Public Watchdog.org

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.

m4s0n501

Mayor, Council Not Afraid Of Rats

12.05.14

When was the last time you saw two large inflatable rats in front of Park Ridge City Hall, their inflatable paws holding inflatable sacks of inflatable public money?

Never, that’s when.

So when the rats and their keepers – a contingent of the City’s Public Works employees and their representatives from Local 150 of the Union of Operating Engineers, bearing signs like “Time to Veto Dave Schmidt” – showed up outside City Hall for the City Council meeting on the evening of November 24, it was most definitely a significant event.

As background, one needs to remember that Local 150 has no love for Park Ridge Mayor Dave Schmidt. It was Local 150 that very publicly supported Schmidt’s opponent in the April 2013 election, Larry Ryles. In fact, Local 150’s $1,000 contribution to the Ryles campaign is the only contribution by a union to any candidate for our non-partisan local offices that we can remember or find evidence of.

That’s because Schmidt has been the first Park Ridge mayor to have the audacity to say “no,” or even “maybe not,” to the unions representing City employees. And to public employee unions used to having their way with the majority of feckless public officials who seem to derive more than a little faux self-esteem from spending OPM (“Other People’s Money”), “no” is not an acceptable option.

Especially when Schmidt can back it up with the support of a majority of the City Council.

In this case, as we understand it, Local 150’s beef with the City is the unfair labor practice charge it filed in which the union claims the City is overcharging Public Works employees for health insurance by keeping them on the City’s insurance policy rather than letting them transfer to the union’s coverage. The union claims the City is breaching the contract it cut with the City, while the City says that particular health insurance provision was not part of the contract the City Council approved.

That contract reportedly has not yet been signed by either party, presumably because the draft that Local 150 claims its members ratified contains healthcare terms different from the ones in the draft the City Council initially approved. That confusion is something we blame on City Mgr. Shawn Hamilton and the City’s crack negotiating team, who are very well paid to get this kind of basic stuff right. But that bungled effort has already been the topic of our 06.14.13 post and our 03.14.14 post.

It was Schmidt’s veto of the Council’s 4-3 approval of that bungled contract, which was sustained by a 5-2 vote of the Council on April 7, 2014, that apparently provoked the “Veto Dave Schmidt” signs.

The Local 150 unfair labor practice, and a similar counterclaim filed by the City, are currently being arbitrated before the Illinois Labor Relations Board, a public body which effectively has become an arm of public-sector unions over the many years that public sector union-beholden Democrats have dominated Illinois state government, not only stacking state laws to favor public employee unions but also controlling the appointment of the arbitrators who decide these kinds of disputes. So taking on a union in such a proceeding is an uphill battle.

But it’s one that has to be fought because surrendering would announce to Local 150 and to all other City employee unions that our current elected officials are a bunch of easily-intimidated ankle-grabbers who will sell out the taxpayers almost as readily as their soft-touch predecessors.

If you have any doubt about that point, consider the irony of all these Local 150 types ripping Schmidt and the Council for “wasting taxpayers’ money,” the second most popular Local 150 sign slogan behind “Veto Dave Schmidt.”

In the Bizarro world of public-sector unions and their members – including police, firefighters and teachers – the doling out of tens and even hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in raises and benefits, without any increase in productivity or efficiency, is wise spending. And spending a fraction of that money fighting the unions’ demands, on the other hand, is a waste of those funds.

Which is why Local 150 member Doug Karowsky can shamelessly argue that “the City Council had a duty to the taxpayers to be financially responsible” while somehow considering that such a duty could be discharged by the Council’s rolling over for the union’s wage increases and benefit demands.

In 1798 the French foreign minister Tallyrand demanded bribes of $250,000 for himself personally, $50,000 pounds sterling for France, and a $100 million loan to France, in order to stop French ships from plundering American ones. U.S. Sen. Robert Goodloe Harper responded to that demand with the famous toast: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” And later that year American warships and armed private merchant ships captured 80 French vessels and chased French warships out of U.S. waters.

We’re not suggesting that the City spend “millions” – or anything remotely close – on battling Local 150.

But Park Ridge taxpayers should be glad that Schmidt and the Council have let the word go out to friend and foe alike that at least one local governmental body will not be seduced or intimidated by public-sector unions bearing signs and demanding unwarranted raises and/or better benefits.

Or by their inflatable rats.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Nothing “Fair” About Public Services For Private Developments

12.03.14

Readers of this blog know that one of our major pet peeves –stuck in there one step below corruption and one step above stupidity – is greed masquerading as need.

That’s why we’ve written some nasty posts about “freeloaders” (shorthand for residents looking to get something for free or with a heavy subsidy from their fellow taxpayers) and “parasites” (shorthand for non-residents looking to scam a freebie or subsidy from local taxpayers). We especially like to apply those terms to folks who portray themselves as needy when it’s pretty obvious they’re just being greedy.

So we were a bit dismayed to see how residents of several Park Ridge housing developments seem to once again be aspiring to “freeloader” status in seeking do-overs of deals done decades ago.

At last Monday (November 24) night’s City Council Committee of the Whole meeting, Mr. Lee Tate, ostensibly representing the residents of the Park Ridge Pointe development, showed up to once again offer to the City ownership of what we understand to currently be, by law, Park Ridge Pointe’s “private” property: its streets, curbs, sidewalks, fire hydrants, sewers, etc.

That offer to turn over property isn’t any altruistic gift by the Park Ridge Pointers, however.

The quid pro quo for that offer is that the City would start providing certain City services that up until now have been provided and paid for by Pointe residents themselves under the terms of a legal deal cut by the Pointe’s developer in order to get City permission to build the Pointe the way the developer wanted – with narrower streets, shorter setbacks and non-compliance with other then-code requirements that enabled the developer to wring more units, greater density and greater profit out of the site.

In other words, the residents of Park Ridge Pointe currently are doing the right thing by paying for services they are legally obligated to pay, yet they seem intent on becoming…wait for it…freeloaders…by welching on those obligations.

If the City Council lets them.

Starting at 2:27:20 of the meeting video, Mr. Tate invokes “the Fairness of Taxation” before adopting a best-defense-is-a-good-offense strategy by claiming, incredibly, that “the City…is the freeloader” in this situation because it has been getting full-boat City taxes from the unit owners in these private developments while not providing services like snow removal, street repair, etc.

There’s nothing “unfair” about that, however, nor is the City anything close to a “freeloader.”

The City already lived up to its part of that legal bargain decades ago by permitting the construction of residences (homes/condos/townhouses) in these “private” developments that wouldn’t even have been built except for the developers’ agreements to keep all the streets and infrastructure “private” and to undertake, apparently in perpetuity, their maintenance/repair/replacement – a legal bargain that the current residents are trying to weasel out of after decades of performance.

To hear Mr. Tate tell it at last Monday’s COW, however, he and his fellow residents/aspiring freeloaders were victims of outright snookery by the City.

How? Because the City didn’t tell them at the time they bought their homes/units that they weren’t getting these City services.

As we understand it, Park Ridge Pointe’s (and every other developments’) legal obligations for privately obtaining those certain public services normally provided by the City is reflected in each development’s homeowners’ association documents AND in the title documents that are a matter of public record and given to buyers as part of every real estate purchase. Any competent real estate broker and any competent real estate attorney should have known about those obligations and should have explained them to the purchasers of units in those developments at or before closing.

Mr. Tate and every other one of those residents, therefore, knew or should have known what obligations they were buying into. If they didn’t, shame on them. And shame on their brokers and attorneys if those professionals didn’t properly inform their clients.

In neither event, however, should it be the City’s problem. It also shouldn’t be the City’s job to bail out careless buyers and/or incompetent brokers and attorneys.

So if it’s “fairness” the folks in Park Ridge Pointe, Bristol Court, and all those other similarly-situated developments want, it’s time they realized – and time the City Council told them in no uncertain terms – that they’ve already got it; and that they have had it for decades.  Truth be told, the fact that they are living in non-code compliant housing is proof of it.

But if these folks think they’ve got valid legal claims against the City in this regard, they should hire themselves an attorney and file those claims rather than continuing to browbeat the Council into letting them welch on the deals that were cut decades ago and that they legally agreed to when they bought their units.  And they should most definitely stop trying to become freeloaders.

There are enough of those already.

To read or post comments, click on title.

D-64 “Parasites” Far More Expensive, And Tolerated, Than Library Variety

11.28.14

One of the many pleasures of the holiday season is the proliferation of holiday movies.

We try not to miss Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the gold standard of Christmas movies and currently No. 20 on the AFI Top 100 list. We can’t help but chuckle when Clarence orders “mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves” from the Pottersville version of Nick the bartender, and try as we might we can’t keep from getting misty every time those good folks of Bedford Falls come up big to save George and the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan from prison and ruin.

But running a close second in our book is 1942’s “Holiday Inn.”

The combination of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds and an original Irving Berlin score that debuted the iconic “White Christmas” is tough to beat. And “Holiday Inn” contains more top-shelf Berlin tunes than just “White Christmas,” one of our favorites being Crosby’s Thanksgiving number called “I’ve Got Plenty To Be Thankful For.” 

That’s the way we felt yesterday after reading “District 64 considers changing residency verification policy” (November 25) in this week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate, and realizing how the Park Ridge-Niles District 64 School Board – and long-time Board member John Heyde in particular – keeps providing one object lesson after another on how a local governmental body can spend more and more tax dollars running an underachieving school system.

According to the H-A article, D-64 finally got the bright idea that it might be giving away $14,000 of its taxpayers’ hard-earned money on each student who is not actually living in the District and whose parents aren’t paying property taxes, either directly as homeowners or indirectly as renters.

Not surprisingly, however, D-64 didn’t come up with this bright idea on its own.

It had to borrow it from Maine Twp. High School Dist. 207, which decided several years ago that ferretting out all those non-resident students and their…wait for it…parasite parents who were helping themselves to free $17,000/year D-207 educations was well worth the cost of doing so.

According to D-64’s overpaid (at around $220,000/year, not counting every bennie) finance superintendent, Rebecca Allard, students whose parents own an in-district residence (house, townhouse or condo) have their residency checked only once: when those students are initially enrolled. So if a family packs up and moves out of the District, its kindergarten –aged student could remain enrolled in D-64 schools without the parents paying any taxes toward the $14,000 per-student annual cost until the student graduated middle school as much as 8 years later.

Total cost to the District’s taxpayers for such a grades 1-8 scam: a whopping $112,000. Per student.

Because D-64 hasn’t been checking the residency of students from purported Park Ridge homeowners other than at enrollment, we’d bet dollars to donuts that these kinds of scams have been run to the detriment of D-64 taxpayers for years, perhaps costing millions of dollars.

And even though the residency of students of renter families is reportedly checked annually, that still might not provide all that much more fiscal integrity.

That’s because for years there have been rumors of families from Chicago’s northwest side neighborhoods renting one bedroom condos in Bristol Court, Park Ridge Pointe, or smaller multi-family developments for between $12,000-$18,000/year just to establish an in-district address so they can get $28,000 (for 2 students) or $42,000 (for 3 students) of D-64 education – or from $34,000 to $51,000 of D-207 education – rather than sending their kids to Ebinger. Norwood Park, Taft, or paying private school tuition.

With that much money on the line one would think that, once the D-64 Board members understood how much taxpayer money they might be losing, they would get right after implementing a solution to this problem. Like maybe adopting D-207’s policy of checking every student’s residency every year.

But one would be wrong.

The overpaid Allard, while explaining a process like the one used by D-207, immediately disparaged it by pointing out how “labor-intensive” it would be, noting all the overtime that would have to be paid to District employees.

But Allard’s reluctance is nothing compared to that of our elected D-64 Board members who are supposed to be keeping an eye on spendthrift bureaucrats, incompetent teachers, and the overall cost-effectiveness of how our property taxes are being used in the interest of education.

Both Board President Tony Borrelli and member Vicki Lee seem to be looking for some kind of on-line way of avoiding the in-person show-up process that D-207’s Supt. Ken Wallace claims is most effective in catching violators.

But leave it to Heyde to show, once again, how little respect he has for the taxpayers who educated his own kids and who provide all those tax dollars that he has been throwing at underperforming teachers and administrators alike.

Heyde not only echoed the overpaid Allard’s concern about employee overtime, but he went her one better by whining about the inconvenience of a D-207-like process to D-64 parents:

“What District 207 is doing is a pain in the neck for parents. My question would be – do we think we’re going to find enough kids who don’t belong in our schools that it’s worth the burden on the families? Not to mention the cost to the taxpayers in terms of overtime.”

In other words, it’s the convenience of D-64 parents – who already are getting around a 200% return on the D-64 portion of their property taxes for just their first D-64 student, and who are getting an extra 300% return for each additional D-64 student – that is more important to the sensitive Heyde (and to Lee and Borrelli?) than whether the taxpayers are getting ripped off by non-resident parasites who have no qualms about scamming FREE D-64 educations for their kids.

Since the overpaid Allard and the sensitive-spendthrift Heyde can’t seem to figure this out on their own, we’ll offer this suggestion to alleviate any concerns about the cost of employee overtime in this residency-check process:

Instead of paying employees to do these basically clerical residency checks, how about recruiting all those PTO-member volunteers who devote scores of hours to saving $10-20,000 a year on photocopying and clerical costs, or who spend hundreds of hours planning and staging variety shows to raise similar bucks?  Then the cost of the checks would be virtually nothing.

Fortunately, all reports are that the overpaid Allard will be riding off into retirement and her guaranteed six-figure-pension in June 2015.

Unfortunately, we haven’t heard any similar report about whether the sensitive-spendthrift will try for another four years of dis-serving D-64 students and disrespecting D-64 taxpayers. And since another teachers union contract negotiation is coming up in 2016, we can see how Heyde might want to stick around for at least a couple more years to negotiate one last sweetheart contract that meets or exceeds the one he and then-fellow Board negotiator Pat “One-and-Done” Fioretto pushed through 3 years ago.

The only silver lining to this latest tale of D-64 Board buffoonery is that Board member Dathan Paterno appears to have climbed off his anti-Common Core bandwagon long enough to actually make some salient observations about the need for much better residency oversight, to wit: “If we can dissuade others from [stealing D-64 educations]…at a certain point, we won’t need to do this.”

Let’s hope so, although parasites are extremely difficult to dissuade – as the Library species, and the number and ferocity of its defenders, already have demonstrated.

But if this effort is successful, maybe then the D-64 Board can start figuring out how to provide the kind of educational quality and measurable performance that comes a lot closer to matching what D-64 taxpayers are being forced to finance.

To read or post comments, click on title.

City Council Finance Chairman Explains Higher City Tax Levy

11.24.14

We live in a society with two generally distinct sectors–the public and the private.

The private sector is non-monopolistic, with monopolies actually being illegal in most instances. Because there is so much competition in the private sector, decisions are based almost exclusively on economics rather than popularity. Popular decisions that produce bad economic results usually lead to drops in stock prices, the firing of management (albeit with golden, or at least silver, parachutes), and even bankruptcy.

The public sector, on the other hand, is monopolistic.  Government services tend to come from only one source of supply: e.g., only one fire department, one police department, one system of public education. That’s because those are customarily considered “essential services” which usually cannot be efficiently or economically provided by the competitive free market – although the consistent increases in the costs of such public services has created the outsourcing/privatizing movement.

Public sector decisions are always political decisions, with popularity rather than economic soundness tending to be the more important consideration. Witness the City’s “investment” in the Uptown TIF, a politically popular project (at least with our then-elected officials – the taxpayers never got a vote on it) that was economically unsound from the start due to an over-commitment of City funds and debt with no commensurate economic upside in return.

Those costs to the City were soft-peddled and even concealed from public view by the Uptown TIF perpetrators and their successors. For several years the City ran deficits and processed the Uptown TIF costs through the General Fund to paper over those costs. Only recently did the City, under Mayor Dave Schmidt’s administration, start coming clean with the taxpayers, as politically painful as that has proven to be.

Once again this year, Council Finance Chairman Dan Knight has prepared an essay on the new tax levy that has been sent to the local newspapers and was published in last week’s Park Ridge Journal. It is reprinted here with Ald. Knight’s permission.

___________________________________

By now most Park Ridge residents have either read or at least heard about our City Manager’s presentation of a preliminary December 2014 (for payment in 2015) tax levy to the City Council that is some 23% higher than the prior year’s levy. In actual dollars that 23% represents a $4.1 million increase over the prior levy, and your 2015 tax bills should reflect that increase.

There’s no doubt that on the face of it, both in real dollars and as a percentage, this is a stunningly large increase. Bearing in mind that the City’s portion of the total typical tax levy is roughly 12%, a 23% increase in the City’s share equates to about a 2.75% increase in the total tax bill. On a fairly typical $12,000 tax bill this equates to a $330 increase.

A $330 increase is not to be taken lightly, especially by those on fixed incomes. But you deserve an explanation of the rationale behind that increase, and why it is almost unavoidable.

Here it is.

The first factor is the back-end loaded nature of the Uptown TIF debt the City remains obligated to pay, which hits this levy with a vengeance because the total required debt service payments for the TIF bonds and the required payments of the TIF-related intergovernmental agreement obligations (with both local school districts and the park district) far exceed the tax revenue the TIF brings in. Those TIF expenses will require an additional $2.1 million in payments this coming year, as previously-deferred principal payments kick in; and as the prior abatement of those TIF-related taxes has ceased. Just the TIF alone represents 50% of the total increase.

Next, the success of the recent Park Ridge Library tax increase referendum has enabled the Library Director and Board to levy over $1 million more than last year’s approximately $3.7 million, for a total of $4.7 million.  That accounts for another 24% of the total levy increase.

Finally, escalating police and fire pensions have the boards of both pension funds asking for an additional levy of $300,000, which amounts to 8% of the increase.

Just those three elements of the City’s total tax levy consume 83% of the total increase sought.  Worse yet, the City has almost no flexibility to reduce those requests because there is absolutely no flexibility as to the TIF or the library increases; and there is very little flexibility, if any, in the pension fund levy requests due to state pension funding mandates.

Over the past few years City tax levy increases were deliberately held to a far more modest level: in the 2% to 4% per annum range. But the demands imposed on the City as described above give the City Council no reasonable hope of achieving such a small increase this year. That said, the Council will work as usual to be sure the balance of the levy is rationalized and any additional increases sought are modest and absolutely necessary.

The fact that this year’s total Uptown TIF debt of $3.4 million will comprise nearly 16% of the City’s total tax levy teaches us a painful lesson: taxpayers and other stakeholders must pay attention to what their elected officials are doing when they are doing it, not years later after the damage has been irreversibly done. It is in the present, rather than in the distant future, that public officials can best be held accountable for their actions on our behalf.

In the case of the Uptown TIF, irrespective of one’s tastes and opinions about the appearance and functionality of both the residences and the retail components, the financial components that were locked in 10 years ago and still have another 13 years to run have been a disaster – and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, according to the City’s outside TIF consultants.

Like you, as a resident and a taxpayer I look forward to the day we are out from under the crushing pressures of the TIF. And I hope and trust that, as badly as we taxpayers have been burned collectively by this “gift” from a decade ago, we have learned enough from the experience that we will never let something like it happen again.

The City Council will discuss this new tax levy at each Council meeting leading up to the levy’s adoption at the Council’s December 15th meeting.  I heartily encourage you to attend those meetings and provide your input to those of us – the mayor, your aldermen, the city manager and senior city staff – who owe you a completely transparent process and accountability insofar as how we address this challenging situation.

Dan Knight

5th Ward Alderman, Park Ridge

___________________________________

Had we had this type of transparency, candor and accountability from the City administration(s) back in 2002-06 when the Uptown TIF was cooked up and jammed down the taxpayers’ throats without a referendum, the current Council might not be stuck grappling with such long-term intractable problems, or having to propose unpopular tax increases.

But we didn’t.

To read and post comments, click on title.

Youth Campus Park Battling Cost Overruns Before Permits Pulled

11.19.14

How does a $13.2 million parks project grow a $1.6 – $2 million cost overrun before the project has even gone out to bid?

Just ask the Park Ridge Park District.  Or not, given that it has become rather closed-mouth about this topic.

As reported by the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate in a November 12 article (“Higher costs predicted for Park Ridge Youth Campus”), a $1.6 -$2 million overrun is what PRPD Building and Grounds Supt. Terry Wolf is currently projecting.  According to Wolf, the Park District is “trying to clarify that [number] and identify where and why we have these overages.”

It’s as if they popped up overnight, like mushrooms in an autumn wood.

But you can’t think about this stuff the way you would financial problems in your private life, a/k/a the “real” world.  The bureaucrat world of 15% (or worse) cost overruns is nothing like the one the rest of us live in, where financial decisions have real consequences that can’t be pawned off on friends and neighbors the way bureaucrats can pawn them off on unsuspecting and relatively helpless taxpayers

Think about it this way.  You hire a contractor who tells you he can design and build that addition to your home for $100,000.  So you go to your bank and max out your equity line of credit to borrow that $100,000.  You sign all the paperwork needed to indenture yourself to the bank.  And then your contractor tells you, oops, your project is already 15% over budget…and he hasn’t even pulled the permits.

This cost-overrun disclosure makes us wonder exactly who was doing the budgeting over at Park District HQ back when this Youth Campus Park project was being put together and gussied up for sale to the community in a binding referendum in April 2013.

Can Park Board president Mel Thillens – the tax/borrow/spender who championed the no-referendum $8 million Centennial water park effort in 2012-13 and then followed that up by leading the Youth Campus Park referendum campaign before allegedly becoming a born-again fiscal conservative while running his losing race for state representative – explain how the Park District can be as much as $2 million, or 15%+, over budget yet not know exactly why?

Are we looking at a cynical case of bait-and-switch designed to bamboozle the voters?  Or is it just some irresponsible and/or incompetent WAG budgeting ?

Board president Thillens?  Thillens?  Anybody?  Bueller?

Either way, Park District management – Board and Staff – should have some big-time explaining to do.  But as we’ve seen with the water park boondoggle and the Senior Center/Kenmitz Estate fiasco, what passes for “management” at the Park District is shameless enough that providing explanations to the unwashed masses of District taxpayers is optional, at best.  After all, the votes on the Youth Campus Park already have been counted, so who cares!

Meanwhile, the Park District reportedly is the recipient of a $750,000 state grant for this Youth Campus Park project, and expects to receive an additional $500,000 from the sale of naming rights for a multi-purpose building on the site.

The naming rights deal was announced by Exec. Director Mountcastle at the November 6 Park Board meeting.  In response to Commissioner Rick Biagi’s question of whether that $500,000 in new money would result in an equivalent amount being shaved of the referendum-authorized bonding, or be rebated to the taxpayers, Mountcastle –predictably for a consummate bureaucrat –responded: “That would not be my recommendation.”

In other words, a million here and a million there is no big deal to the Mountcastle’s of the world, so long as those millions go toward building a better bureaucratic resume and not be wasted by giving them back to the taxpayers.

At the end of the day, the taxpayers have no more of an idea of where those $1.6 to $2 million in cost overruns are coming from than they did of where the original $13.2 million cost for the Youth Campus Park project came from for referendum purposes.

And the best way to cope with that is not to think of any of it as “your” money.

Because Mountcastle and most of the Park Board don’t think of it that way.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Private Citizens Now Bearing Brunt Of Defective Zoning Code

11.15.14

John O’Flaherty apparently doesn’t care about winning friends and influencing people here in Park Ridge.

It’s one thing for the real estate developer disgruntled with the way the City is responding to his development plans to sue the City and/or City officials for not giving him his way. But when he sues ordinary citizens simply for expressing their opinions at an open public meeting, O’Flaherty might just as well have told Dale Carnegie to go pound sand…and the horse he rode in on.

O’Flaherty responded to the Park Ridge Planning & Zoning Commission’s denial of his application to build a 22-unit residential building on top of a parking garage and 1,500 square foot commercial space at 400 W. Talcott – the last feature apparently being the bare minimum commercial space he needed in order to camouflage his residential building as a “commercial” structure for purposes of the property’s “B” (for “Business”) zoning classification – by filing a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County: 400 W Talcott LLC v. Argionis, et al., Case No. 2014-CH-17457

We can understand O’Flaherty suing the City, the Planning & Zoning Commission, and the individual P&Z commissioners. We can even understand his suing Ald. Joe Sweeney, the Council’s liaison to the P&Z Commission, and Jon Branham, the City’s Senior Planner in charge of evaluating the Zoning Code compliance of projects such as this. They are City officials so they at least technically fall within O’Flaherty’s field of fire.

But naming twenty-two private citizens – Al Beltuzzi, Larry Devereux, Krystyna Doerhty, Linda Foss, Joe Fresel, Patricia Gagliardi, Tom Harris, John Hildefra, Missy Langan, Dan Lawlor, Pat Livensparger, M. Christina, Tom Maheras, Carol McComb, Steven Nadler, Ron Pollina, Karen Sloma, Ray Wachnick, Jerzy Wachnick, Paul Wright and former ald. Frank Wsol – just for speaking out against the size and density of the projects is nothing but unvarnished political hardball.

It also may be a violation of the Illinois Citizen Participation Act, 735 ILCS 110/1 et. seq., commonly known as the Illinois Anti-SLAPP (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”) statute, which is designed to prevent folks like O’Flaherty from filing lawsuits not so much to actually win them but, instead, to “chill” citizens’ exercise of their free speech and protest rights, and to discourage future opposition to their projects by causing the sued citizens to incur the time, expense and distraction of being a defendant in a lawsuit.

Interestingly enough, the lead attorney for O’Flaherty, Ronald Cope, is himself an elected official in Lincolnwood. And, even more interestingly, within days of filing the suit naming all these individuals, Cope reportedly offered to drop them from the suit if they would sign waivers agreeing not to seek attorneys’ fees or damages from O’Flaherty and his attorneys.

In other words, Cope – on behalf of O’Flaherty – intentionally scared the beejeezus out of many/most of those private citizens, then offered an olive branch in the hope of extricating himself and his client out from potential Anti-SLAPP liability, which includes an award of the wronged individuals’ attorneys’ fees.

A few of us folks here at PublicWatchdog are trial attorneys who make decent livings from waging courtroom battles, but we’d be the last folks to encourage anybody to litigate – including our fellow residents, especially a developer who has far more to gain from unleashing a pack of high-priced attorneys on ordinary Park Ridge citizens.

But from what we know of this situation, it appears Team O’Flaherty’s lawsuit is the exact kind of action the Anti-SLAPP law is intended to discourage and punish. And his attorney’s attempt to let bygones be bygones by tendering waivers to the folks they just sued seems like a pretty transparent acknowledgment that O’Flaherty and Cope may have overplayed their hand.

Whether any of the 22 private residents choose to hold O’Flaherty’s feet to the fire and try to Anti-SLAPP him remains to be seen. Given the expense, the potential exposure to liability, and the distraction presented by this lawsuit, we can understand if all 22 choose discretion over valor, take the waiver deal, and leave with a whimper instead of a bang.

But as we argued pre-SLAPP suit (in our 10.02.14 post), the real lesson from this situation is just how inadequate and/or screwed up our Zoning Code is – and how it encourages uncertainty, acrimony and expense for the City.

Now 22 ordinary citizens have discovered that, up close and personally.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Veterans Day 2014: The “Sacred Trust” We Owe Our Veterans

11.11.14

Today is Veterans Day – the one day each year set aside to honor all men and women who have served our country in the armed forces, whether in wartime or peacetime. It is intended to recognize the sacrifices and contributions to our national security of those living veterans, and to thank them for their service.

It’s not the same as Memorial Day. That’s the day we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country.

The two days are not interchangeable, nor should they be.

While we owe our dead veterans, especially those who died protecting our freedoms, an undying duty of remembrance, respect and gratitude, we owe our living veterans more tangible benefits: the care and opportunities they have earned through their service.

For those of us who still justifiably believe in The American Dream, nobody deserves it more than those veterans who voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way to keep our nation and their fellow Americans safe and secure – many of whom have paid a high price for doing so.

Every veteran who has been injured in body, mind or spirit as a result of military service deserves the best medical care this nation can provide – including the ongoing care and support needed to address the special challenges of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. In that regard, we hope the overhaul of the Veterans Administration announced yesterday is not just a political stunt but an overdue and much needed step in the right direction.

As Americans, we should all join in President Obama’s acknowledgment of the “sacred trust” we owe our veterans:

“If you put on a uniform and risk your life to keep us safe, we’ll do our part for you. We’ll make sure you and your family get the support you need. We’ll have your backs, just like you had ours.”

Exactly, Mr. President.

And thank you, veterans!

To read or post comments, click on title.