ald. Marty Maloney (7th Ward), Alds. Nick Milissis (2nd), Roger Shubert (4th), Dan Knight (5th) and Marc Mazzuca (6th) voted not to waste the $1.167 million on plans that would likely sit on a shelf gathering dust. Only lame-duck Ald. Jim Smith (3rd) voted to move forward with the project, claiming doing otherwise was just kicking the can down the road.

Not unexpectedly, however, that decision was greeted with derision from folks in the affected area who don’t seem to understand, or just don’t want to accept, how any elected official might object to spending multimillions of tax dollars to protect one relatively small section of Park Ridge (680 homes out of over 13,000 residences, or less than 6%) against 10-year floods when 100-year flooding is becoming the norm. And when 100-year flood protection in other areas is available for significantly less money.

If you visit the Park Ridge Concerned Homeowners Group (“PRCHG”) Facebook page you can read read how last Monday night’s meeting was “a disgrace” and a “charade” in which the Burke representative “appeared to be in cahoots with members of the City Council.”

While there’s a possibility that some of the City’s Public Works personnel may have gotten a tad too cozy with the Burke folks, that’s always the danger when any City department works closely with one consultant for awhile. But it’s hard to argue for Burke’s being in cahoots with the entire City Council when that “cahoots” involves Burke walking away from a million-dollar piece of business.

The PRCHG folks also seem to be talking through their collective hats when suggesting that the City should be exercising its right of eminent domain to force the Park Ridge Country Club to accommodate whatever flood relief the City wants to construct on PRCC property. ED would require the City to purchase the necessary land from the PRCC – at fair market value – for construction of the water detention vault. The additional millions of dollars that would entail should make ED a non-starter.

And their complaints about the City permitting the construction of McMansions beg the question of where were all those complaints over the past 10 years or more when some (many?) of the current complainers were happily watching their own property values go up as a result of a McMansion or two being built on their blocks? And where were they over the past 15 years when previous City administrations were budgeting several hundred thousand dollars each year for the construction of relief (storm) sewers but then deferring those projects when they decided to divert that money elsewhere?

One complaint raised in the PRCHG discussion by commentators Christopher Kueppers and Thomas Sotos, however, is a good one – one that we raised in our 10.02.14 post about the controversial O’Flaherty project on Talcott: the wisdom of a “fee-in-lieu” of providing sufficient water detention.

We can see no evidence that such a fee is sufficient to effectively ameliorate the adverse effects of new developments to which it is applied. Additionally, according to an August 23, 2013 Memorandum from City Engineer Sarah Mitchell, that fee is used “for future sewer improvement projects” – so not only might it not be implemented as soon as the applicable fee-in-lieu property comes on line but, also, that fee might not even be restricted to that particular fee-in-lieu property or block.

That doesn’t sound like the best plan for dealing with a flood-prone community. But those are different issues for another day.

At least for the time being this Council has made sure that $1.167 million of taxpayer money won’t be wasted on a project that won’t do the job needed to be done.

To read or post comments, click on title. 

Park Commissioner Argues For “Nanny” Treatment For Candidates

01.13.15

Given all the mopes and scoundrels in Springfield – both Democrats and Republicans – who have combined to virtually bankrupt our state government over the past 30 years, it should come as no surprise that the Election Code they devised is far from a model of clarity and convenience.

But many other laws don’t meet that standard, either, which is why there is a continuing need for lawyers and courts. That’s also why the State Board of Elections publishes a pretty comprehensive candidate’s guide each election year.

The 94-page “Candidate’s Guide 2015″ seems to contain all the information a competent candidate would need, even though it boldly warns in the Preface:

Legal information contained in this guide, however, is not binding and should not be construed as sufficient argument in response to an objection to any candidate’s nominating papers. The State Board of Elections recommends that all prospective candidates consult with competent legal counsel when preparing their nomination papers. [Emphasis added.]

And if that’s not warning enough, the very first point under the General Filing Requirements section of the Guide reiterates:

Candidates are strongly advised to obtain legal counsel regarding their qualifications for office, the proper method for completing the petition forms for a specific office, the minimum and maximum number of signatures required, the qualifications of the signers and circulators, etc. [Emphasis added.]

So why (according to a January 10, 2015 article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate, “Park District should be more helpful to candidates: commissioner”) does Park District Commissioner Joan Bende think “[t]he average citizen should not have to go to election lawyers and pay money to figure out how to do this”?

We’ve always assumed the “average citizen” can read the petition requirements and understand them well enough to file his/her petitions, often without consulting “competent legal counsel.” Thousands of candidates in Crook County alone have successfully done so in recent elections, so it really can’t be that darn tough or expensive. But, then again, those “average citizens” also must accept the consequences that flow from their decision to do it themselves if someone decides to object to their petitions, as occurred with the Park Board candidacy of Cynthia Grau.

Accepting consequences and accountability was not in Bende’s tool box at last Thursday (01.08.15) night’s Park Board meeting, however, as you can see for yourself by going to the Park District’s meeting video, starting at the 1:23:40 mark.

Bende spent several minutes bemoaning the “crisis” presented by an objection to the petitions of her friend Grau, who was in the audience. Bende also ripped on the Park District and its long-time attorney, Thomas Hoffman, for not making it the District’s obligation to hold the candidates’ hands and warn them when their petitions don’t satisfy election law requirements.

Hoffman stated that he always has advised District employees not to give what could be viewed as “legal advice” about candidate petitions, not only because that could make the employees witnesses in legal proceedings over such advice but, also, because doing so could constitute the unauthorized practice of law. And according to the H-A article, a State Board of Elections deputy general counsel voiced similar concerns, even while saying that nothing in the Election Code expressly prohibited the giving of such advice.

Those concerns make plenty of sense, considering that even separate branches of the Illinois Appellate Court can’t agree on something as simple as whether or not a paper clip satisfies the Election Code requirement that all pages of a petition being submitted for filing “shall be neatly fastened together…at one edge in a secure and suitable manner.”

Consequently, in Bendell v. Education Officers Electoral Board, 338 Ill.App.3d 458 (1st Dist., March 28, 2003), one appellate court panel held that a 6-8 page petition (Grau’s petition had 29 pages) fastened with a paper clip that needed to be removed to separate the pages “strictly complied” with the securely-fastened requirement. But in Girot v. Keith, 341 Ill.App.3d 902 (3d Dist. July 11, 2003), another appellate court panel held that petition pages fastened with a paper clip “could not meet the purposes of the [Election Code’s] requirements” and were not even in “substantial compliance” with such requirements.

As Justice (and law school dean) Warren Wolfson wrote in his dissent in Bendell: “Fastening securely is not a trivial or nitpicking requirement. It obviously is intended to prevent fraud or tampering, thus preserving the integrity of the papers. It is too easy to slip papers in or out of a packet when a paper clip is used.” Which is why there are staplers, and why the vast majority of people who papers securely fastened staple them rather than paper-clip them, or binder-clip them.

But until the Illinois Supreme Court decides to reconcile these two seemingly inconsistent decisions, or the geniuses in our General Assembly amend the current Election Code to expressly state whether the secure-fastening requirement can be satisfied by paper-clipping, binder-clipping, stapling, spiral binding, velo-binding, or arc welding, candidates would be wise to consult a competent election lawyer.

Which reportedly is what Grau has done, now that her petitions have been challenged. We’re guessing that will cost her a lot more than a pre-filing consultation would have – which might explain why her buddy Bende was in such a fine whine about petition-challenging “bullies” and how “terrible” and “fundamentally unfair” the petition rules and Park District’s no-advice policy are.

According to the H-A article, however, City Clerk Betty Henneman, a non-lawyer, claims that she does a petition compliance review for candidates for City office. Henneman even admits to having “accepted things with a clip on them and stapled it” because she doesn’t “see a big deal with that and…[doesn’t] think that should be an obstruction to running for office.”

Maybe not, but she seems to be getting uncomfortably close to petition tampering. And if the stapling of paper-clipped petitions is not a consistently-enforced City policy, there’s always the chance that one candidate’s paper-clipped petitions might get stapled while another candidate’s might not, thereby unfairly subjecting the latter’s to objections.

We wonder if City Attorney Everette “Buzz” Hill knows that’s what Betty’s been doing all these years?

When all is said and done, however, the competence, diligence and judgment of a prospective candidate must be called into question when she would go to the effort of collecting 200+ signatures but then consider anything short of stapling as a “secure and suitable manner” for fastening those petitions together – assuming she even read that requirement.

And we also have to question the competence, judgment and basic common sense of a sitting Park Board member who wants the Park District to voluntarily (and at no cost to the candidates) substitute for the private legal counsel even the State Board of Elections strongly suggests candidates should consult.

Apparently in Bende’s view of local government, that’s what friends are for.

To read or post comments, click on title.

“The Devil Is In The Details” With Candidate Petitions (Updated)

01.07.15

We’ve never been shy about stating our belief that the taxpayers benefit from contested elections.

Representative government is best served when aspirants and incumbents alike are forced, in the course of actual campaigns, to have their views, ideas and records challenged. So even though we think Park Ridge Alds. Dan Knight (5th Ward) and Marty Maloney (7th Ward) have done fine jobs in their first terms around The Horseshoe and would have prevailed in contested elections, it’s too bad their respective constituents won’t get a chance to hear them defend their 1st term records and articulate their visions for the next four years in an adversarial forum.

Our belief in contested elections is why the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate story reporting on the challenges to the candidate petitions of Park Ridge Park District Board candidate Cynthia Grau and Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 Board candidate Kristin Gruss (“Park District trustee challenges petitions of newcomer candidate,” Jan. 6) leaves us with mixed emotions.

If Grau is removed from the Park District ballot, all three incumbents – Jim O’Brien, Mary Wynn Ryan and current Board president Mel Thillens – will be able to coast to new terms of office without breaking a sweat. At least D-64 will still have four candidates vying for three 4-year seats even if Gruss is launched, while appointee Board member Bob Johnson will be running uncontested for the 2-year seat he was given in semi-secret Board action when Terry Cameron resigned.

Meanwhile, six candidates are seeking the four 4-year seats on the Maine Township High School District 207 Board.

Our preference for contested elections, however, does not engender any sympathy for the challenged candidates, or antipathy for their petition challengers. After all, complying with the rules for circulating and filing nominating petitions isn’t that darned hard to do – as evidenced by the fact that almost every candidate seems to get it right, election after election.

The H-A article reports that Grau’s petitions are being challenged because (a) she failed to properly staple her petitions – we’ve heard she used one of those black metal binder clips – and thereby might not have complied with a requirement that petitions be securely fastened; and that (b) her statement of economic interest does not state that she is running for the “Park Ridge Park District” board.

According to the H-A article, the objections to Grau’s petitions were filed by Park Ridge resident Charlene Foss-Eggemann, who explained that “[i]t’s important to protect the integrity of the electoral process, including the details.”

That’s exactly right.

Like it or not, many things in life are decided by the “details” – so much so that it has given rise to the classic aphorism: “The devil is in the details.” And whether it is a sports contest or a legal proceeding, outcomes often are decided by compliance and non-compliance with what some folks demean as “technicalities,” sometimes even at the expense of the more substantive issue.

Just ask any attorney who has blown a statute of limitations by filing his/her case just one day later than the law permits and thereby nukes his/her client’s substantive claims.  Or think back to the game-changing significance of something as seemingly trivial as the “hanging chad” in the 2000 presidential race.

Maybe it’s because Foss-Eggemann is an attorney with an appreciation for rules and technical requirements. Maybe it’s also because she herself has been a candidate for public office – she ran for and won the position of Maine Township Republican Committeeman by an impressive 63%-37% margin last March – and has had to comply with the same technical petition-filing requirements as Ms. Grau.

[SIDEBAR: Foss-Eggemann serves on the Park Ridge Library Board with, and is a social friend of, the editor of this blog, who also has contributed to her campaign fund.]

So when candidates who claim they want to serve their community can’t/won’t even comply with the basic rules for becoming a lawful candidate, we have to wonder just how committed they are to the effort; and how diligent and intellectually rigorous they will be if elected.

Not surprisingly, Grau is “disappointed” that her petitions containing more than 250 signatures were even challenged, according to the H-A article.

“I think kicking me off the ballot is not giving voters a choice…[i]t’s the voters who lose when they don’t have a choice.”

You haven’t been kicked off the ballot yet, Ms. Grau. The hearing on those petition challenges is scheduled for this Friday, January 9, at the Cook County Clerk’s office in Chicago. And the outcome of such hearings is not something that anybody should take for granted, one way or the other.

But if you are kicked off the ballot, it will have been your inattention to the fundamental “details” of the nominating petition process that has deprived the voters of a choice involving your candidacy.  For want of a staple?  For want of a correct name?

Too bad you didn’t care enough about the voters to get those simple details right.

UPDATE (01.10.15)  Because the Park District employee who accepted Grau’s petition (and, therefore, is a key witness) was unable to attend yesterday’s hearing, the matter was rescheduled to next Friday, 01.16.15, at 9:00 a.m.

To read or post comments, click on title. 

The Hope And Promise Of 2015

01.02.15

As the new year arrives with its blank slate and tremendous potential, here are a few of the things we would like to see, and not see, during the coming year, in no particular order:

1. A flooding solution. That doesn’t mean an end to flooding – we’ve read too many Flood Control Task Force and Burke reports to believe that anything less than Park Ridge’s own “Deep Tunnel” project will ever guaranty no more flooding for all residents. And there will never be enough funding for that.

But the City Council can pass the proposed storm water utility (“SWU”), a long-term plan to fund the upgrading of the City’s sewer system while also addressing the most problematic flood areas: Mayfield Estates, Northwest Park and the West Country Club. The folks in those three areas, however, need to disabuse themselves of the notion that they are entitled to 100-year flood relief – NOW! – at the expense of all other City taxpayers. Unless, of course, they are willing to let all those other taxpayers cast a referendum vote on such major bonded expenditures.

Or those affected residents can accept the creation of three separate Special Service Areas (“SSA”s) under which the City will cover a base-level cost of flood control and the affected homeowners will undertake the remaining costs through a special tax assessment against their homes. That will separate the solid citizens from the freeloaders.

2. A more-informed public. Winston Churchill once said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Sadly, this appears true here in Park Ridge where, from the nature of the comments from residents (and even some of our public officials), too many folks seem abjectly ignorant of even the most fundamental goings on of our local governmental bodies.

Based on those comments, we’d bet good money that at least 50% of voting-age Park Ridge residents couldn’t name their alderman, or identify the ward in which they live, if their lives depended on it. Which makes them easy targets for boondoggles like the Uptown TIF, a decade-plus of top-shelf prices for middle-shelf education, the resultant inability to fund necessary infrastructure maintenance and improvements, and other ills.

Fortunately, local government-oriented blogs like this one and Park Ridge Citizens Online not only have created their own readership, but they have forced the “mainstream” media (e.g., the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate, Park Ridge Journal and Trib Local) to raise their games significantly, albeit still not nearly enough to produce a truly “informed” citizenry.

But maybe 2015, a local election year (with Election Day on April 7, 2015, in case you’re one of the clueless) and some spirited campaigns will help accelerate the pace of that change.

3. A better Library. Last month Park Ridge taxpayers voted to raise the tax levy, and their taxes by as much as a few hundred dollars per year for the next four years, in order to give the Park Ridge Public Library extra money to replace the funds that had previously been contributed by the City Council until the City’s own budget woes made such contributions impracticable.

The Library came up short because, once the City Council cut the City funding a few years ago, the Library chose to deficit-spend itself to the point where it could no longer do “business as usual.” And when the political machinations of the former Library Board majority – such as browbeating the Council to restore the funding, and closing summer Sundays to tick off users – failed, the City Council decided to let the taxpayers vote on whether they were willing to contribute more taxes for Library operations.

And, ‘lo and behold, a majority of them said “Yes!”

With that four-year vote of confidence, however, comes a responsibility: the Library Board and Staff owe those taxpayers and the entire community a duty to make the Library not just as good as it was before funding was cut, but better. Because four years from now when this latest referendum funding increase expires, the taxpayers will be looking to see just how wisely the Library Board and Staff have managed the extra funding before voting the Library another tax levy increase.

4. More retail…or not. Like Capt. Ahab obsessed with a certain white whale, various Park Ridge factions – the Chamber of Commerce, local retailers, and the few public officials in their thrall – seem to be able to think of nothing but what the City can do to bring “more retail” to Park Ridge. Even if they have to drag it here, kicking and screaming; or bribe it here with sales tax revenue sharing and other financial emoluments.

So when Mayor Schmidt created the Economic Development Advisory Task Force in 2011, many of the suggestions ran toward throwing tax dollars at target retailers to bring them her and/or keep them here. And when the Council didn’t go along with that foolish strategy, it got barbecued by several EDATF members, especially when the Council refused to give in to the Whole Foods developer’s demand for a couple of million dollars of sales tax sharing.

Not surprisingly, Whole Foods (and Mariano’s, and the new fitness center that will be built on the old Napleton site at Touhy and Cumberland) ended up proving the Council right and those EDATF members wrong. Hopefully, those EDATF members, Chamber members, and certain local retailers have learned something from those situations, as well as from the disastrous throw-money-at-it Uptown TIF, although we’re taking a wait-and-see approach to see if old dogs can learn new tricks.

5. No more “giving back” candidates. Over the years a number of candidates for local offices have explained their candidacies thusly: “I just want to give back to the community.” And virtually every candidate who has offered that lame and vague explanation has gone on to say little-to-nothing else meaningful about what he/she stands for, or what he/she hopes to achieve if elected.

The voters deserve to know not only who a candidate is, what he/she believes about the role of the governmental unit to which he/she is seeking election; and what he/she intends to accomplish if elected. They don’t need any more candidates who think merely serving in elective (or appointive) office is an achievement in its own right.

And, frankly, any candidate who “just wants to give back to the community” is undeserving of the office he/she is seeking.

6. More referendums. It seems like everybody who wants more and bigger government hates referendums. And we can understand why. Referendums demonstrate by counted votes what the public wants or doesn’t want. And most folks who want more and bigger government, or more fiscally-irresponsible government, don’t need or want that kind of objective, measurable evidence of public opinion.

A couple of years ago the Park Board and senior Staff were so afraid of the voters that they refused to go to referendum on their $8 million Centennial water park, presumably because the voters had convincingly turned down on less expensive proposals on two prior occasions. And D-64 Board members are so terrified of referendums that they recently borrowed approximately $8 million to do long-neglected work on Field School, rather than use some of the District’s stockpile of cash on hand, because using cash on hand might have forced D-64 to go to referendum sooner than planned.

That’s right, they BORROWED $8 million to avoid the taxpayers’ getting a referendum vote on that $8 million for Field School AND to avoid having to go to a general funding referendum earlier than they would like.

The passage of two significant referendums in the past two years – the Park District’s youth campus park referendum and the Library’s tax levy increase referendum – prove that this community is willing to vote for borrowing and spending when it believes there are good reasons for it. Which suggests that those public officials who dread referendums may not think all that highly of their own pet spending/borrowing plans.

7. Appointment processes that are more “public.” When people run for the City Council, or the Park Board, or the D-64 and D-207 school boards, they are forced to become “public” figures. They expose themselves to being asked questions about their backgrounds, their experiences, and their views. But that’s not the case when people seek appointments to those same seats to fill a vacancy created when somebody resigns.

Only the City Council has held “open” appointments processes, both for filling Council vacancies and for appointments to the City’s boards and commissions. When then-6th Ward ald. Tom Bernick resigned from the Council back in 2012, the four candidates for appointment to fill his seat were interviewed by a panel of 6th Ward residents Mayor Dave Schmidt appointed (which included the editor of this blog), which interviews were open to the press and public. Similarly, applicants for City board and commission appointments have their applications published on the City’s website and their interviews are conducted by a Council advisory committee (comprised of the chairs of each of the Council’s four standing committees) in meetings open to the press and public.

Contrast that with the appointment process D-64 used in appointing Bob Johnson to fill Terry Cameron’s vacancy, which we wrote about in our July 7, 2014 post, and D-207’s process in filling Eric Leys’ seat, which we wrote about in our August 29, 2014 post.  So if D-64 and D-207 taxpayers think they are being treated like mushrooms – kept in the dark and covered with manure – by the boards of both of those entities, they’d be right. And so long as those taxpayers are content to be mushrooms, that’s the way they’ll continue to be treated.

8. A “Year of the Taxpayer” after decades of years of the tax user. Any idiot can spend OPM (“Other People’s Money”), as so many of our local public officials keep proving. And no local governments spend OPM more enthusiastically with less accountability than the elected and appointed officials of our overpriced and/or underperforming schools.

We can count on one hand – with four fingers left over – the number of D-64 and D-207 Board members over the past decade who have demonstrated even the slightest concern for the average Park Ridge taxpayer, or the spine to challenge the “professional educators” and administrators on virtually any of their recommendations and expenditures. The Park District has been better in that regard (with the notable exception of the non-referendum $8 million water park) and deserves kudos for its implementation of more realistic user fees to reduce the burden on taxpayers.

But until voters begin electing the kind of taxpayer-centric officials to the school boards as they have elected to the Park Ridge City Council, taxpayers will continue to pay for BMW educations while getting Buicks. And our elected School Board officials will continue to prove Mark Twain right.

9. Treating public employees as “employees.” Anytime we come anywhere close to criticizing public employees for any reason, we get an inordinate number of comments defending those public employees in almost knee-jerk fashion.

In large measure that’s because public employee unions, along with their rank-and-file members, have been masterful at portraying their members as saints or angels – kind of like Mother Teresas laboring in the Black Hole of Calcutta. Has there ever been a better marketing ploy than the teachers unions’ “for the kids” tag line, which new D-64 superintendent Laurie Heinz has massaged ever-so-slightly into the complimentary close to her correspondence “For your children” instead of “For my $240K/year” that Heinz is being paid in her very first year of being a school superintendent.

Because money isn’t why Heinz or any teachers and administrators do those jobs, right?

It’s well past time that taxpayers collectively realized that public employees are just that – “employees,” just like all the rest of us who toil for a living wage – albeit often at higher wages and light-years better pension benefits than those of us who pay for those wages and pensions. They should be respected for what they do, but not venerated.

10. Fewer “parasites” and “freeloaders”: We’ve received no small amount of attention for our shorthand references to non-residents who try to use City services (like the Library) for free as “parasites,” and to residents who try to finagle far more in benefits than they pay in taxes as “freeloaders.”  The principal government reporters for both local newspapers have tried to make it into a cause celebre, while several of the parasites and freeloaders themselves have condemned us for using those terms – albeit anonymously.

We have used those terms for both “fire at will” and “fire for effect” purposes. But either way we are dead serious about, and fully committed to, blowing the whistle on people who are intent on exploiting the goodwill of Park Ridge taxpayers for their own personal benefit.

Which means blowing the whistle on Chicago residents who revel in the lower taxes they pay because they can use the Park Ridge Library for free; and on folks who bought highly-discounted or foreclosed property in flood-prone areas like Mayfield Estates and now want the City (a/k/a Park Ridge taxpayers) to solve their flooding problems and thereby jack up the value of their properties; and on folks who demand that taxpayers spare no expense in financing D-64 and D-207 educations for their kids at costs that those same folks would not pay for private education of that same quality.

Hopefully, by calling out these parasites and freeloaders we can discourage at least some of their parasitism and freeloading, thereby reducing the burdens they are trying to impose on their fellow taxpayers.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Does Anybody Have New Ideas To Increase Library’s Usage?

12.29.14

This week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate contains an article (“Park Ridge officials consider coffee sales in the Public Library,” December 24) about a suggestion by two Park Ridge Library Board trustees that establishing an on-premises coffee shop might be a way of increasing the number of Library visitors while also generating additional revenue.

New trustees Pat Lamb and Dean Parisi both raised the possibility of the Library’s working with a private coffee vendor. Parisi cited as an example a coffee chain in a Chicago hospital that shares proceeds with the hospital, while Lamb noted the small Starbucks located in Macy’s. That’s pretty outside-the-box thinking for Park Ridge Library Board members, and something the Library needs after years of lethargic, bobble-headed boards annually whining about not having a bigger new building and then rubber-stamping the same old way of doing things, all the while hoping for different results – or perhaps not even caring whether the results were different, or better.

Lamb and Parisi were reacting to the recent marked decline in Library in-person visits (v. “virtual” on-line visits), circulation (i.e., more materials being checked out) and program attendance.

Library visits and circulation in FY2013-14 were the lowest in 5 years, but 7 years into FY2014-15 both visits and circulation are tracking even lower this year.  And year-to-date program attendance is also on track to be the lowest in the past five years, even though the Library continues to offer in excess of 900 programs that are still free of charge and accessible on a drop-in basis with no reservations or advance commitment required.  So if visits, circulation and program attendance matter, that downward trend would not appear to be a good thing.

Staff has tried to blame the decline on “The Recession,” or on the “recovery” from The Recession. Although circulation did increase during The Recession, it actually continued to go up in the first four years following the official end to The Recession – in June 2009, according to the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of such dates. And while Library visits increased precipitously during the 18-month duration of The Recession, until last year they had dropped only slightly from The Recession’s end, while remaining well above pre-Recession levels.

So if maximizing visits, circulation and program attendance are valid goals against which the Library’s effectiveness in serving the community should be measured, “The Recession” doesn’t appear to be a realistic or even useful alibi for the recent decline in the Library’s numbers.

Whether getting a private coffee vendor to come into the Library proves to be do-able remains to be seen. And even if it is, whether such an idea will be successful in significantly increasing visits, circulation, program attendance and revenue is, at best, speculative at this time. Given the recent emergence of “bookless” libraries-of-the-future such as the Bexar County, TX public library and the Hunt Library at North Carolina State University, “circulation” as we have known it might be losing its prominence as a benchmark of successful libraries.

Much as we applaud that kind of creative thinking, it probably should not be coming from the part-time unpaid volunteer trustees – especially from the two newest ones – who are supposed to be focusing on overall Library policy and long-term Library operations from 30,000 feet rather than doing boots-on-the-ground micro-managing.  Such ideas, instead, should be coming from the well-paid full-time library professionals who already are “on the ground” on a forty-hour-per-week basis.

But full-time staff seems content to keep doing basically what it has been doing for years, give or take the occasional nip and tuck like the planned $15,000 “Digital Media Lab” that is intended to provide patrons with free access to hardware and software for creating media presentations, converting digital content from one format to another, and editing photos, music and video – at least some of which we understand are currently available from that local taxpaying business on Northwest Hwy. known as Kinko’s, albeit at a cost to the users rather than at a cost to the taxpayers.

That’s because the stereotypical government approach to increasing usage is with giveaways.  But when you’re the Library and you’re already giving away your visits, circulation and programs, new giveaways need to take the form of new services – even if it means unfairly competing (free versus paid) with an established, tax-paying business.

Which brings us to the title, and point, of today’s post.

We’re inviting you to offer your ideas for increasing the visits, circulation and program attendance of the Library.  And while ideas that could generate revenue for the Library and thereby reduce the funding burden on taxpayers would be preferred, we’ll publish whatever comes in.  As always, however, we reserve the right to criticize and, under appropriate circumstances, ridicule.

But don’t let that stop you…as if it ever has before.

[Note: The editor and publisher of this blog, Robert J. Trizna, is a member of the Park Ridge Library Board of Trustees.]

To read or post comments, click on title.

One More “Residency” Shenanigan From The Jokers At D-64

12.23.14

In our November 28 post we wrote about how Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 had finally figured out that it might be giving away hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars by not confirming that every student receiving a free D-64 education actually lived in the District.

But while it is gratifying to read that the School Board might actually be trying to finally address that problem, a recent Park Ridge Herald-Advocate story (“District 64 considers further residency requirement changes,” Dec. 19) raises new questions about D-64’s ability to be competent stewards of the taxpayers’ money that leave us scratching our heads and reminding ourselves of manager Casey Stengel’s indictment of his own New York Mets back in 1962:

“Can’t anybody here play this game?” 

At the School Board’s December 15 meeting, Board member Dan Collins – the only one with the integrity and fiscal responsibility to have argued against free (i.e., at the taxpayers’ expense instead of the parents’) Chromebooks even though his household would receive two of them worth over $600 – argued for residency checks for every grade instead of just at enrollment, and again at entering third and sixth grades. 

But this Board apparently is still driving under the influence of its senior – and most fiscally irresponsible – member, John Heyde. Consequently, it is continuing to look for plausible ways not to require annual residency checks for kids whose parents expect $14,000 (or $28,000, or $42,000, depending on number of kids in District schools) of free D-64 education. 

Not surprisingly, Heyde is appalled that parents might have to endure what he has called the “pain in the neck” of proving their kids’ residency on an annual basis when, instead, he can simply dump any additional financial burdens of educating kids who don’t live in the District on its beleaguered taxpayers. 

We suggested a no-cost way of doing the residency checks in that 11.28.14 post. But anything that won’t stiff the taxpayers or enrich public employees, preferably at the same time, is rarely (if ever) to Heyde’s liking. So with no shortage of encouragement from Heyde, the Board is having a cost-benefit analysis done, presumably one that will predict a boatload of expense for a mere bucket-full of savings. That’s usually the way these kinds of things are done.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, D-64 is looking to make it even easier for non-resident kids to get a free D-64 education.

The Board is thinking about letting kids who don’t actually live in the District – but whose families are allegedly in the process of building or renovating homes in the District – attend District schools for free for the 18 months prior to the construction/renovation being completed.

The current policy is that kids can start D-64 schools only 60 days before occupancy, although we have no idea what happens if the kid starts school and then the family doesn’t move into their new/newly-renovated home. Given the currently inept state of residency non-checks, however, we suspect the kid could be going to D-64 schools for years while living in Edison Park, Norridge, Des Plaines, etc.

But where the real mental breakdown occurs is in what passes for the thought process of the Board members when it comes to the traditional benchmark qualification for free education: the concept of “residency.” Either kids live in the District or they don’t.

What benefit to the existing District taxpayers is achieved by letting kids who don’t live in the District attend District schools FOR FREE for 18 months?

According to Board member Scott Zimmerman (Heyde’s very own “Mini-Me”), free non-resident education should be extended for at least 18 months, and even up to 24 months, before residency actually occurs.

Why?

Zimm blames the slow speed of construction in Park Ridge!  And if that’s not dumb enough for you, try this one: “These people…are building homes and increasing property values in the district. I’d like to encourage that.”

There you have it, folks…further proof that Mark Twain was right when he said: “God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.”

Not content to have bungled his assigned task of making sure D-64 is producing the very best educational value for its students and its taxpayers in return for the high taxes we already pay to D-64, Zimmerman is now trying to play economist by shifting his attention to faux-stimulating the local real estate market through giving away as much as $28,000 per kid of D-64 education to NON-RESIDENTS whose parents already are committed to building/renovating a Park Ridge home!

Zimm could have lifted that bright idea right out of a scene from the movie “Dave.”

And it may have inspired fellow Board member Dathan Paterno to chime in with the equally goofy observation: “As long as they’re paying taxes on the property, they’re putting money into the system.”

By that kind of un-reasoning, should a Chicago family living in Norwood Park that owns a Park Ridge condo it rents out for $1,000/month to a senior citizen be able to send their kids to D-64 schools because they are “paying taxes on the property” and “putting money into the system”?

Chalk that up as just another sick joke on the taxpayers passing for stewarsdship from our elected representatives on the D-64 Board – one they are supposed to be voting on at their January 26 meeting, along with whether to do residency checks on the kids of homeowners more frequently than just at the time of initial enrollment.

If your sense of humor runs to the twisted and absurd, feel free to “Ha! Hah!! Hah!!!” Or, given the season, “Ho! Ho!! Ho!!!”

But if you’re a D-64 taxpayer, you’re still getting coal.

To read or make comments, click on title.

D-64 Fees Simplified

12.18.14

The Discovery Channel has “Shark Week,” so we’ve decided to make this “D-64 Week.”

And you thought sharks were scary.

Now that D-64 has once again jacked up its tax levy by a vote of 6-1 (Board member Dathan Paterno dissenting), we thought we would take a look at a very simple financial issue that, nevertheless, has remained unresolved by the D-64 brain trust for over a year since we last wrote about it in our post “Herd Mentality Does Not Justify D-64’s Bovine Thinking On Student Fees”: school fees.

We got a couple of over-the-transom inquiries about this topic, apparently because it became a sidebar discussion in connection with a tax levy post last week (December 10) on the Park Ridge Citizens Online Facebook page. According to comments on that blog, D-64’s continuing lackadaisical efforts to collect unpaid fees has left over $100,000 due and owing.

One complaint that those who don’t pay at all (we like to call them “freeloaders”) share with a smaller group of critics who claim to be paying under protest, is that D-64 has failed and refused to provide itemized statements of what the fees cover. One might have expected that by now, more than a year after folks like Kathy Ranalli and George Korovilas began railing about it, D-64’s administrators – hello, overpaid (over $215,000/year) Business Manager Rebecca Allard– might have actually done that.

But no-oooooooooo!

The transparency-challenged D-64 administration can’t quite seem to fess up and tell the parents of D-64 students for what exactly it is that they’re paying $84, or $227, or $315 of annual fees – even though parents reportedly are being charged only around 55% of the total cost of those unidentified/un-itemized materials and services for which the fees are assessed. And our alleged “representatives” on the School Board seem totally disinterested in forcing the reluctant administrators to disclose this information.  Or maybe it’s yet another case of the Board being totally intimidated by the “education professionals.”

That’s just plain stupid and irresponsible. Unfortunately, stupid and irresponsible seems to be D-64’s default setting – as demonstrated by its decision to switch from a parent-paid monitoring program for students who stay at school for lunch, which will now cost the District (a/k/a, the taxpayers) another-$400,000.

But let’s not kid ourselves about one main fact.

Even if D-64’s Board and administration actually did the right thing and provided parents with a list of fees itemized down to the penny, the freeloader contingent would still rail about how charging ANY fees violates the Illinois constitution’s requirement that students be provided a “free” education. That’s because those shameless freeloaders have no problem insisting that their kids are entitled to “free” $14,000/student/year educations because they pay taxes: $3-4-5-6,000 to D-64 on a total property tax bill of $9-12-15-18,000, respectively.

And from our experience, it’s the ones running two or three of their kids through the schools – at at total cost of $28,000-42,000 a year worth of education for that same $3-4-5-6,000 of property taxes – who beef the loudest about paying a few hundred dollars in fees. They’re also the ones who occasionally threaten legal action against the District if it takes any collection action against their freeloading.

As if these freeloaders would actually dig into their own pockets to pay several thousand dollars of legal fees when then won’t even pay $84 of school fees!

But in the hope of taking at least one more bogus argument off the table regarding this fee issue – that fees are “illegal” – we direct your attention to the case of Beck v. Board of Education of Harlem Consolidated School District No. 122, an Illinois Supreme Court decision from 1976 that appears to still be the law of this state.

The father of some students sued the school board for charging him fees for school supplies and materials furnished his children, arguing that such charges were illegal. Our Supreme Court said he was wrong, relying on its prior decisions that traced the concept of “free schools” from Illinois’ achieving statehood in 1818 in order to ascertain the intent of the Illinois constitution and statutes relevant to state-provided education.

Rather than our paraphrasing the Court’s reasoning, here is exactly how then-Justice Goldenhersh explained it:

[P]arents of pupils financially able to do so have been required to provide their children with textbooks, writing materials and other supplies prescribed by the school board and required for the personal use of the students. ( 47 Ill.2d 480, 486—90, 265 N.E.2d 616.) Sections 10—20.5 and 10—20.8 of the School Code (Ill.Rev.Stat.1973,*16 ch. 122, pars. 10—20.5 and 10—20.8) respectively authorize the board to adopt and enforce all necessary rules for the management and government of the school, and to direct what branches of study shall be taught and what apparatus shall be used. Under these sections defendant was authorized to require parents financially able to do so to provide their children with educational materials and supplies for use by them or on their behalf. We are of the opinion that defendant was authorized to accomplish the same result by purchasing the necessary materials and supplies, apportioning the cost among the pupils, and charging those parents who were financially able to pay, and we so hold. We also hold that because some of the materials were used by more than one pupil or by a teacher or administrator, or that they might be retained as school property and used for more than one school year did not serve to convert the fee charged into a tuition charge. Tuition is defined as ‘the price of or payment for instruction’ (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961)), and, clearly, the fee charged plaintiff’s children was not part of the price of, or payment for, instruction.

That surely won’t please the freeloader contingent, but nothing less than “free” (compliments of their fellow taxpayers) ever does.

So unless somebody has some more convincing legal authority than the Beck decision, it’s time that D-64 told the scofflaw parents to pay up or be subject to the full panoply of lawful collection efforts – except for those precious few parents who can actually demonstrate that they are not “financially able to pay.”

Or if D-64 wants to spare the taxpayers the costs of such additional collection efforts, it should simply publish the names and addresses of all these “fee freeloaders” so that their friends and neighbors might know them.

That way, the friends and neighbors who are covering those costs can thank them personally for their freeloader-ship.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Tis The Season For D-64 Tax Increases…And PREA-Friendly Board Candidates (Updated)

12.15.14

Tonight the Board of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 will hold what is called a “public hearing” on the proposed 4.6% hike to the District’s tax levy.

That means the hearing is open to the “public” even if, in reality, the true “public” rarely shows up.

One reason for the no-shows is that these tax levy hearings are always held less than two weeks before Christmas. According to the minutes of last year’s levy hearing, only “three members of the public” attended, none of whom were identified. For all we know, they might have been Danish foreign exchanges students earning meeting observation credits.

The other reason for the low attendance might be that the 60-70% of District taxpayers who have no children in D-64 schools and, therefore, no DIRECT stake in its product, seem to have given up hope that D-64 can curb its tax-borrow-and-spend ways, or that it will begin delivering an objectively-measurable, top-shelf education that might provide some measurable INDIRECT benefit to those taxpayers in the form of higher property values.

Such a lack of hope is understandable, given last week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate article about the 4.6 levy (“District 64 poised to raise tax levy by 4.6 percent,” Dec. 10), which described one of the D-64 Board’s “Consensus Goals” for the 2013-2015 school years as:

“[T]ry to get as much tax revenue as it can collect without increasing tax rates to the point that [a] voter referendum would be needed to approve them.”

In other words, shake down the taxpayers for as much as you can without letting them vote on how much their pockets are being picked.

Referendums are anathema to most school boards because they increase taxpayer scrutiny, even if only for a few months. And taxpayer scrutiny is the last thing D-64 wants, given how well the “combine” of PREA-dominated teachers, complicit school administrators and PREA-friendly/owned Board members have mastered the art of avoiding any accountability for the modest educational achievement D-64 has been returning on all the money it wrings out of Park Ridge taxpayers.

Ask why not even one D-64 school is consistently listed among the annual ISAT-based rankings of the Top 50 Chicagoland elementary or middle schools by the Chicago Tribune or the Sun-Times, even though we pay some of the highest teacher and administrator salaries, and you get…nothing.  <Crickets>

Not even any official acknowledgement of those rankings, and our schools’ absence therefrom, from either those highly-paid administrators or our alleged “representatives” on the School Board.

And for those of you who view Schooldigger as a credible rating service, its latest rankings place no D-64 school among its Top 100 Illinois Elementary Schools, and no D-64 school among its Top 100 Illinois Middle Schools.

Fortunately, the proposed 4.6% levy increase that will pass tonight is likely to end up around 1.7% once the Cook County Assessor’s office applies the tax caps: at the November 17 Board meeting Allard admitted as much, stating her expectation that the actual increase would be only around 1.7%.

We still have to wonder, however, why D-64 is approving a 4.6% levy increase, or even shooting for a 1.7% increase, when it’s already sitting on around $61 million in “fixed investments” and money market funds, according to the first page of Allard’s 12.15.14 “Executive Summary”. That’s over 77% of D-64’s 2014-15 Tentative Budget with no reason to think D-64 won’t collect the money it will be taxing during 2015 and beyond.

And we can’t help but suspect that there’s something fishy about yet another levy increase when such a large fund balance exists, especially when we consider that there are four (4) School Board seats – a majority, for the mathematically impaired among us – subject to contestation in this April’s election: John Heyde’s, Dan Collins’ and Tony Borrelli’s 4-year seats; and the final 2 years of Terry Cameron’s seat now held by appointee Bob Johnson.

Could a 77% fund balance be part of some strategy for Board incumbents to tout their stewardship during their re-election campaigns?

Ironically, today also is the first day of the 1-week period (ending next Monday, December 22) during which candidates for those Board seats can file their nominating petitions (we understand a minimum of 50 signatures are needed) and required statements of economic interest. Two years ago only six candidates vied for four openings, and only 32% of eligible voters turned out – electing 3 of the 4 most PREA-friendly candidates on the ballot (Zimmerman, Lee and Cameron).

PREA-friendliness is even more significant this time around because the Board that results from April’s election will be in charge of negotiating the next PREA contract in 2016.

If you go back and read our 09.27.12 post and our 10.13.12 post, you will get a sense of how having a PREA friendly/owned Board majority enabled the PREA to negotiate in secret with D-64’s bargaining reps, Heyde and then-Board member/one-term wonder (and union attorney) Pat Fioretto.  Not surprisingly, those closed door sessions led to a four-year sweetheart contract for the PREA that appear to have made/kept our teachers among the highest paid in Illinois, albeit without producing commensurately high-ranked ISAT scores from their students.

And getting an even sweeter deal this time around is why the PREA has targeted this April’s election, according to PREA President Andy Duerkop’s “President’s Message” of 10.27.14: “A number of PREA members have been working to recruit candidates from the community….”

Of the four sitting Board members whose seats are up in April, only Borrelli – whom we endorsed (along with Collins) in 2011 – has voted against a PREA contract. Unfortunately, since then, the vast majority of his votes suggest that he has “drunk the Kool-Aid” (or, if you prefer, “gone native”); and although we would love to be proved wrong on this, it appears that he cannot currently be counted on to champion the taxpayers’ interests over the monetary interests of the PREA.

Will any candidates with the kind of iron will and overarching public spiritedness needed to overcome D-64’s culture of underperformance, and to demand both measurably better education for students and better value for Park Ridge taxpayers, step up to challenge the D-64 pay-for-underperformance status quo?

You can be sure the PREA is hoping that answer is “no”…if only for just the next seven days.

UPDATE (12.17.14)  The levy was approved by a vote of 6 – 1 (Paterno).  Only two members of the “public” showed up to address the Board on the levy, but that’s a 100% increase over last year.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Park Board Bites Dog!

12.10.14

For close to a century “man bites dog” has been the tongue-in-cheek benchmark for a newsworthy story.

That’s not quite what occurred at last Thursday (Dec. 4) night’s Park Ridge Park District Board meeting.  But it came pretty darn close.

The Park Board, by a vote of 5 (Rick Biagi, Dick Brandt, Jim O’Brien, Mary Wynn Ryan and Mel Thillens) to 2 (Joan Bende and Jim Phillips), REVERSED its 4 (Bende, Brandt, Phillips and Ryan) to 2 (Biagi and O’Brien, Thillens absent) vote for a 1.50% tax levy increase at its November 20 meeting.

Yes, you’re reading that right.  A local taxing body reversed field and CUT a previously-approved tax levy increase.

On a motion by previously-MIA Board president Thillens, Brandt and Ryan flipped positions from two weeks ago and joined the Biagi/O’Brien/Thillens team.

Brandt didn’t explain his change of mind.  But Ryan – an unabashed “the bigger the government the better” fan who hasn’t seen many, if any, tax increases she couldn’t salute or applaud – read from a prepared statement to explain her epiphany from a “yes” to “no.”

Ryan claimed to be concerned about this levy increase being “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”  In getting to that point she first kind-of-blamed the City for raising its tax levy by 22%, even though that increase was public knowledge prior to her earlier “yes” vote.  Then she also kind-of-blamed the $4 million (over 4 years) Library referendum tax increase, without mentioning that she was instrumental in helping pass it.  She even cited the tax increase from the $13.2 million 2013 Youth Campus Park referendum, also without mentioning her wholehearted support for its passage. But she barely touched on the 3-month-per year, $8 million ($7 million of long-term debt) Centennial water park that she also heartily endorsed.

Such epiphanies are fairly common for tax-borrow-and-spenders as they enter re-election mode and feel the need to re-invent themselves as fiscal neo-cons in the months before election day (April 7, 2015), when voters might actually start paying attention.

Before Ryan announced her epiphany, however, Philips mounted a spirited defense of the levy increase, focusing on the principle of “use it or lose it” (“UIOLI”) – a kind of redheaded step child of the tax cap law.

When the Illinois General Assembly enacted the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (“PTELL,” commonly referred to as the “tax caps”) to protect homeowners from excessive property tax hits, it incorporated a maximum annual levy increase of the lower of 5% or the Consumer Price Index (“CPI”); and it built in an exemption for adding new growth or construction to a taxing body’s tax base.  The taxing body can capture additional property tax revenue generated by any new property (e.g., when a $300K home is torn down and replaced by a $1 million McMansion), but it must levy for that new growth – and make it part of the tax base – the very first year that new growth comes onto the tax role.

If the new growth and CPI are not captured in any given year, the caps prevent any future levy for that new property or to make up for that year’s forgone CPI; i.e., if you don’t “use” it – by levying for it – you “lose” it forever.

Call that Exhibit No. 861 for why Illinois government is so broken it very well may not be fixable: even things called “tax caps” are designed to enable and even compel higher tax levies.

Philips’ UIOLI argument iterated and reiterated how a failure to capture new growth and that 1.50% in this year’s levy would, with compounding, have a long-term adverse effect on the District’s ability to tax its residents.  He also noted how inflation has made what could be purchased for $1.00 back in 1994 into a $1.60 expense today.

And it looks like he’s right!  As far as it goes.

But basing taxing decisions on keeping pace with inflation is a lot like chasing your tail – except that, with inflation, somebody else controls the pace at which your tail moves.  Moreover, the higher Park Ridge property taxes climb, the less of a “bargain” (or even a “good investment”) Park Ridge homes tend to appear.

That didn’t seem to faze Philips, who noted with clear displeasure (joined in by Ryan) that the District’s property taxes have already been reduced to the point where they have been exceeded by the District’s user-fee revenue.

Hallelujah!  Can we get an “Amen”?

We have always advocated for the taxpayers footing the bill for “assets.”  In the Park District’s case, that means land/parks and facilities (e.g., parks, the Community Center, Ice Rink, pools, etc.).  The value of these kinds of hard “assets” can actually be appraised, and the facilities can even be valued as “going concern” operations.  Their value to the community, therefore, can be measured and readily allocated to the community; and, therefore, in fractional interests to each piece of taxable property.

When it comes to the costs of operating those “assets,” however, we believe those should be allocated to the fullest extent possible to their users through memberships, program fees and user fees.  Once the taxpayers pay for the basic costs of keeping those “assets” operational, those who don’t use those “assets” shouldn’t have to help foot the bill for the extra costs attributed to such use.  And, frankly, if the quality of the programs or operations provide enough added value, we can think of no good reason for the District not to charge – for the taxpayers’ benefit, of course – a fair market price commensurate with that value add.

Whether Thillens’ leadership on this particular do-over represents a genuine epiphany of his own while out on the campaign trail during his recent state representative run, or just a temporary Ryan-style re-election ploy, remains to be seen.  That shuttered-from-September-through-May Centennial water park, with its constantly-running debt service, that Thillens and his compadres hung on the taxpayers – without a referendum – remains a big black mark on his report card.

But fair is fair.

Which is why we’re giving a big Watchdog bark-out to our long-time whipping boy for not only making the do-over motion, but also for expressing his justifiable pride in the District’s seeming ability to provide so much diverse and successful programming as to make it the District’s dominant revenue engine.  While we’re at it, we’ll also add a big Watchdog bark-out to one of our long-time whipping girls, District Executive Director Gayle Mountcastle, for being instrumental in managing to achieve such results.

And, finally, a big bark-out to the Park Board majority for, in this one relatively small way, trying to give Park Ridge’s beleaguered taxpayers a break.

To read or post comments, click on title.