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.
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