Public Watchdog.org

More Fallout From Crapitalist Uptown TIF

07.30.13

In our last post, “The Uptown TIF: Crapitalism Without Accountability,” we discussed how a misguided and poorly-executed decision on the Uptown TIF – by former public officials who seem totally unwilling to accept any accountability for it – has saddled current City officials and the taxpayers with some major long-term consequences.

It’s not just about the money, although a $5 million (and counting) TIF fund deficit which the City is required to make up with money from its General (operating) Fund is nothing to sneeze at.  All the subsidies the City gave to Uptown developer PRC Partners, LLC for project elements like the underground parking garage and a variety of street-scaping also didn’t do the taxpayers any favors.

And let’s not forget the arguably “bargain” price that the City charged PRC for those prime parcels of Uptown land: the “Reservoir Block,” as well as the former Bredemann property the City acquired (at less than a bargain-basement price) in order to sell them all to its developer of choice.  We’re still amazed how the City inexplicably failed to obtain an appraisal that might have confirmed whether the properties’ value really was the $6.129 million for which the City sold it, rather than the $8-10 million that some local real estate people thought it might be worth.

Was the “fix” in for PRC?  Who knows?  But for those of you who didn’t sit through any of those City Council meetings where the merits of the competing designs were being discussed, all we can say is that then-city manager Tim Schuenke and several elected officials around The Horseshoe back then sure seemed to be herding the rest of the cats in PRC’s direction.

But where the rubber meets the road anytime large sums of public money is expended, or boatloads of long-term public debt is incurred, is what other projects and services are effectively foreclosed by those commitments of money and/or debt.

For example, you folks who are frustrated by the pace of the City’s flood relief projects probably should cast a jaundiced eye on the bungled TIF financing and expenditures, because that current $5 million TIF fund deficit represents $5 million of potential flood remediation that might not get done.  And if that $5 million deficit spirals into the $27 million “worst-case” deficit forecast by the City’s new TIF consultants, flood control and other important City infrastructure projects might not get done, at least not without a substantial increase in our property taxes.

Unfortunately, it appears that a lot of infrastructure needs were neglected in the years leading up to the Uptown TIF fiasco, during which former mayor Ron “All O’Hare, All The Time” Wietecha obsessed over Uptown redevelopment in those few waking hours when he wasn’t consumed by shoveling tons of City bucks into that bottomless Suburban O’Hare Commission pit and its Peotone airport annex.  Within months of getting the Council to pass the TIF resolution in July 2003, Wietecha resigned mid-term without prior notice and fled to Barrington.

What a stand up guy!

He was followed by two mayors – Marous and Frimark – who acted as if they were every bit as committed to doing the Uptown deal as Wietecha, if not more so; and who couldn’t be bothered with something as mundane as inspecting, maintaining, repairing and replacing sewers when there were monuments to be built.

That might explain the July 15, 2013 Agenda Cover Memorandum by City Engineer Sarah Mitchell, which states that the City didn’t “resume” its sewer lining program until 2011 – although the memo doesn’t say when that program was suspended.  The schedule of sewers designated for re-lining during 2013-13 total 7,417 linear feet at a price of $310,000.  That schedule shows sewer lines ranging from 8 inches to 21 inches in diameter.

Are 8-inch sewer lines too small?  How about 15-inchers, or 21-inchers?  The City isn’t saying, nor is it saying how many more 8-inch, 15-inch or 21-inch sewers are out there, and in what condition.

Could those be contributing to, or even causing, a signficant amount of the flooding we’re experiencing?

We don’t know.  And, frankly, we doubt that anybody at City Hall or the Public Works building knows – at least not with the degree of certainty a pro-active infrastructure maintenance and improvement program requires.  But we have to believe that the $5 million that already has been sunk into covering those Uptown TIF deficits could have been put to much better use inspecting, maintaining, repairing and replacing that aged sewer system.

This isn’t to say that the Uptown project is a bad thing.  But considering that the combined Reservoir Block and Bredemann parcels was so attractive to developers back in 2002-03 that the City’s Uptown redevelopment RFQ/RFP drew 19 responses, 5 of which were “short-listed,” it’s a tad nauseating to think about how the City ended up handcuffing itself with long-term bonded debt in order to give PRC multi-millions of dollars in subsidies – especially now that PRC has banked its profit and walked away from the project, while the City will be struggling mightily to meet those debt obligations for the next 14 years.

Are the three amigos who led the Uptown TIF and PRC subsidies efforts (former mayors Wietecha, Marous and Frimark) willing to step up and publicly hold themselves publicly accountable for the Uptown TIF millstone?  How about the former aldermen who rubber-stamped the deal?

So far they’ve all been MIA.  And unless the TIF finances were to miraculously turn around, we suspect they’ll remain MIA.  And why not?  They’ve already basked in the glory of the project as proud parents when it was young and full of promise.

But now that the TIF is looking like a bust, it has become the red-headed step-child.

Or an orphan.

To read or post comments, click on title.

 

The Uptown TIF: Crapitalism Without Accountability

07.25.13

This week, both the TribLocal and the Park Ridge Journal published articles about the City Council’s discussion of Park Ridge’s Uptown TIF at this past Monday night’s Committee of the Whole meeting: “City Staff Reworking TIF To End Deficits,” (Journal, 07.24.13) and “Park Ridge hopes to reduce TIF drain” (Trib, 07.25.13).

At that meeting, City Finance Director Kent Oliven reiterated that the Uptown TIF fund – the special enterprise fund created to operate the TIF district – has already “borrowed” more than $5 million from the City.  Oliven also reiterated the findings of TIF consultant Kane McKenna and Associates, Inc. that, by the expiration of the TIF in 2027, the TIF fund is projected to owe the City over $20 million.

That’s not the kind of return one would hope for on the City’s approximately $40 million TIF “investment.”

It’s also one big reason why Moody’s downgraded the City’s bond rating in January 2012, while also assigning a negative outlook to the City’s finances.  And it’s got the City scrambling to salvage whatever it can from this long-term mess, using some of the ideas and advice given the Council several months ago by Kane McKenna.

For example, one way to put more TIF district tax revenue in the TIF fund is to segregate TIF district property that has gained in value from the property which hasn’t.  But that reportedly will take TIF revenue away from other taxing bodies, like School Districts 64 and 207, and the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District.  We suspect those taxing bodies might have something to say about that effort, even though they – and especially D-64 – were complicit in the creation of the TIF back in September 2003.

Back then, because D-64 had the most to lose from the TIF’s diversion of property tax revenues, the D-64 Board went through the effort and expense of hiring a top-notch Loop TIF attorney, John Murphey., He repeatedly advised then-D-64 Board members Joe Baldi, Rich Brendza, Ares Dalianis, Christine Heyde, Dean Krone, Steve Latreille and Sue Runyon that the land in question did not legally qualify for “TIF” status because it could be developed without a TIF; and that D-64 would likely be successful if it sued the City to stop the TIF.

For reasons that were vague even back then and virtually impenetrable today, however, the D-64 Board wimped out and cut a less-than-optimal financial deal with the City that the City reportedly will be looking to renegotiate now that the TIF has become an economic black hole.

Which illustrates, painfully, one of the biggest problems with government generally, but especially local government here in Park Ridge.

Lack of accountability of public officials for the decisions they make.

Less than 10 years after the foolish TIF-related decisions were made, not one of the elected City officials who made those decisions, or either of the two key City staffers who facilitated them – mayors Ron Wietecha and Mike Marous; alds. Mike Tinaglia, Don Crampton, Rich DiPietro, John Benka, Sue Bell, Andrea Bateman, Sue Beaumont, Howard Frimark, Dawn Disher, Mark Anderson, Rex Parker, Larry Friel and Jeff Cox; and city mgr. Tim Schuenke and finance director Diane Lembesis – remain in elective City office or City employment.

That leaves current Mayor Dave Schmidt and Alds. Joe Sweeney, Nick Milissis, Jim Smith, Roger Shubert, Dan Knight, Marc Mazzuca and Marty Maloney – along with City Mgr. Shawn Hamilton and City Finance Director Kent Oliven – to come up with desperate after-the-fact solutions to borderline-impossible problems created by the departed perpetrators of this TIF debacle.

Not only don’t those perps have to clean up their own mess, but we suspect they are delighted whenever they read superficial alibis for the TIF’s failure, like the TribLocal’s “a weakened economy and soft real estate market,” which gloss over how the $20 million-plus, bond-financed subsidy the City gave TIF developer PRC Partners, LLC was the product of fundamentally boneheaded public policy.  Or that, as we understand it, the servicing of that $20 million of bonded debt contributes mightily to the annual deficiency in the TIF fund.

That’s a “gift” from the perps that will keep on giving for years to come.

Giveaways of public money for private benefit are what properly have been dubbed “crapitalism.”  Unfortunately, it appears to be on the rise nationwide.  And irrespective of whether that crapitalism occurs at the federal, state, or local level, the politicians who make it possible and the recipients who crapitalize on it always seem to make out like the bandits they are.

While the rest of us taxpayers get stuck with the bill.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Hey, D-64 Folks: It’s Not “Your” Money!

07.22.13

We have often written about the seductiveness and delusional effects of “OPM” – Other People’s Money – on our public officials.

At the federal and state levels, the budgets and expenditures are so mind-numbingly large that we suspect it all seems like Monopoly money to the folks in Washington.  The late U.S. Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen (R. Ill.) was reported (although perhaps apocryphally) to have observed, in response to a discussion about federal spending: “A billion here and a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Today, however, a billion dollars barely qualifies as a rounding error at the federal level.  Even at the state level, it’s about 3% of the budget – which might explain why it took the state’s unfunded pension liability to reach $100 billion before our Springfield spendthrifts actually began talking in earnest about – although not acting on – that problem.

Only at the local government level do we still talk about money in understandable amounts that don’t instantly make the eyes glaze over.  Which is why it always pains us to hear and/or read about our local officials apparently succumbing to the Sirens’ spending song and throwing around OPM like confetti, seemingly just because they legally can.

The most common and most consequential example of such profligacy is the way our local officials throw money at our local public employees, almost always without any objectively measurable relationship of the amounts of that money to individual or collective performance, or to a measurable benefit to the taxpayers.

No local governmental bodies do profligacy better than our school districts, perhaps because they have become so adept at talking and acting as if teaching upper-middle class Park Ridge children for roughly 8 months a year is the work of the angels – even if the measurable results of that teaching are less than angelic; e.g.,  according to admittedly two year-old reports, Park Ridge-Niles Elementary School District 64 had the 4th highest paid administrators and the 25th highest paid teachers in all of Illinois, but with student performance on standardized ISAT scores coming nowhere near those lofty compensation rankings.

Yet just last month the D-64 Board gave out the latest round of arbitrary, non-merit based pay increases that, over the past decade or so, have made employment there one of the sweetest deals around.

Secretaries and custodial staff got arbitrary, non-merit based 3.5% increases, while an assortment of “exempt” staff members got arbitrary, non-merit based 2.0% raises – for no apparent reason other than Supt. Philip Bender thought it was a good idea and such raises were “within a modest range of 0-4%.”   Actually, had Bender been left to his own devices, he would have saddled the taxpayers with a 2.75% increase for exempt employees, so the School Board did save the taxpayers 0.75%.

But before anybody suggests that those Board members deserve a parade for their frugality, a closer look at how they did what they did suggests they are guilty of the same basic fiscal irresponsibility as their drunken sailor predecessors who gave both our teachers and administrators their lofty compensation rankings.

Why?

Obviously, 2.0% is better than 2.75%.  But that 2.0% appears to be no more objectively justified than the 2.75%, which itself appears to have no more justification than 1.25%, or 5.75%.  And we could find nothing in the public record that indicates even one of the 7 Board members had the insight or the cojones to ask Bender or finance director Rebecca Allard the $64,000 (or more) question: “Why exactly should we be giving out any raises at all to these employees?”  Or the other $64,000 (or more) question: “What specific objective criteria justify these raises?”

That’s because this D-64 compensation process, perhaps even more than the compensation processes of our other local governmental units, is little more than a fun-with-numbers exercise – with raises having become an institutionalized entitlement that require no demonstrable increase in productivity by the employees, no demonstrable increase in performance by the students, and no demonstrable increase in economic benefit to the taxpayers.  And the process of giving them out illustrates one of the most pernicious evils of what the political class and the political media love to extoll as “compromise.”

To see the evils of unprincipled compromise writ large, one need look no further than Springfield – where for 26 of the past 36 years “Let’s make a deal!” horse-trading between a Democratic General Assembly and 3 different Republican governors (“Big Jim” Thompson, “Slim Jim” Edgar and George “No. 16627-424” Ryan) has left our state perilously close to bankruptcy and with a bleak future, despite increasingly higher taxes.  That’s because feckless compromise, unlike principled, policy-driven up-down voting, encourages factions to stake out positions based not on their inherent merit but merely on their bargaining value.

In the case of these recent D-64 raises, Bender and Allard were effectively able to manipulate the Board into approving an arbitrary and boneheaded 2.0% raise for exempt employees by recommending an arbitrary and ridiculous 2.75% raise.  Worse yet, Bender and Allard could also use that compromise process to bamboozle the more simple-minded townsfolk into thinking that their elected School Board members, by driving the proposed 2.75% down to 2.0%, were being tight-fisted defenders of the public purse rather than mere pawns in a Bender/Allard-orchestrated chess game that benefits themselves and their fellow administrators.

Not only did nobody on the Board ask Bender or Allard any $64,000 questions about those raises, but it appears that nobody on the Board cared enough about transparency and accountability to even make public the actual dollar cost of those raises – preferring instead to stick with just the sterile percentages that serve to conceal from taxpayers the actual cost, in hard dollars and cents, of those raises.

Don’t “2% raises” sound so much more innocuous than “$125,000 (or whatever the actual amount turns out to be) of raises”?

Despite this latest spendthrift performance, we still have high hopes that new Board president Tony Borrelli can somehow bring sorely-needed transparency and fiscal responsibility to D-64, notwithstanding that he’s surrounded by a majority of Board members whose carelessness about fiscal matters seems exceeded only by their cluelessness.  Not surprisingly, it was Borrelli who led the push for cutting the exempt staff raises from 2.75% to 2.0%.

And even the 3.5% increase for secretaries and maintenance staff may have a silver lining, thanks to Borrelli: at what we understand was his insistence, it was accompanied by the elimination of arbitrary “step and lane” increases for those employees that guaranty annual raises based on seniority (“step”) and additional training/education (“lane”), mimicking the way teachers are guaranteed their annual raises.

Hopefully the elimination of those step-and-lane increases for secretaries and maintenance workers will begin a serious discussion about eliminating such increases for teachers before it’s time to negotiate the next PREA contract a couple of years from now.

But counting on Borrelli as the only Board member out of seven to be the taxpayers’ champion means that he has to bring his “A game” every single day – and avoid becoming the seventh dwarf on significant issues like these most recent arbitrary, non-merit based employee raises.  Even if he does bring his “A game” every day, however, for the time being he’s likely to be outvoted by those D-64 Board members who, like so many of their predecessors, have happily jumped into bed with the PREA-led teachers and the PREA-sympathetic administrators in a kind of mini-“Combine” to fleece the taxpayers while producing relatively unexceptional results, as objectively measured by things like the ISATs.

All of which causes us to wonder, yet again, whether anybody (other than Borrelli) with autority over the roughly 40% of our property tax dollars that D-64 grabs every year truly comprehends one of the most important facts of government: that the money they so cavalierly toss around isn’t really theirs.

It’s ours.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Finally, A Pleasant After-“Taste”

07.19.13

It’s time to bury the hatchet.

And not in anybody’s skull.

As readers of this blog well know, since our July 7, 2008 post, we have been unabashedly outspoken critics of Taste of Park Ridge NFP (“Taste Inc.”), the private corporation which, back in 2005, was given a no-bid exclusive “deal” to run the City’s signature event, Taste of Park Ridge (“TOPR”).  Our beef has been simple and straightforward: why is the City getting stiffed on the reimbursement of expenses and the profit sharing that was intended in the original 2005 TOPR “deal”?

Since that first post we discovered that TOPR had been run from 2005 to 2009 by a for-profit corporation masquerading as a non-profit one (i.e, and “NFP”) – which the City (a/k/a, the taxpayers) was subsidizing to the tune of $10-20,000, or more, worth of City services (police, fire and public works), even as Taste Inc. built up a bank account approaching six figures.  The fact that politicians like then-Maine Twp. Supervisor Bob “the Dude” Dudycz and then-mayor Howard Frimark were instrumental in Taste Inc. made the situation even more problematic, as did the inexplicable lack of oversight by both the 14-member, pre-2006 referendum Council, and the 7-member, post-2006 referendum Council.

We called out the Taste Inc. folks and our City officials – the former for ripping off the taxpayers, the latter for letting the former get away with it.  We also called for transparency from Taste Inc., reimbursement of the City by Taste Inc. for TOPR expenses, profit-sharing between the City and Taste Inc., and a competitive RFP/bidding process to ensure that the taxpayers were getting the best bang for their buck, both economically and entertainment-wise.

Needless to say, that didn’t endear us to those Taste Inc. folks and many of those public officials imitating the see/hear/speak-no-evil monkeys.  C’est la vie.

Last year (for TOPR 2012), however, Mayor Dave Schmidt finally overcame all the wailing and gnashing of teeth to get the Council to take its duty to the taxpayers seriously.  They demanded that Taste Inc. do all those things it should have been doing since 2005.  Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate.  So while Taste Inc. reimbursed the City for its expenses, there wasn’t any profit sharing to be had.

But as anybody who was around last weekend can attest, the weather for TOPR 2013 couldn’t have been better.  And the crowds that came out for the expanded (to 4 days) TOPR should end up making this year’s event a contender for most successful TOPR.  Evah!

For Taste Inc. and for the City.  Which is all we ever wanted in the first place.

So in the spirit of “all’s well that ends well,” we think it’s time for all of us who were justifiably critical of how TOPR was being operated to wipe the slate clean, and to give the Taste Inc. folks – Dave Iglow, Dean Patras, John Warnimont, Barb Tyksinski, Mel Thillens, Franklin Ramirez, et al. – a big Watchdog bark-out.  Hopefully, all of us learned something worthwhile from the “refining” process TOPR went through these past few years.

And hopefully TOPR 2013 will prove to have been successful enough to put some needed dollars in the City treasury this year…and in years to come.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Chutzpah Is As Chutzpah Does

07.17.13

We’ve never given a “Chutzpah of the Year Award.”  And we doubt we’ll institute one this year – if only out of concern that too many Park Ridgians might channel their inner Michele Bachmanns and mispronounce it the “choot-spa” award.

But if we were to give one out, the leading contender through the All-Star break would have to be Frank Gruba-McCallister, who chaired the Park Ridge Police Chief’s Advisory Task Force (the “PCATF”) from its creation in 2010 until it was disbanded by Mayor Dave Schmidt and the City Council in May of this year.

The main reason the PCATF was created was to provide a group of citizens to help the Police Department implement changes suggested in the 2008 Audit of the PRPD by attorney Terry Ekl (the “Ekl Report), especially improvement in police-community relations in the wake of several troubling incidents – like the wrongful and deceptive arrest of resident Jayne Reardon, and the police brutality claim by a 15-year old allegedly roughed up by an off-duty police officer after the youth had been arrested and handcuffed.  That latter incident cost the City a $185,000 settlement, plus the attorneys’ fees incurred in defending the case prior to settlement.

But simply helping with community relations must have been too pedestrian a task for the PCATF members who, almost immediately following the PCATF’s creation, turned it into a hammer in search of more nails.

It became the chief instigator and cheerleader for over $1 million of “improvements” to the police station–a collection of “wants” rather than “needs” which became a priority only after the PRPD’s grand plan for building a big new $16-20 million cop shop crashed and burned via an April 2009 referendum.  That cop shop improvement program encouraged further PCATF “mission creep” into many other areas of police activities – which it got away with largely because neither the Mayor nor the City Council was paying close attention while they grappled with more pressing financial problems.

With that mission creep came claims of achievements that, not surprisingly, could not be objectively measured or otherwise supported by hard data – other than the brick-and-mortar of the aforementioned cop shop improvements.   That lack of hard data, however, didn’t stop Mr. G-M and several other PCATF members from acting like the proverbial rooster taking credit for the dawn, taking bows for all sorts of real and imagined “successes” running the gamut from the purported curtailment of underage drinking to “coping with the budgetary stresses experienced by governmental bodies.”

Yes, that’s what Mr. G-M claimed – on the sixth page of what became the PCATF’s final Report to the Mayor and the Council.

That Report and last year’s PCATF meeting minutes suggest that the PCATF already had identified the next big thing for it to jump into.

Mental health.

The Report contains (by our count) 23 references to “mental health” (or its permutations), easily outdistancing the 13 references to “underage drinking” (and its permutations).  It also contains a gratuitous yet opportunistic reference to “Sandy Hook” that displays  a heat-over-light strategy for stampeding chronically skittish and analytically-challenged residents into unquestioning support for giving the PCATF an even broader role in City government going forward.

But that was before Schmidt and the Council decided that three years of the PCATF was enough.

So Mr. G-M showed up at the July 8 City Council meeting to recommend the Council create a “Public Safety Commission” as a replacement for the PCATF – with 20-members, 14 of whom would be specific former PCATF members whose appointments would be exempt from the normal screening by the Mayor’s Advisory Board, comprised of the chairmen of the City Council’s four standing committees.

But where Mr. G-M distinguished himself as the front-runner for a first-ever chutzpah award was his recommendation that the new commission’s chairman be…wait for it…Mr. G-M, himself.  And his appointment also would be without any Mayor’s Advisory Board screening, naturally.

Fortunately, the City Council seemed unimpressed by both the idea of a Public Safety Commission and Mr. G-M’s recommended staffing of it.  That reaction suggests the formation of such a commission is unlikely, which seems to be the right decision.

The Police Department issues targeted by the Ekl Report appear to have been addressed, thanks in large part to the management and leadership of Chief Frank Kaminski.  To the extent the PCATF may have contributed to improved community relations, we’ll toss them a bone for that even though we see and hear far more anecdotes than evidence in that regard.

But although Chief K is rightly concerned about continuing to build public trust in the Police Department and its officers through “constant interactions” between police and citizens, we don’t think either the PCATF or a Public Safety Commission is the best way to accomplish this, given the improvements we’ve observed in the 5 years since the Ekl Report and four years into Chief K’s tenure.  Further improvement in that regard would appear to require more internal, organic development within the department itself.

Chief K warns that “[t]he more you isolate the department from the community, the more problems you are going to have.”  We agree wholeheartedly.  And since Chief K clearly appreciates the problem, we trust his decades of police experience and his Kellogg (Northwestern) MBA in management make him equal to the task of solving it.

As for Mr. G-M and his PCATF alums, assuming they really are serious about dealing with mental health and underage drinking, they should check out the City’s Community Health Commission.  The City’s website indicates that 5 seats will be opening up in September, although we assume the appointment process will require Mayor’s Advisory Board screening.  No exemptions.

And, Mr. G-M, you probably shouldn’t expect to be anointed chairman of the CHC should you apply for and get an appointment.

Unless you really are shooting for that chutzpah award.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Chromebooks Latest “Silver Bullet” For Lagging D-64 Performance?

07.10.13

One of the more memorable scenes in that iconic 1967 movie, “The Graduate,” involves a brief, profoundly superficial conversation between protagonist Benjamin Braddock and one of his parents’ friends, in which the latter imparts a one-word career revelation to the newly-minted grad:

“Plastics.”

In a life-imitates-art sort of way, the “educators” at Park Ridge-Niles Elementary School District 64 have come up with their own one-word revelation for ostensibly improving academic performance of D-64 students:

“Chromebooks.”

That was the watchword at the June 10th D-64 School Board meeting at which that Board voted 6-1 (Board pres. Tony Borrelli dissenting) to purchase 675 Chromebooks for $190,000 as part of a yearlong test of whether D-64 should purchase Chromebooks for every student.  Borrelli wanted to perform this test by purchasing only 157 Chromebooks, which would have replaced that same number of outdated Macbooks.  Borrelli’s more measured test reportedly would have saved the District $145,000.

But anybody who has observed the workings of D-64 over the past several years can read the handwriting on the Smartboards: this “test” stage is just a charade for those taxpaying suckers gullible enough to believe that it’s actually some kind of due diligence evaluation.  In reality, Chromebooks for every student (other than Grades K-2, for which iPads are the device of choice) is virtually a done deal.

Interestingly enough, we could find no mention of any clear, objective metrics by which the D-64 Board and Administration intend to determine the success or failure of this yearlong Chromebook experiment.  Then again, done deals don’t need metrics.

But given the chronic lackluster performance by D-64 students on the ISAT standardized examinations over the past several years, Chromebook-generated improvement measured by higher ISAT scores would have been a welcome, albeit novel, concept.  Or perhaps those two well-paid “tech coaches” D-64 hired a couple of years ago could come up with some other kind of measurement standard.

As “education” continues to be transformed into an alternate universe where customary measures of achievement are being supplanted by a culture of lowered standards, faux self-esteem, and a lack of accountability – by teachers and by the elected and appointed officials charged with directing and managing that process – Chromebooks are seemingly being touted as the latest “silver bullet” cure for whatever may be ailing our kids’ academic performances.

Not surprisingly, the folks at D-64 are carefully maintaining the charade that the Chromebooks are less about the technology and more about the learning.  For example, an April 22, 2013 story in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“District 64 eyes iPads, Chromebooks for every kid”) describes how D-64 director of technology Terri Bresnahan extolled the Chromebook’s web-based platform, how inappropriate material can be easily filtered out, how it has a full keyboard, and how it is fully integrated with Google educational applications – all without mentioning any academic goals or standards for Chromebook-based learning.

Meanwhile, that same article reported that Board members John Heyde and Scott Zimmerman praised the District – and, by implication, themselves – for focusing on student learning and not technology for technology’s sake, also without mentioning any measurable Chromebook-related performance goals or standards.

Yet according to a more recent article in the Park Ridge Journal (“Dist. 64 Schools Go With Chromebooks,” June 13), Bresnahan proclaimed “the mission of the district is to advance the use of technology.”  And Board member Terry Cameron echoed Bresnahan with: “If we’re truly committed to technology we have to be willing to spend the money to [bring Chromebooks to the classrooms].”

That sure sounds like technology for technology’s sake to us.  Probably because it is.

We’re big fans of technology.  But as best we can tell, technology still hasn’t found a way to transcend GIGO: garbage in = garbage out.  And it doesn’t appear that D-64 has come up with adequate standards or an exacting  protocol for making a sound decision on Chromebooks, much less a persuasive case for such a significant commitment of time and money to such a Chromebook test.

But in the words of the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland”: “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”

And for the folks running D-64, that one-word sentence is…“Chromebooks.”

To read or post comments, click on title.

A Positive Step In City Staff Compensation

07.08.13

As we move all too quickly into the second half of summer, the attention of many residents is shifting to vacations (now that most kids’ summer sports schedules are ending), and even to the resumption of school.

That means a lot less attention will be paid to what goes on with our local governmental bodies.  Which makes it a dangerous time for taxpayers…and their pocketbooks.

Fortunately, one potential costly problem has been eliminated not that the “Acting” adjective has been removed from City Manager Shawn Hamilton’s title.  And one longstanding bad precedent has been abandoned, at least temporarily, in the process.

The “bad precedent”?

The kind of multi-year, fixed-term contract that was foolishly given to former city manager Jim Hock.  Both he and his predecessor, Tim Schuenke, were handsomely rewarded by a collection of irresponsible and profligate mayors (Wietecha, Marous and Frimark) and aldermen (2000 through April 2011) who inexplicably acted as if mediocre-to-terrible performance somehow deserved escalating salaries and benefits.

By the time he retired from the City in 2008 – after helping engineer most of the Uptown TIF giveaways to the developer, but before the full extent of the damage done by those giveaways was well known – Schuenke was pulling down over $179,000 in salary, which our then-mayor and aldermen jacked up a whopping $12,000 (from $167,000) in his last two years on the job, also goosing up his pension.  Hock’s base salary, on the other hand, remained at $165,000 for his four year stint prior to being sacked last year.

So Hamilton’s new salary of $155,000 is almost a bargain when measured against his predecessors, especially since he is not getting the $350,000 interest-free loan, a City vehicle, or the six-figure severance Hock received.

Hamilton’s salary might even have been lower if Ald. Marc Mazzuca had his way.  Mazzuca wanted Hamilton’s compensation to be benchmarked against the federal government’s civil service pay scale, which would have put Hamilton’s salary $20-30,000 lower.

Mazzuca was a little vague on why City employees should be benchmarked in that fashion.  And as Mayor Dave Schmidt noted, that kind of salary would have made Hamilton the lowest-paid city manager among comparable north/northwest suburban communities, and put his salary only slightly above his subordinates despite the significantly greater responsibility and accountability.

That’s just another one of the consequences – it’s called “wage compression” – of continually raising union and non-union wages for reasons unrelated to either individual employee performance or a measurable economic benefit to the City.

But the real benefit to the City of Hamilton’s “deal” – negotiated by Schmidt and recently approved by the “new” Council – is that it’s an employment-at-will arrangement, which is the generally-accepted standard of employment for the vast majority of Illinois employees.  And there are none of those outrageous benefits lavished on Hock, like a $350,000 interest-free mortgage loan and the $110,000+ severance.

Hopefully this will establish a new precedent for future hires of city managers and senior staff.  Heck, maybe it will even catch on with mayors, presidents, councils and boards of surrounding communities, who seem to be as boneheaded and irresponsible with their taxpayers’ money as our former elected officials were with ours.

And the “at-will” nature of Hamilton’s employment is important in view of his uneven performance during his “Acting” year, including bedeviling lapses in judgment and dropped balls that are simply unacceptable for a city manager making this kind of money – some of which we have identified in our posts of 06.06.13 and 06.20.13.

We still are optimistic that Hamilton can raise his game and become a real asset to this community, rather than someone who can merely clear the exceedingly low performance bar set by his predecessors.  Most of that optimism, however, is derived from the more exacting demands that we expect to be placed on him by Schmidt and the new aldermen.

Whether Hamilton has the smarts and the spine to hold his own subordinates to more exacting performance standards remains an open question.  So far, we haven’t seen that or heard it.  We also haven’t seen or heard the kind of hard-nosed, tight-ship management ideas we expected from a guy who was hired in large part because of his private-sector business background.

But at least Schmidt and the Council have brought a welcome dose of reality to City Manager compensation.  Now its up to them – especially Mazzuca and those other aldermen who have over-ridden Schmidt’s vetoes of previous arbitrary, non-merit based raises for both union and non-union City staff – to keep the momentum going.

And it’s up to Hamilton to prove he’s worth what he just got.

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July 4, 2013: The Responsibility Of Freedom

07.04.13

On this Independence Day we once again pause for a moment to think about the system of government that was bestowed on us by this country’s Founding Fathers 237 years ago; and the obligations and ongoing responsibilities we owe that system, its Founders, and each other.

In that vein, the following quotes seem particularly appropriate:

“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being.  With freedom comes responsibility.  For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”  Eleanor Roosevelt

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”  Sigmund Freud

“The price of greatness is responsibility.”  Winston Churchill

“Criticism of government finds sanctuary in several portions of the 1st Amendment.  It is part of the right of free speech.  It embraces freedom of the press.”  Hugo Black

“You have citizens who don’t understand how government works and they’re kind of soured on it.  All they do is criticize.  They have no idea that they can make things happen.”  Sandra Day O’Connor

And last but not least, one that should especially resonate with those of us here in Illinois, notwithstanding a reservation or two about the motives of its speaker, who makes a living as an entertainer:

“Freedom isn’t free.  It shouldn’t be a bragging point that ‘Oh, I don’t get involved in politics,’ as if that makes someone cleaner.  No, that makes you derelict of duty in a republic.  Liars and panderers in government would have a much harder time of it if so many people didn’t insist on their right to remain ignorant and blindly agreeable.”  Bill Maher

Happy 4th… and carpe diem!

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Sen. Dan And The Politics Of Division

07.02.13

Since its inception, PublicWatchdog has tried mightily to keep its attention, ideas and comments focused on the local governments based in Park Ridge: The City of Park Ridge, Elementary School District 64, High School District 207, and the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District.

One reason for that is because there’s more than enough going on with Park Ridge-based government to keep us busy.  Another reason is that we don’t have the ability or the interest to deal with bigger governmental units like Crook County or the malodorous State of Illinois.

But today we’re making an exception, compliments of Park Ridge’s own Springfield emissary, state Sen. Dan Kotowski.

We think that Sen. Dan, personally, is a fine fellow.  But when he’s wearing his “politician’s” suit, which is most of the time, he exhibits a split personality that is as puzzling as it is disturbing.

Kotowski has been our state senator for six years, during which time Illinois’ finances have gone from bad to worse to just plain gawd-awful despite the 67% Illinois income tax hike, for which Sen. Dan provided the deciding vote.  That’s not all Kotowski’s doing, of course.  He has had plenty of help from his fellow senators and state representatives who handle the state’s finances worse than an 8-year old manning a sidewalk card-table lemonade stand for the first time.

But what won Sen. Dan this first-ever Watchdog extra-territorial post is a letter he recently sent to a number of his constituents about the state legislature’s abject failure – once again – to enact meaningful public-sector pension reform.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Sen. Dan is a Culligan…uh, we mean Cullerton…man: he shills for the uber-modest pension “reform” plan of Senate president John Cullerton, which ostensibly is competing for support with the more aggressive reform plan proposed by Illinois’ prince of darkness himself, ol’ number 666, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

Frankly, this “competition” between Madigan and Cullerton seems about as legit as professional wrestling.  But guys like Sen. Dan are paid to act like it’s real and thereby convince the rest of us: a Cullerton-controlled political fund has given Sen. Dan over $300,000, which might explain the spring in his step when Cullerton says “Jump!”  So he’s doing his best to whack that turnbuckle and sell Cullerton’s Atomic Drop “reform” to voters the way Vern Gagne used to sell his “Sleeper” hold; and, more recently, Rick Flair peddled his “Figure-Four Leglock.”

Hence, his letter, in which Sen. Dan proclaims his desire for pension reform that “protects working men and women.”  But only one class of “working men and women.”

That’s because the pension “reform” Sen. Dan advocates isn’t intended to protect the vast majority of “working men and women” who toil in the private sector.  It’s intended to protect only public sector employees when they are no longer working (i.e., retired), which for many public sector employees can start in their mid-to-late 50s.  Not surprisingly, this reform is intended to “protect” retirement income levels – which are guaranteed by the Illinois Constitution and, hence, the taxpayers – that substantially exceed what many/most private sector workers will be drawing from Social Security and their non-guaranteed 401(k)s combined.

Sen. Dan claims “a strong record of doing just that” – with the “that” presumably being  protecting public sector employees and retirees.

How?  He doesn’t really say.  But a safe bet would be: by an irresponsible combination of fleecing the taxpayers and driving our once-prosperous State even further toward bankruptcy, its slide to the rock bottom of all 50 states being achieved during Sen. Dan’s six years in office.

Sen. Dan’s letter says that an unidentified pension reform bill (which, by process of elimination, must be Madigan’s House bill) will “punish hard working men and women” like teachers, asphalt patchers, police and firefighters – the implication being that those public employees work harder than their private-sector counterparts, while at the same time having “devoted their lives” to nobler pursuits than the rest of us in the private sector.

Sen. Dan brags about voting to “send a pension reform bill before a bipartisan conference committee” comprised of 10 legislators – chaired by union-cozy Sen. Kwame Raoul (D. Chi.), whose chief claim to fame is that he was appointed to the seat Barack Obama vacated in order to claim his U.S. Senate seat back in 2004 – that “will reconcile policy differences between the House and the Senate.”

Really, Senator?  Really?

He closes his letter by expressing confidence in “passing fair and meaningful pension reform.”  But “fair and meaningful” for whom?  For all those taxpayers who aren’t now, never were, and never will be public employees?

We think not.

Then again, what should we expect from someone who has received contributions reportedly totaling over $200,000 from five public employee unions?

Illinois’ public pension system, if not poorly-conceived, has been obscenely mis-managed and grossly under-funded by a bi-partisan collection of Democrat (Blagojevich) and Republican (Thompson, Edgar & Ryan) governors and legislators, with the acquiesence of public-sector unions content in the knowledge that the Illinois constitutional guaranty of pension benefits ensures that such benefits will be paid, no matter how high taxes need to be raised.

Nevertheless, many public-sector retirees – especially those who retired years ago when public sector salaries were a mere fraction of the lucrative wages paid today – need and deserve to have their pensions protected.  Many of them earned less in wages while actually working (even adjusted for inflation) than many/most of their more-recently retired peers now receive in pension benefits.

If Sen. Dan and his Springfield cronies were concerned primarily about protecting the pension benefits of those older retirees, we might have a little more respect for the arguments made in his letter.  But that doesn’t appear to be the case with either Madigan’s or Cullerton’s “reform” bill.

They seem to want a one-size-fits-all “reform” that perpetuates the current unsustainable system of tying pensions to out-of-control public employee compensation – thereby promoting perversions such as (according to Open the Books.com): 47 Illinois village managers earning higher compensation (and, therefore, higher pensions) than every governor of the 50 states, including Gov. Pat Quinn; park district administrators earning more than the State Director of Parks; and “spikes” in teacher and administrator salaries (including those in the high-five and six figure range) the last few years before retirement, solely to jack-up their retirement benefits.

That must be what Sen. Dan means by “fair and meaningful reform”: “fair” to the public-sector employees while providing a “meaningful” hit to the taxpayers’ wallets.

Welcome to Sen. Dan’s public sector v. private sector politics of division.

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