Public Watchdog.org

No Bid? No Problem For Borrelli-Led D-64 Board

06.27.16

Back in early May we published a post about the Board and Administration of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 having entered into what appears to have been a series of NO-BID contracts worth multi-millions of dollars with vendor Arbor Management for hot lunches at Emerson and Lincoln middle schools.

And it appears as if those deals were cut in closed-session meetings that have become par for the course with the “meet the not-so-new boss (Tony Borrelli), same as the old boss (John Heyde)” Board.

So it should come as no surprise that tonight’s Board agenda has as an action item the Board’s vote on approving a new, more expansive NO BID deal with Arbor Management to provide hot lunches to the District’s five elementary schools.

In that May 3 post we noted how the District’s previous under-the-radar, no-bid deals with Arbor suggested the kind of kinkiness that characterized the no-bid deals that got former CPS supt. Barbara Byrd-Bennett indicted. Preventing that kind of kinkiness, albeit on a smaller scaled than Byrd-Bennett’s $23 million kickback scam, is exactly why no-bid contracts are required by public bodies in all but a few limited situations – food vendor contracts not being one of them to our knowledge.

So we found it curious, to say the least, that the “recommendation” memo ostensibly authored by Supt. Laurie Heinz and Financial Czarina Luann Kolstad – “ostensibly” because propaganda minister Bernadette Tramm’s fingerprints are usually all over this kind of disinformation – makes special mention (at page 2, item 3) of “advocacy for the status quo” (i.e., no District-wide hot lunch program) by one school’s “PTO leadership team” where the owner of a PTO lunch vendor is a family of a current student in that school.

That sound you hear is the pot calling the kettle black.

Ironically, the very next item on that page (No. 4) seems to be Heinz’s and Kolstad’s alibi for not going out to bid on these expanded lunch services: Arbor “are [sic] already the food service vendor of record for District 64” and, therefore, “they [sic] would not require a formal bid process.”

We don’t know when or how Arbor became “the food service vendor of record,” or if that is even a lawful designation.

And, frankly, it sounds like the same kind of dishonest hooey Heinz, Kolstad and Borrelli spouted about the Illinois Open Meetings Act back when they were advocating for the creation of two new D-64 Board committees – a “Finance Committee” and a “Building & Sites Committee,” which we wrote about in our 02.17.16 post – on which resident Joan Sandrik blew the whistle, ultimately resulting in that misguided plan being quietly dropped even though Borrelli and his dwarfs were all set to buy into it hook, line and sinker.

So just consider tonight’s vote on the NO BID hot lunch vendor deal as SSDD: Same [Stuff] Different Day. And just like the IOMA-violating committee plan, this NO BID hot lunch deal also comes without any legal opinion that endorses what appears to be an illegal deal that breaches the public trust. Again.

So we can’t wait to see which of Borrelli’s dwarfs join him in this latest abuse of power, and what kind of alibis they will come up with to justify their rubber-stamping of this perversion. Odds-on favorites in that category are Zimmerman, Lee and Johnson, whose heads start bobbling the moment they walk into a Board meeting room and rarely ever stop.

The only real question is whether, in following Borrelli, they sing “Hi ho” or simply “moo.”

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Finally…Something Better Than The Blues From Moody’s

06.24.16

Last week Acting Mayor Marty Maloney got some good news that he shared with Park Ridge taxpayers by a press release: Moody’s Investors Service issued a new “Credit Opinion” which removed the “negative outlook” from the City’s Aa2 general obligation bond rating.

For a City that had seen its bond rating downgraded from Aa1 to Aa2 back in January 2011 and stigmatized with a “negative outlook” – thanks to more than a decade of irresponsible borrowing and spending, and general mismanagement, under that trio of bumbling mayors Ron Wietecha (now of Barrington), Mike Marous (still of Park Ridge) and Howard Frimark (now of Harwood Hts.) – just stopping the slide was a major accomplishment that took a significant revision to the City’s financial philosophy to include “prudent austerity” and “reasonable – but not painless – tax and fee increases,” according to the press release.

As noted in the release, that new financial philosophy started with our late mayor Dave Schmidt, who in 2009 became the only adult in a room full of children effectively demanding Snickers bars and Skittles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That earned him the nickname of “Mayor No,” of which he was justifiably proud because it distinguished him from the majority of his fellow City officials (and their predecessors) who were either too stupid or too selfish to understand and care about all the long-term damage such financial irresponsibility and debt was doing to the City, both present and future.

If you want a little more history on those points, you can check out our posts of 01.12.12, 01.30.12 and 07.25.13.

Schmidt’s vetoes weren’t always upheld, especially when a majority of the City Council consisted of holdovers from the Frimark regime. But the ones that were not over-ridden saved City taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars short-term, and will end up saving the City millions more if the policies and practices underlying them continue to be carried forward by present and future councils.

With the prospect of the City’s needing to issue tens of millions of dollars of new bonded debt to repair, replace and/or improve its infrastructure, stopping the City’s bond rating slide is a crucial first step to reducing the cost of that debt to the City’s taxpayers. And as Maloney was quoted in the press release:

“Our next goal is to raise the rating itself.”

That will require the continued support of the taxpayers “who have contributed the extra tax and fee revenues while accepting the various economies necessarily imposed on City services.” And maintaining that support will challenge both the brains and the spines of our elected officials, as it will challenge the vigilance of those taxpayers who don’t get back-end benefits from front-end tax and fee increases; e.g., City employees and their families.

As we’ve recently seen with our Fire Dept., City employees – like many/most employees in both the public and the private sector – will continue to expect more money for the same amount and quality of their work. Unfortunately, the market economics that manages such expectations in the private sector have pretty much become foreign to the public sector, especially in Illinois and even here in sleepy ol’ Park Ridge.

For example, senior bureaucrats find it much easier to support rather than resist their subordinates’ demands for raises because “salary compression” resulting from such raises provides a convenient argument for similar or even greater increases in compensation for those very same senior bureaucrats.

And even where those City (or school district, or park district, or Library) employees are also taxpayers of the unit of government that employs them, a $100 property tax increase is an outstanding bargain when it comes with a $500 or $1,000 raise.

The same analysis applies to those various private-corporation community groups who denounced Schmidt and the city councils that shut the spigot of tax dollars that had been flowing unaccountably to those groups year after year. Even the unpaid directors of those groups delighted in a $100-per-home (avg.) property tax increase that put $20,000 or more into their organizations’ coffers, thereby reducing their own funding and fundraising obligations.

And it also applies to certain “private” special interests as well.

Like those Mayfield Estates residents who bought their homes at discounted prices because of the flooding in that area – resulting primarily from their cheapskate predecessors’ rejection of the City’s request that they pay for the installation of storm sewers when that area was annexed, and from their or their predecessors’ expansion of their usable front yards by filling in the drainage ditches that substituted for storm sewers.

They’re the ones who show up at City Hall seeking a multi-million dollar bond issue and accompanying property tax increase to finance flood remediation in their neighborhood. That’s because they know full well that their $100/year-per-home tax increase will buy each of them $100,000+ of flood remediation, with a likely $100,000+ increase to the value of their residences if/when they want to sell them.

All of it is a variation of what we call “freeloading” practiced by “freeloaders”– our shorthand term for those residents who are always looking to leverage maximum benefits for themselves, their families and/or their friends by shifting the costs of those benefits onto the backs of their fellow taxpayers.

If that freeloader mentality continues to gain traction, we can all say ”goodbye” to Maloney’s goal of raising that Aa2 bond rating and say “hello” to the likely return of the negative outlook.

A/k/a, Moody’s blues.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Smart Money Betting On PREA Over D-64

06.21.16

In our 12.31.15 post we warned about the new teachers contract that would be devised by Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 and the Park Ridge Education Association (“PREA”), a mis-match on the order of Muhammed Ali v. Zora Folley.

And in case you don’t grasp the metaphor, the PREA is Ali.

One of the big differences between Ali–Folley and PREA–D-64 is that, while the former bout was held before a jam-packed Madison Square Garden, the latter is being staged in the secrecy of closed-session meetings – the legacy of the 2012 contract offered by then-D-64 Board president John Heyde and sidekick Pat Fioretto as just another favor to a PREA that most definitely doesn’t ever want D-64 taxpayers hearing either the teachers’ demands or their responses to any D-64 counters, however insipid the latter might be.

So while this year’s “negotiations” – if you can legitimately use that term for ankle-grabbing on command – have been going on for weeks (months?), taxpayers have been kept in such darkness by the D-64 (a/k/a, the D-64 taxpayers’) “negotiating” team that we don’t even know what round it is. And we most likely won’t know a thing until (mixing metaphors) the white smoke emerges from the D-64 chimney and the respective sides’ sycophants and/or spinmeisters begin chanting “Habemus contracta!”

If past is prologue, the taxpayers won’t even see that contract until after it is ratified by PREA membership and approved by the D-64 Board. Four years ago, the new contract didn’t appear on the D-64 website until months after it was appproved, after it was posted on the PREA website.

One easy way to tell if the “fix” was in (returning to the boxing metaphor), however, is to see whether the D-64 team of Supt. Laurie Heinz, Board pres. Tony Borrelli and Board v.p. Scott Zimmerman chose to bake yet another secret negotiations provision into the new contract in order to ensure yet another Star Chamber negotiation for the next contract.

We’re betting “Yes!” Actually, we’re betting “Hell yes!”

Once you find that secrecy provision in the new contract you can also bet there is a new set of those “step” (seniority-based) and “lane” (continuing education-based) increases unrelated to any actual merit. That’s because seniority and continuing education, however irrelevant and ineffective in producing improved student performance and achievement, are what’s important to the PREA and to the D-64 Board. Which means the D-64 team happily threw in the towel on that part of the contract, too.

Keeping teacher (and administrator) compensation disconnected to merit and achievement appears to be one of the main reasons why D-64 maintains total radio silence about those inconvenient truths: (a) its students’ test scores don’t measure up to comparable districts; (b) its schools’ rankings are inferior to the schools of those other districts; and (c) its educational mediocrity may be adversely impacting Maine South’s performance. Ignoring those truths reduces the chances of D-64’s having to explain them to the folks paying for the underachievement.

Meanwhile, the only report we’ve heard about the “negotiations” appeared in an article about the D-64 budget in last week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Budget discussion continues in District 64,” June 14), in which Board president Borrelli stated that the parties are “currently working on salaries in negotiation.”

Translation: They are currently working on how much more the teachers will be paid for no greater effort or objectively-measurable results.

Interestingly enough, the focus of that H-A article was how the District is stripping $10 million out of its working cash fund so that it can pay cash for upcoming capital projects instead of going to referendum – and thereby giving the taxpayers a voice in whether and/or which such capital projects should be done.  Avoiding actual taxpayer votes on taxing and spending is a D-64 tradition since at least 1997, when D-64 was forced into the “Yes/Yes” referendum to build the new Emerson Middle School and increase the operating levy – only to discover a few years later that it apparently had failed to adequately budget for Emerson’s debt service and operations.

The result: by 2003 the District was annually popping up on the Illinois State Board of Education’s financial “early warning” or “financial watch” lists – a highly-problematic situation that the District downplayed while sneakily issuing $5 million of back-door “working cash bonds” to replenish its diminished fund balances in 2005 until it could crank up its propaganda machine to promote the multi-million dollar “Citizens For Strong Schools” referendum in 2007.

Based on D-64’s “2015-2016 Tentative Fund Balance June 30, 2016” that stripped out $10 million of working cash will reduce the District’s projected working cash balance by 66%, and leave the overall fund balance at $40,537,045 – giving the District a cushion of approximately 57% of its annual operating expenses, still well above its professed objective of “33% (4 months (120 days) of operating expense).”

So if the District’s professed objective is 33% of operating expenses, what’s the reason for it hanging onto an overall fund balance which, even after taking that $10 million working cash fund hit, will still be 73% above that objective?

Can you say “Slush fund”? We knew you could.

Now, can you say “Produced by year after year of maximum tax levies”? Well done!

Sitting on such a huge pile of extra cash (which the taxpayers otherwise would have in their own pockets, bank accounts or investment accounts) makes it so much easier for the D-64 Board and administrators to spend big chunks of it without having to get taxpayer approval via referendum. And those big chunks can be spent without the taxpayers really even noticing that it’s being spent, and what they’re getting in return for that spending.

As the old saying goes: “A slice off a cut loaf is rarely missed.” Or, in D-64’s case, a lot of slices. And that’s just another way that D-64 remains non-transparent and un-accountable to those taxpayers.

Now, bring on the next Star Chamber discussion of another Heinz contract extension and raise!

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Fire Chief’s Salary Beef Too Little, Too Late

06.16.16

Any reader of this blog knows that we were no fans of former Fire Chief Mike Zywanski – ever since the night he sat silently in a City Council meeting while then-mayor Dave Schmidt asked who from the City signed off on a set of ridiculous “ground rules” for contract negotiations between the City and the firefighters union that Zywanski not only signed off on but which he actually proposed.

So we were delighted when Chief Z retired and Jeff Sorensen took over as chief in 2014. And we’re still glad he’s the chief.

But we must confess to more than a little disappointment in reading his June 13, 2016 Agenda Cover Memorandum in which he claims to be “looking to the Council for some direction” in addressing what he claims to be “salary compression” – whereby “over half our lieutenants make almost as much as our battalion chiefs” while the former get better benefits and overtime.

Our initial disappointment arises from having a matter of this financial significance being brought up only a couple of months after the City budget was finalized. The budget process is when this discussion should have occurred, yet we recall no mention of “salary compression” in any of the Fire Dept. budget materials or during any of the discussions of the Fire Dept. budget.

So if there’s a good reason this wasn’t done as part of that process, than Chief Sorensen owes the Council and the taxpayers an explanation of what that reason might be. Because there’s nothing in his memo to suggest that this situation just sprung up overnight out of thin air.

We’re also disappointed in the gruel-thin analysis that the Chief presents in support of his conclusion that he and “all of our non-union personnel are paid far below the average for their rank and position as compared to our neighboring departments.”

Take the four MABAS salary surveys he attaches – for chief, deputy chief, captain and battalion chief – attached to his memorandum. While they show disparities in salaries, they omit key information that might provide insight into the raw salary data, such as: size of force; department budget; years on the job; years in that position; starting salary; number and amount of raises; and vacation/leave days.

In other words, these surveys appear to be apples to oranges comparisons, at best. Or maybe apples to watermelons.

We believe Chief Sorensen is better than this kind of propaganda would suggest. We also believe that he should, and can, do better than that.

But until he does, it’s up to the taxpayers’ representatives on the City Council to deny such requests while demanding a better and more-timely work product from the Chief and his senior staff.

And that “better” work product should start with some additional information that relates solely to our Fire Dept. personnel, irrespective of other communities’, that would permit our taxpayers to decide if our personnel are under-compensated, starting with a calculation of the annual pensions each of the affected personnel will be receiving; and at what age they will qualify for those pensions. Because the simple truth is that while a $130,000 salary is pretty darn good all by itself, a $97,500/year pension (75% of $130,000) with a 3% COLA is basically the gold standard – especially if one can start taking it at age 55 and can expect to pocket a whopping $3.2 million just for living to age 85.

That beats the $%@& out of Social Security and the vast majority of Park Ridge taxpayers’ 401(k)s! And those pensions and COLAs are GUARANTEED under the Illinois constitution, unlike the 401(k)s the rest of us have.

Let’s also not forget that dirty little secret rarely even whispered about when discussing firefighter pay: moonlighting income.

Thanks to the typical firefighter schedule of 24 hours on, 48 hours off, many/most firefighters moonlight at other jobs, often well-paying ones like construction. That’s all well and good, but it’s something most of our salaried taxpayers making even the $64,000 starting salary of a Park Ridge firefighter can’t pull off without the convenience of a 3-workdays-out-of-every-9-calendar-days schedule.

And while a 24-hour shift could conceivably be a significant challenge, we’d be willing to bet some decent cash that here in sleepy old Park Ridge, most of our firefighters average 6 to 8 hours of shut-eye out of the typical 24-hour shift. That’s not intended as a a criticism, just an observation.

The bottom line is that firefighters, like police, perform an essential and potentially life-risking service to our community. We owe them a debt of gratitude and fair compensation.

But that means looking at the entire compensation package, not just salaries – however further “compressed” they may have become thanks to the Chief and/or his deputies having just negotiated a 4-year contract providing 1.875% average annual raises, in addition to “step” increases based on seniority.

Which means looking long and hard at those gold standard pensions, and considering the golden opportunity for the moonlighting income that a 24-on, 48-off schedule makes possible.

In the end, however, the best test for determining how “fair” the compensation is might be to look and see how many of our firefighters – and police, and public works personnel, and teachers – flee their Park Ridge employment for similar jobs in those nearby communities held out as comparables.

Because over the past 28 years we have yet to hear the whoosh of multiple departures.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Mayor’s Advisory Board Chooses To Stay The Course At The Park Ridge Library (Updated)

06.10.16

Once upon a time Park Ridge was a sleepy little inner-ring bedroom community of single-family homes and “conservative” values – so conservative, in fact, that one of its standout high-school students (who would later become a rich, famous and powerful Democrat running for president) was reportedly a “Goldwater Girl.”

Back then local government was also sleepy, run by something called the Homeowners Party that was more a social club than a political organization. The HOs not only openly ran City Hall but they also indirectly ran the park board and both school boards, the latter two through their unofficial affiliate known as the General Caucus of School Districts 64 & 207.

Park Ridge City government remained sleepy until April 2003, when the HOs lost five out of seven aldermanic races and subsequently went out of business.

Since then, local politics has become much more a contact sport than cocktail party. But the result is that local government has become vastly more transparent and accountable to the taxpayers who fund it. Not as transparent and accountable as it should be, mind you. Just more than it has ever been – even at those bastions of opaque, closed-session Star Chamber government: the D-64 and D-207 school boards.

One shining/glaring example of that “New Way” of government is that the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate published not one but TWO online stories this week about the three recommended appointees to the Library Board that were approved just the night before by the Mayoral Advisory Board (the “MAB”) comprised of the chairs of the City Council’s four standing committees: “Alderman, former trustee clash over Park Ridge Library Board attendance,” (June 7) and “Two incumbents, one newcomer recommended for Park Ridge Library Board” (June 7).

Prior to the 2009 election of the late mayor Dave Schmidt, there was no MAB. Library Board appointments, like virtually all other City board and commission appointments, were the prerogative of the mayor; and his choices were regularly rubber-stamped by docile and complicit councils, with little discussion. As a result, ordinary citizens never read or even heard about the mere “applicants” for Library Board appointments. If they heard anything at all it was usually just the names of the appointees once they were confirmed by the council. And that was only if the citizens were really paying attention, and if the local media even reported it.

Contrast that with the process implemented by Schmidt that, over the past several weeks, saw 11 residents have their applications and resumes posted on the City’s website for all to see and comment on – followed by three nights of open-meeting interviews by the MAB, culminating in the open-meeting discussion and selection of the three recommended nominees before last Monday night’s Council meeting.

Transparent process? Check.

Accountability of the four MAB aldermen? Check.

In fact, the process was so transparent that several residents, led by Walter Szulczewski, showed up to monitor those meetings. And a pre-emptive strike against the reappointment of incumbents Joe Egan and Char Foss-Eggemann was launched by a June 3rd letter to all seven aldermen from three former Library Board members (John Benka, Patricia Lofthouse and Richard Van Meter) and the Library’s former business manager (Kathy Rolsing).

Those cabal members trained their fire on the meeting attendance of Egan and Foss-Eggemann because they apparently didn’t have the nerve or the ammo to challenge those two incumbents on their respective records of performance and policy decisions – records which the cabal strongly disapproved even though the City Council and, presumably, most taxpayers, did not.

Despite the confusing attendance figures presented by the cabal, Egan’s lawful attendance at regular meetings was 30 out of 37, or 81%; and 53 out of 63, or 84% for committee meetings. Foss-Eggemann’s numbers were 31 out of 37, or 84% for regular meetings; and 37 out of 56, or 66% for committee meetings.

Further corrections to, and explanations of, those numbers were submitted to the MAB by both Egan and Foss-Eggemann.

I served on the Library Board with all three of those former trustees: with Van Meter for 1 year (2011-12), with Lofthouse for 2 years (2011-2013), and with Benka for three years (2011-2014). All three of them are smart and affable folks who were perfectly suited for the old-Homeowners style of opaque, un-accountable rubber-stamp government. In fact, Benka ran unopposed as an old-HO candidate for Second Ward alderman and held that office from 2001-2005 before being appointed to the Library Board by then-mayor Howard Frimark.

When it comes to the Library, the collective legacies of Van Meter, Lofthouse and Benka can pretty much be summed up as 27 years of unquestioning go-along-to-get-along deference paid to the Library staff – highlighted by neglect of the Library structure; years of irresponsible deficit spending; open hostility to, and ridicule of, the city council; the endorsement of management without measurement; and “vision” based on 20-70 hindsight instead of 20-20 foresight.

In Benka’s case it also included a vote to close the Library on summer Sundays in 2014 – consistently the busiest or second-busiest day of the week based on average visits per hour – so that the Library could use that money to give raises to some employees. Those closings and raises were tacitly endorsed by the other three cabal members, none of whom voiced even a peep of an objection either in person or in writing.

Not surprisingly, Egan and Foss-Eggemann opposed each and every element of the cabal members’ legacies. And they also opposed giving away thousands of dollars of Library money each year on the foolish Food For Fines program, giving away free office space to for-profit tutors, and giving away free computer and Internet time to non-residents. And unlike the cabal members who preferred to deficit spend and then blame the city council for not giving the Library more money, Egan and Foss-Eggemann supported the 2014 Library tax levy referendum that will provide the Library with an extra $4 million by the time that levy increase expires in 2018.

Fortunately, the members of the MAB aren’t old Homeowners and don’t subscribe to those old-HO principles. That’s why Egan and Foss-Eggemann have been recommended to Acting Mayor Maloney for re-appointment. Should they be reappointed they can be expected to continue to help drive the Library into the 21st Century and make it a  better institution for even more Park Ridge residents, especially the many thousands who have not been using it.

Meanwhile, expect Van Meter to keep showing up at Library Board and City Council meetings to demand my resignation or replacement, respectively. Or to rail about Egan’s attending some Library Board meetings by “calling in from third-world countries” like…Phoenix AZ. Or to kvetch about Foss-Eggemann. Or to warn the other Library trustees about agreeing with the three of us on anything.

As a sporting proposition, he’s welcome to bring the rest of his cabal along with him.

Robert J. Trizna

Editor and publisher

Member, Park Ridge Library Board

[DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the editor and are not intended to represent those of the Park Ridge Library, its staff, its Board of Trustees, or any other individual trustee.]

UPDATE (06.12.16): A former alderman has advised that a “Mayoral Appointment Board” was created by former mayor Mike Marous (2003-2005). Although we have not been able to independently verify that fact, we consider this alderman as a credible source of such information; and, accordingly, we deem it worthy of inclusion in this update.

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