Public Watchdog.org

Burke’s $106 Million Flood Control Plan Means Time For City Council To Make Decisions

10.19.17

We’ve always liked the motto of the Public Television show “This Old House”: “Measure twice, cut once.”

That tends to be good advice in most situations, and especially good advice when it comes to the operation of government: The expenditures of substantial sums of taxpayer money and/or the undertaking of substantial amounts of public debt for some project or program.

Fortunately for Park Ridge taxpayers, the Park Ridge City Council, so far, has taken that approach when it comes to the City’s adoption of proposals for addressing the City’s flooding problems. Because of the grand scope of the flooding problems and, therefore, the cost of the projects that will be needed to solve those problems, measuring twice – or even three and four times – is the prudent thing to do.

At the Council’s September 11, 2017 Public Works Committee of the Whole (“COW”) meeting, Christopher B. Burke Engineering presented its most comprehensive flooding remediation plan to date, intended to address flooding in 13 areas of Park Ridge. The price tag: $106 million for what Burke is claiming will provide 100-year protection, even in those semi-disaster areas like Mayfield Estates and the basin just west of the Park Ridge Country Club between Oakton on the north and the METRA tracks on the south.

Just so there’s no misunderstanding: That $106 million doesn’t include the additional $10-20 million of potential debt service costs for the bonds that likely will be needed to fund this mega-project, depending on the amount and the duration of those bonds.

Flood remediation has been the 500 lb. gorilla, and a political football, in Park Ridge for decades. For most of the 1990s and ear ly-2000s our City politicians and bureaucrats not only did nothing to remediate it but, in many instances, they took a variety of actions that actually exacerbated the problems – including diverting the funds budgeted annually for relief sewers (to hold stormwater) to other more popular pursuits and pet projects.

Only after the election of mayor Dave Schmidt in April 2009 did the City begin to get serious about flooding, forming the Flood Control Task Force chaired by former public works director Joe Saccamano and comprised of residents like Gail Fabisch and Bob Mack, both of whom are career professionals in dealing with water management and flooding.

In connection with the task force’s efforts the City made Burke Engineering its flooding consultant of choice. Based on studies and recommendations by Burke, the City began some of the more inexpensive remediation projects – the low-hanging fruit – while working toward a more comprehensive and more expensive global plan, which is what Burke appears to have come back with last month.

Burke’s power-point presentation is posted on the City’s website and can be found here. And it prescribes the 100-year protection that should be the goal of any such project.

Such a comprehensive plan will not be able to be accomplished in a year or even two. It also cannot be accomplished by the City unilaterally because it will require the cooperation of the Park Ridge Park District for the detention area recommended for Northwest Park, and of the Park Ridge Country Club for the construction of the underground vault on the east side of Greenwood that will run pretty much the full length of the 3d hole, and that appears crucial to flood control in that area.

The cost of these projects will impose a substantial burden on the City’s taxpayers for years to come, no matter how successful the City’s storm water utility proves to be.

That’s why we think that NOW is the time for the Council to start taking the action necessary to determining whether there is sufficient taxpayer support to move forward with the projects contained in the Burke plan. And that should involve a referendum – the 10-letter word that terrifies and infuriates those public officials, elected and appointed, who distrust the taxpayers/voters, and/or who think those taxpayers/voters are incompetent to express their opinions about projects such as this through the ballot box.

At least two, if not three or four, current aldermen are known to have opined that elected public officials – such as themselves, of course – are elected to make these kinds of decisions, without needing no stinking referendums. And should they want any taxpayer advice, they can easily get it by talking to their constituents , a la former 3d-Ward alderman Don Bach, who once voted to give Napleton Cadillac up to $2.4 million of taxpayer money, even though he was against the idea, because he had talked to “about 30 people” in his ward who thought it was a good idea.

But make no mistake about it: NO current mayor or alderman has EVER run for the offices they currently hold on the promise that they would support the taxing, borrowing and/or spending more than $100 million on flood remediation/prevention. That means none of their voters elected them to do that.

We’ve got two elections coming up in 2018 that would be suitable for such a referendum: The primaries in March 2018 and, even better, the general election in November 2018. Both the primary and the general election regularly produce a significantly larger voter turnout than our odd-year local elections and, therefore, would be the better vehicle for measuring public support for any $100 million-plus expenditure and/or indebtedness.

Because referendum questions have to be submitted months ahead of the actual elections, however, the deadline for the Council to put a flood remediation question on the March 20, 2018 primary ballot is January 1, 2018. That might be cutting it too close, thereby making the August 20, 2018 deadline for putting one or more referendum questions on the November ballot more reasonable.

We would hope Mayor Maloney and a majority of the current Council will voice their support for a referendum on such an important issue, and do so sooner rather than later.

Unless, of course, they want to play Springfield-style politics and kick the flood control can far enough down the road that it rolls past the April 2019 City elections – when the terms of Aldermen Moran (1st), Wilkening (3d), Melidosian (5th) and Joyce (7th) will be expiring. That way, should they choose to run, neither they nor their challengers would have to handle any potentially difficult questions that might arise from the results – up or down – of a November 2018 referendum.

Hope springs eternal, however, so we’re willing to make a modest wager that the Council will move forward on the Burke plan so that one or more appropriate referendum questions will find their way to the November 2018 ballot.

But if they don’t, every homeowner in Park Ridge who has flooding problems should be demanding to know why not.

To read or post comments, click on title.

City Getting More Into The “Business” Of The Farmers Market

10.10.17

We dislike public-private ventures where governmental bodies and private businesses combine in what should be purely private enterprises.

The reasons?

First, because those types of arrangements rarely are essential functions of governmental bodies. Second, the private-sector business people who look for such fusion opportunities tend to be a lot slicker negotiators than their public-sector counterparts. And third, even when the public officials aren’t being out-negotiated, they often end up carrying the water for some special interest or other, usually resulting in a windfall of tax dollars and no accountability.

We’ve seen that happen with boondoggles like the Economic Development Corporation, the Facade Improvement Program, the Uptown Redevelopment project and annual giveaways of taxpayer cash to private non-profit corporations like Taste of Park Ridge (“TOPR”), the Center of Concern, Meals On Wheels, and other such community organizations that went on for years with no thought whatsoever of demanding accountability for that money.

Today’s boondoggle du jour is the Farmers Market, which reportedly has been a favored special interest since the days of mayor Marty Butler.

Why did the City get into the Farmers Market business in the first place, and what was the City supposed to get out of it? Nobody seems to know. And looking back at the bare-bones council meeting minutes from 2006, when the Market’s section of the City Code was last amended, it’s virtually impossible to say.

As noted in the City Attorney’s memo dated August 10, 2017, the running of the Market has apparently been so ignored by the City that:

* the Market “has operated outside the regular budget and procurement process…”;

* the Market “has not broken even…” thereby requiring “the City to underwrite some expenses with taxpayer dollars (e.g., AT&T parking lot lease)”; and

* “despite…selling out its vendor permits for each of the last several years, the cost charged for a permit has not been enough to cover the Market’s expense, “ which has dinged Park Ridge taxpayers for about $3,000 each year.

Why, then, did Alds. John Moran (1st), Gail Wilkening (3d), Charlie Melidosian (5th), Marc Mazzuca (6th) and Marty Joyce (7th) vote to amend the Farmers Market Ordinance (Article 12, Chapter 7 of the City Code) at the Council’s October 2 meeting instead of deferring that action and re-visiting whether the Market should have a place in the City Code at all?

According to Mazzuca at the September 25, 2017 COW meeting, the Market is “tradition” and “is in our Code.”

Our Code also has provisions for “Sexually-Oriented Businesses,” “Garage or Yard Sales” and “Valet Parking Businesses,” but we’re not aware of any of those getting City subsidies or their own City committee.

Don’t get us wrong: We like the Farmers Market. This editor is there almost every Saturday, rain or shine. But that doesn’t justify the Council’s treating it like a favored child, or tying it even more closely to the City than it has been up to now.

It’s not like Park Ridge residents live in one of those food “deserts” characteristic of the poverty-ridden neighborhoods of Chicago, where the Market is our only source of fresh produce, meat, bakery, flowers, dog treats, giardiniera, and all the other things sold there. We’ve got our choice of Whole Foods, Mariano’s, Jewel and Trader Joe’s within our own City boundaries, along with a Jerry’s just over the northeast border in Niles, and a Tony’s on Greenwood just a block north of Dempster.

By subsidizing the Farmers Market even nominally (to the tune of $2,000 or so per year) the City is effectively subsidizing private businesses – most of them not based in Park Ridge or run by Park Ridge residents – who actually are competing against those aforementioned taxpaying grocery stores, and some of our smaller businesses like Dolcetti Patisserie & Café.

According to an October 3, 2017 article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Elected officials to have say over Park Ridge Farmers Market volunteer committee”), rental fees for Farmers Market vendors were finally raised this year to a whopping $14 per Saturday, or $3.50 per hour for each of the four hours it’s open. That’s chump change, although it probably explains why the Market keeps getting more vendors while increasing its City subsidies – and why the H-A reports that Farmers Market co-chair Jay Crowley wants the City Council “to explore paying someone to [run the Market].”

Gee, did anybody else see that coming?

2d Ward Ald. Nick Milissis was spot-on in calling for a review of the Farmers Market ordinance and wondering why the City appears to be getting even more involved in what should be “a private initiative” like TOPR: A private, non-profit corporation that is permitted to use City property – a portion of Summit Avenue and the “Triangle” and “Library” parking lots – but which in all other respects is treated as an entity separate and apart from the City that pays the City for the police, fire and public works services it uses.

Milissis and Ald. Roger Shubert (4th) were the only two aldermen voting against the amendment and suggesting that the entire concept behind the Farmers Market Ordinance should be re-visited.

We don’t see that happening with a Council that finds “tradition” and “it’s in our Code” handy excuses for avoiding serious policy discussions and continuing to subsidize non-essential services that aren’t being run in a self-sufficient manner, yet will continue to be run by the same people.

To read or post comments, click on title.

J.D. Kadd’s Should Not Become Low-Hanging Condos

08.22.17

Within the past few years Park Ridge has filled some significant holes in its commercial and retail space base.

The biggest win in that regard was filling the empty Dominick’s space at Cumberland and Higgins with Mariano’s.

Right behind that comes Shakou, which filled the large space vacated by the Pioneer Press several years earlier. Holt’s took over the prominent space vacated by Pine’s men’s apparel at the corner of Prospect and Summit. And Harp & Fiddle combined the old pharmacy space with the adjacent space formerly occupied by Garden on the Run.

On the other hand, the Pickwick/Pick/Pickwick saga ended badly and, as a result, one of the most prominent retail spaces in Park Ridge sits empty, along with a few more storefronts in Uptown. Those are the spaces people should be concerned about because they are the draws for what our retailers like to call the “vibrant” Uptown.

But recently a lot of attention has been paid to the old J.D. Kadds complex on Northwest Hwy. by the folks holding court on the Park Ridge Concerned Homeowners FB page, provoked by a post by one Sara Brown-Povis at 10:00 a.m. on August 12 bemoaning how “[t]he old JD kadds lot is SUCH an eye sore” and proffering her wish list of “a bar And grill and Starbucks” or even “another nail shop.”

That set off a string of comments containing other people’s wish lists, such as a Buffalo Wild Wings (Jackie Baldur), a “Bakery + Coffee shop” (Jennefer Martin), a Chick Fil-A (Mary Moore Becker), a drive-through “Dunkin’” (Lauren Hall and Ashley Hawkes), a “Jimmy and or Papa John” (Max Power), “Green space” (Park Commissioner Cindy Grau, twice), a BBQ place (Karen Ley), a barber shop (Malcom Hawkes), a lacrosse field (Sarah Sohl Post), or “some sort of indoor facility for sports and fun! Ninja warrior, climbing, tumbling, whatever” (Michelle Tullett Charley).

As the saying goes: “If wishes were horses, all beggars would ride.”

But one of the reasons this country became the most free, successful and powerful one this planet has ever known is because, with a few notable exceptions, capitalism – with its inherent risks and rewards – provides the environment most conducive to achieving the highest and best use of its resources, including property.

So while the J.D. Kadd’s site is currently fallow and an “eye sore,” the chances are pretty good that at some point in the not-too-distant future the current owner or a new one will come up with an idea to make that land more profitable and, presumably, more attractive.

More likely than not it will involve some sort of investment (i.e., “capital”) that carries with it some degree of risk and an equal or better prospect for reward.

And, more likely than not, the person(s) making that investment and taking that risk won’t be any of the folks who have shared their wish lists on the Concerned Homeowners page. Instead, it will be the Bob Marianos, the Declan Stapletons and the Ed Berrys, the Matt Ranallis, the Tim Griffins and the Frank Ernestos who are willing to put their (and/or their investors’, or their lenders’) money on the line and commit their effort to taking their shots.

Until then, however, the J.D. Kadd’s site will remain an eye sore while those pickers of low-hanging fruit – the condo developers and real estate brokers – will lobby the City for zoning changes so that they can make a quick buck.

Just like they are trying to do with the Mr. K’s site on Higgins.

Hopefully the City will resist those low-hanging fruit pickers so that maybe, just maybe, some entrepreneur will find a way to keep that J.D. Kadd’s property commercial, like it has been for decades.

And maybe, in the process, even grant one or more of those wishes.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Ald. Moran Provides Object Lesson On Anti-H.I.T.A. City Government

08.03.17

Today we present another object lesson in bad local government.

Unlike most of our recent bad government lessons which tend to focus on those two Star Chambers that are the Boards of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 and Maine Twp. High School District 207, however, today’s lesson features the unit of local governmental that for the past 8 years has been a bastion of Honesty, Integrity, Transparency and Accountability (“H.I.T.A.”): The City of Park Ridge.

This lesson is provided courtesy of Alderman John Moran (1st) via his August 2, 2:19 p.m. comment to our July 26, 2017 post in which we criticized the City Council’s very own Star Chamber secretive closed-session process by which it transitioned Joe Gilmore from “Acting” to full-fledged City Manager. We suggest you read that post and its Comments as context for the rest of this post.

Notwithstanding Ald. Moran’s attempt to pivot from defending a bad selection process to defending the substantive merits of Gilmore’s appointment, such a politician’s maneuver can’t change what we already have said and will say once again: Gilmore has demonstrated the potential for becoming a better City Manager than any of his past three predecessors who under-served (Shawn Hamilton) and outright dis-served (Tim Schuenke, Jim Hock) the taxpayers of this community over the past 30 years.

So without further ado, let the lesson begin with Ald. Moran’s own words:

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To compare this process to the Heinz “rolling” contract” is not apples to apples. Also, this contract in its entirety was posted to the city website in advance of any finalization via council vote. How many citizens showed up to complain or ask questions about how were arrived at the proposed contract? How many emails did the council receive questioning the same? NONE We would have gladly explained how and why we came to the contract we did, but no one asked.

As for the 4 year contract, it is not a guaranteed 4 years he can be fired for cause or let go without cause, the later triggers a 4 month severance agreement, a fair deal, and not a windfall for Gilmore by any means(I’ve seen much longer deals in the private sector). Even the COLA only kicks in if the COL actually increases and we have a cap on it. If you are going to argue that it’s “guaranteed” in the fact that we can’t lower his salary, that is correct, but if his performance is so dismal that we want to lower his salary, I would argue we are better off firing him.

In my opinion, we simply could not discuss negotiation points on this matter in open session and still hope to get the best deal possible for the residents… you will only get the minimum acceptable deal.

As for the process the best analogy is this… Compare it to a game of Go Fish where one player has their cards face up and the other is playing them in hand.

There are very few times when the best interest of the taxpayer has to be handled in closed session, by the individuals who were elected to represent them. The council will be judged on the success or failure of the decisions like this. That is the nature of the position.

My comment about the Schmidt/Hamilton process (above) had less to do with the end result(shitty city manager) and more to do with the fact that Mayor Schmidt, the father of HITA, didn’t adhere to those principals when he and Hamilton negotiated on a cocktail napkin. Where was the public involvement there? So, why are we being held to a different standard on the process??

This was not a union negotiation, so again it’s not apples to apples. Labor negotiations can go to arbitration. The only 2 outcomes here were Joe Gilmore takes the job or he doesn’t. We identified him as a very desirable candidate and then attempted to obtain the best terms possible for the city. As for the hindsight on Hamilton vs Gilmore, in the 8 months(or so) he served as action city manager, Gilmore already had proven to be a more competent leader via the strategic planning and budget process.

*                             *                             *

Acceptance of Ald. Moran’s arguments that “the best interest of the taxpayer” has been served by this contract requires that the taxpayers be dumb enough and/or apathetic enough to ignore the following inconvenient truths, none of which Ald. Moran seems to recognize or understand:

  1. The unprecedented 4-year duration of Gilmore’s contract is patently WORSE for the taxpayers (by a full year) than even D-64 Supt. Laurie Heinz’s ridiculous 3-year contract that the D-64 Board reflexively rolls over for another year as each current one expires;

 

  1. The unprecedented 4-year duration of Gilmore’s contract is patently WORSE for the taxpayers than the 9-month initial deal Mayor Dave gave Hamilton, as well as Hamilton’s subsequent at-will deal that required neither (a) cause for the City’s termination of him, nor (b) a 4-month severance entitlement like Gilmore just received; and

 

  1. Gilmore’s $171,000 salary – which cannot be reduced for the full 4-year duration and includes an automatic annual COLA increase – is WORSE for the taxpayers than Hamlton’s ending $160,000 one, which could be reduced and included no automatic raise.

In every material respect, therefore, the contract given Gilmore is bad for Park Ridge taxpayers – and the secretive process by which it came about even worse.

How far has this Council fallen away from H.I.T.A. ideals, and why?

Consider how Ald. Moran attempts to sweep this abuse of H.I.T.A. under the rug by noting that no taxpayers “showed up [at the Council meeting to complain or ask questions about how were [sic] arrived at the proposed contract” for Gilmore, blithely ignoring how the Council hid all Gilmore contract discussions in closed sessions for weeks before quietly slipping the finished contract into a meeting packet – with no advance notice or warning to either local newspaper or to the taxpayers – a mere 72 hours (48 of which were a weekend) before the meeting.

Will that kind of “hiding in plain sight” gamesmanship become the new paradigm for Transparency at City Hall?

Unfortunately, the answer may well be “yes” so long as taxpayers let this Council get away with it like they have let the D-64 Board and the D-207 Board get away with their Star Chamber closed sessions for all these years, even as their schools’ academic performance and rankings have fallen while the costs-per-student have soared.

What Ald. Moran’s arguments basically come down to is: Trust us – “the individuals who were elected to represent” the taxpayers.

That’s exactly the request/command we’ve heard from the likes of Mike Madigan, John Cullerton, George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich, Rahm Emanuel, Richie Daley and every other non-transparent, dishonest and accountability-shirking political weasel throughout this state who have done their part to run it into the ground over the past 30 years.

The reason Mayor Dave came up with H.I.T.A. is because no local taxpayer should have to trust any local public official, much less any local official who fancies himself/herself a “politician.” Instead, H.I.T.A . requires that those local officials trust us taxpayers enough to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – so that we can judge for ourselves whether they are acting in our best interest or selling us down the river.

But as we’ve seen over and over again, Transparency leads to Accountability. And no politician wants to be held accountable for anything unless it comes with a pat on the back and thunderous applause.

So if Ald. Moran and any other local officials want to talk the H.I.T.A. talk, they had better walk the H.I.T.A. walk.

And what they just did with the Gilmore contract isn’t even the H.I.T.A. crawl.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Gilmore The Right Choice From A Wrong Council Process

07.26.17

Back in 2012 when the Park Ridge City Council sacked then-city mgr. Jim Hock for not performing up to expectations, the chirping began about how the City was getting the reputation as being bureaucrat-unfriendly because Mayor Dave Schmidt and that Council dared to actually demand high performance from the City’s top employee.

The chirping got louder in May 2016 when Hock’s replacement, Shawn Hamilton, resigned rather than be subjected to what was likely to be an unsatisfactory performance review by then-Acting Mayor Marty Maloney and a slightly different Council from the one that launched Hock.

The chirpers made even more dire predictions about how nobody from the “city manager” class of public employees would apply for the job and subject themselves to…um…er…well, objectively measurable performance standards and a Council willing to demand they be met.

Maloney and the Council chose to make relatively new City Finance Director Joe Gilmore (he didn’t join City staff until early 2015) the acting City Mgr. The appointment was intended to be temporary, primarily because Gilmore saw himself as a “finance guy” and didn’t believe he had the chops for the top job.

It actually took some heavy-duty lobbying by Maloney and the late Ald. Dan Knight, the Council’s then-Finance Committee chairman, to persuade Gilmore to accept the position, even on a temporary basis.

But right out of the blocks Gilmore began showing that he could do the job, in large part by eschewing the political maneuvering and gamesmanship that Hock and Hamilton could not resist and, instead, focusing on the nuts and bolts of his own and City staff’s work product. In so doing he provided the Council with what it needed to do its job better. And on those rare occasions when something did not meet the Council’s standards, Gilmore immediately owned the error and promptly made sure it was corrected.

So we applaud the Council for unanimously removing the “acting” part of Gilmore’s title, which it did at its July 10, 2017 meeting. And we fully expect that Gilmore will prove himself to be a significant improvement over his three predecessors: Hamilton, Hock and Schuenke.

As reported in a July 12 article in the Park Ridge Journal (“It’s Official: Gilmore Named City Manager”), Gilmore’s starting salary as City Mgr. is $171,000 – which Ald. Marc Mazzuca (6th Ward) observed, for some unknown reason, was  approaching the $174,000 salary of a U.S. Senator.

Irrespective of what a U.S. Senator is paid, we believe $171,000 is a reasonable salary for someone in charge of a $70 million-plus enterprise, especially if he does his job better than his three most recent predecessors.

Mazzuca also lauded the Council for its handling of Gilmore’s new contract. But after reading the Journal story and checking some past Council meeting minutes, we have to disagree with Mazzuca and wonder whether this Council is already starting to walk itself back from Mayor Dave Schmidt’s H.I.T.A. (“Honesty. Integrity. Transparency. Accountability.) doctrine.

Let’s start with the Council’s decision to give Gilmore a four-year contract with annual raises based on increases in the cost of living (i.e., a COLA, or a non merit-based raise), which we believe to be unprecedented for a Park Ridge City official. But the real problem is that it appears to have been discussed entirely in closed sessions.

Although the Journal reported “closed session meetings every week to discuss the city manager position and terms of a job offer” since Marty Joyce’s appointment as 7th Ward alderman, our review of the meeting minutes since Joyce’s appointment show only two closed sessions “to discuss the appointment employment, compensation, discipline, performance or dismissal of specific employee(s)” prior to the announcement of Gilmore’s contract: At the June 5 and June 19 meetings.

We know that the City’s attorneys from Ancel Glink consistently panic-peddle their opinion that the Public Records Review Act (“PRRA”) – which expressly applies only to Freedom Of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests for documents – also prohibits any discussion of performance reviews in Council meetings governed by the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”). We took issue with that opinion in our 05.27.16 post, and we still don’t believe that opinion has been endorsed by even one Illinois court. We have to assume, therefore, that the Ancel Glink attorneys assured the aldermen that they could lawfully hide any discussion of Gilmore’s performance in closed session.

Fair enough, at least for the time being – even if hearing how the Council came up with the $171,000 salary, the COLA raise and the car-use deal would probably be more than a little informative to the taxpayers who will be funding that package.

We are aware of nothing in the PRRA, IOMA or elsewhere, however, that would justify or even permit closed-session discussions of the public policy reasons the Council came up with for converting what historically had been a one-year contract (e.g., Jim Hock’s 07.14.08 Employment Agreement), a 2-year contract ( e.g., Hock’s 2010 renewal), or an “at will” employment arrangement (Shaw Hamilton’s) into the four-year contract offered Gilmore, as well as its automatic COLA-based raises.

And from some quick legal research it appears that limiting for-cause termination (other than for criminal or statutory official misconduct) solely to “nonfeasance” – rather than also to “misfeasance, malfeasance, insubordination or a documented pattern of unsatisfactory performance” – is virtually inviting a lawsuit should the City’s employment relationship with Gilmore sour. So it also would be interesting to hear who came up with “nonfeasance” as the operative “for-cause” termination standard, and why.

Yet all that was hidden from the City’s taxpayers – much like how the Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 Board hides in closed sessions its annual discussions about why they keep adding another year to Supt. Laurie Heinz’s 3-year contract every time a year expires, and how they come up with her annual raises.

We never thought the City Council would compete with the D-64 Board in a lack-of-Transparency contest. Maybe it’s just the natural progression of what Charles Dudley Warner proclaimed as: “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”

If there were true justice in verbiage, however, “politician” would be a four-letter epithet; and there would be a sizable bounty on the head of every one of them.

If you’re one of those citizens who prefer that their units of local government treat them like mushrooms (i.e., kept in the dark and covered with manure), you probably find these kinds of closed-session deliberations welcome relief from the past seven years of Mayor Dave and post-Mayor Dave “Transparency” and “Accountability.” Such closed-session discussions harken back to the bad old days of Mayors Ron Wietecha, Mike Marous and Howard Frimark, where meetings weren’t televised or video-recorded, council meeting packets weren’t available in advance of the meeting so that the average citizen could knowledgeably participate in the meetings, and closed sessions were the rule rather than the exceptions.

Not surprisingly, Wietecha, Marous and Frimark endorsed Mayor Dave’s opponent in the 2013 election, as did about 25 of the former alder-creatures who couldn’t spell H.I.T.A. if you spotted them both consonants and let them buy a couple of vowels.

Nevertheless, the appointment of the reluctant Gilmore – who truly earned the City Manager job through 14 months of solid performance in his “acting” capacity – is a very positive move for the Council and its taxpayers.

Too bad such a positive move has to be tainted by the unnecessarily secretive and un-accountable way the Council went about it.

To read or post comments, click on title.

“Impact Fees” Just More Snake Oil For The Masses

07.18.17

We rarely agree with anything Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 Board member Tom Sotos says or does when it comes to the D-64 schools. But when “Tilted Kilt” Tommy gets something right – or even half-right – it deserves some recognition.

As reported in a current Park Ridge Herald-Advocate article (“Study to address proposed Park Ridge development’s impact on District 64,” 07.11.17), during a recent D-64 Board discussion of the City of Park Ridge’s possible assessment of “impact fees” on proposed new residential development on the current Mr. K’s site on Higgins just east of Dee, Sotos correctly observed that such fees aren’t “going to solve our problems” of more residences being constructed and burdening the schools with students who cost far more to educate than whatever taxes are paid on their parents’ residences.

Where Sotos missed the boat, however, was with his observation that “[i]f we assess an impact fee on the 31 units considered for the Mr. K site, that impact fee won’t be enough to help us potentially work around our particular problem if all 31 units end up having children in them.”

He’s right, but in the same way that getting the right answer on a math problem is undermined when you have to show your work and, in so doing, you demonstrate that you really don’t understand the applicable math concept.

That’s because the taxes on that 31-unit development can’t even cover the cost of 16 students attending D-64 schools, much less the cost of 31 school kids.

Let’s assume, just for Schlitz and Googles, that each of those 31 residences will have total RE tax bills of $20,000 per year – an unrealistically high assumption, for sure, because that would make them some of the highest-taxed residential real estate in the City. But it makes the math a little easier.

Of those $20K tax bills, roughly $8K per residence would go to D-64 each year. But the cost-per-student in D-64 is around $16K annually, so do the math: 31 units @ $8K/unit of RE taxes = $248,000 of revenue to D-64. Divide that by $16K per student and the whole development starts swimming in red ink if only 16 of the 31 units have just one student living in them.

Even if the developer were forced to pay an $8,000 per unit “impact fee,” the resulting revenue would barely cover the cost of 16 school kids.

And only for one year!

Add any more D-64 school kids above that 16 threshold and the District’s taxpayers will no longer be swimming in red ink, they’ll be drowning in the stuff.

So why is the D-64 Board even discussing such impact fees?

Ignorance and political posturing.

It seems and sounds like many/most of the D-64 Board members and Staff don’t really understand impact fees and how, historically, they have been used almost exclusively to address infrastructure problems anticipated from new development; e.g., the cost of sewer and water service improvements needed to handle increased demands from the new development, or the widening of nearby streets to add turn lanes and traffic lights for access and traffic flow, etc. Because that kind of infrastructure has predictable costs and lengthy useful lives, a municipality can calculate a one-time impact fee that puts the new development on the same financial footing – cost wise – as more established neighboring areas, and at no additional cost to the taxpayers.

Not so with the highly variable and annually recurring expenses of educating elementary school kids.

And that doesn’t even address the question of whether it would be legal for the City to impose impact fees on developers in order to obtain City approval of their developments, but then turn those impact fees over to D-64 or D-207.

As for political posturing, some of our local politicians are realizing that merely sounding fiscally conservative can fool many Park Ridge residents who desperately want to believe that their elected representatives truly are looking out for the interests of the taxpayers as much as (or more than) for the interests of the tax users. Spouting anything that sounds like it might save those taxpayers money, therefore, becomes a valuable political tool, especially for those politicians who don’t believe one word of their spiel but don’t have the honesty and integrity to publicly admit that they are big-government tax/borrow/spenders.

That makes a term like “impact fees” a wonderful substitute for real knowledge, understanding and principles.

So expect to hear the shallow-thinkers toss that term around for at least a little while longer, if only to avoid addressing the much more difficult problem of figuring out whether, and how, Park Ridge draws the line on allowing more housing for more residents who will drain the taxpayers’ pocketbooks with more and more kids using increasingly expensive public education.

And that’s irrespective of how good or mediocre the quality of that education might actually be.

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Parking Study A Good Start, But…

06.26.17

Ever since Park Ridge’s Uptown area was reborn a few years ago as a dining and drinking mecca, enough folks have complained about a lack of parking that it spurred the Park Ridge City Council to engage the firm of Gewalt Hamilton Associates, Inc. (“GHA”) to perform a parking study.

The Uptown Parking Study dated June 8, 2017 makes several noteworthy points, not the least of which is that “the Uptown area has a sufficient amount of parking” (Report, page 2) – even if any difficulty in finding parking is perceived by some residents as a shortage. GHA explains the perceived shortage as “a lack of balance in parking supply at primary locations or destinations” (Report, page 18).

Tell that to our local merchants, especially those who need parking to accommodate both their customers and their employees.

One potential problem identified by the consultants is that Uptown parkers have become used to free and cheap parking. Commuters can park all day in the 125-space Summit “lot” along the METRA tracks (from Euclid down past St. Paul of the Cross) for a mere $1.50, or in the 58-space Prairie Ave. lot for a mere $2.00. Based on an average of 21 work days per month, that’s a paltry $31.50 and $42.00 per month, respectively.

“Prime” commuter parking can be found in the 38-space triangle lot just west of the Uptown METRA station. Those permits cost $350 per 6 months, or $2.70/workday – a slight convenience premium based on its proximity to the METRA station.

Even the 12-hour meters on the south side of Summit between Prospect and Euclid are only $6 for 12 hours – although with the current meters you’ll have to suffer the inconvenience of feeding them 24 quarters.

The Council needs to face the basic fact that commuter parking, although a necessity for commuters, is an economic drain on Uptown: The parking spaces taken up by commuters from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. produce no other direct or indirect parking revenue, or indirectly help generate sales tax revenue from parkers who presumably are purchasers of products or services.

Should commuters be charged more than $1.50 or $2.00 per day? Given the perceived shortage of Uptown parking – and the 10-12 hour occupancy of spaces – just the basic concept of supply and demand would dictate “yes.” And based on the Summit meters, the appropriate amount would appear to be at least $6 per day.

Another noteworthy conclusion is that “[a]t this point GHA does not recommend a parking garage be constructed anywhere within the Uptown study area” (Report, page 19), either on the City lot at Summit and Euclid or on the Park Ridge Library lot. GHA believes such a garage would cost too much and be hard-pressed to pay for itself, at least if constructed and owned by the City.

That might be the case IF the current fee structure for commuter parking remains in place. At $2 per day for 252 workdays per year, a 125-space parking structure – that could basically replace the Summit 125-space Summit lot – would generate $63,000 per year of revenue even with full occupancy. At that rate, paying off a $2 million parking structure would take 32 years without even factoring in any debt service or maintenance!

Maybe that’s why we haven’t heard about any private developer who is chomping at the bit to build a parking deck.

Instead of a parking deck, GHA suggests that the City “repurpose” 20 spaces in the Library lot and treat them the same as the triangle lot parking, with 6-month permits.

Because the Library closes at 5:00 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, its 151 spaces now become available for patrons of the Pickwick Theater and the other Uptown businesses on what would appear to be their 3 busiest evenings.

The Summit lot spaces, serving primarily commuters Monday through Friday, also tend to become available by 5:00 p.m. most week nights.

Although we tend to agree with GHA’s findings that there is not a true “shortage” of parking in the Uptown area, their study seems to equate a $1.50/day parking space down by St. Paul of the Cross with a $1.50/day space at Euclid. That might be the case for an all-day commuter, but we doubt that somebody looking to buy a box of Fannie May or a Hallmark birthday card would agree. And providing 8-10 hour parking for employees of Uptown businesses is a problem the GHA report appears to have given short shrift.

At the end of the day, however, it looks like the City Council and Uptown businesses will need to find more innovative ways of balancing commuter and customer parking if Uptown is going to continue to thrive and grow as a shopping and entertainment destination for locals and visitors alike.

The GHA parking study is a good start, but it’s nowhere close to the final word.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Council Right To Opt-Out Of Crook County Minimum Wage Hike

06.09.17

Kudos to newly-minted 3d Ward Ald. Gail Wilkening for some recent spot-on observations about the City of Park Ridge opting out of Crook County’s graduated minimum wage increase from Illinois’ current $8.25/hour ($1/hour above the federal version) to $13/hour by July 2020.

“The market will decide what we need to pay people,” she opined, adding: “Anything Cook County wants, I usually don’t want.”

“Amen!” to both sentiments.

Don’t get us wrong: A minimum wage is a good thing to the extent it reduces the opportunities for outright worker exploitation, especially of the lower-wage workers whom it tends to affect most strongly. On the other hand, it’s an arbitrary, non-market based number that is much more of a temporary palliative than a cure for the underlying problem of lower wages for lower-skilled (or lower-risk) work.

Notwithstanding some hyperbolic claims by proponents, the minimum wage was not designed to enable the minimum-wage worker to raise a family of four, or to become a homeowner instead of a renter. It was designed to provide a wage above a welfare-level subsistence for the person earning it and perhaps one “dependent” – back in that day, often/usually a stay-at-home wife.

Not surprisingly, considering that this initiative was produced by the head-scratchers comprising the Crook County Board, that $13/hour, 2020 target rate would provide a minimum-wage employee working 40 hours per week for 50 weeks a year with $26,000 – or roughly the poverty threshold for a family of four in today’s dollars, without taking into account any inflation over the next 3 years before that full $13 wage is achieved.

Three nights ago (June 5) the Council voted unanimously in favor of opting out of this latest Crook County attempt at selling activity as achievement. Under City procedures, however, a second vote is needed to pass the opt-out ordinance, which will be taken at the Council’s June 19 meeting.

Although last Monday night’s vote was unanimous, Alds. John Moran (1st) and Marc Mazzuca (6th) explained their votes, in part, by arguing that a minimum wage standard is best left to the state or federal government.

Exactly right.

Crook County’s intrusion into minimum wage policy reminds us of Evanston’s 1985 enactment of an ordinance declaring Evanston a “nuclear-free zone,” ostensibly to prohibit Northwestern University professors from conducting research that might be used in the development of nuclear weapons. The ordinance was unenforceable, but that’s Evanston for you.

Should our City Council complete its opt-out at its June 19th meeting, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, that will have on Park Ridge’s economy. Given Park Ridge’s borders with Chicago and Des Plaines, one of the suburbs that has chosen not to opt-out of Crook County’s latest sideshow. Will Park Ridge suddenly become a haven for small businesses, or for cheaper goods/services, because of a lower wage for low-end workers?

We doubt it.

But we think the opt-out is a win for folks who are tired of further intrusions from a unit of local government that has been mismanaged for decades and shows no signs of improving.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Time For City Council To Consider Population Issues

06.02.17

How many residents should Park Ridge have?

We don’t know.

But the recent proposed 34-townhouse development for the Mr. K’s property has caused us to once again consider that question. And we think the Park Ridge City Council should do likewise – sooner rather than later, given how regularly the issue pops up, directly and indirectly, in the context of re-zoning or zoning variances for new developments.

New 3d Ward Ald. Gail Wilkening apparently is thinking about this. So are two of Park Ridge’s zoning and land use mavens, Pat Livensparger and Missy Langan.

All of them cited one of the most significant reasons why the size – and demographics – of Park Ridge’s population is important: More school-aged children mean more students receiving expensive Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 and Maine Twp. High School District 207 educations that will end up being paid primarily by the majority of taxpayers whose kids aren’t getting those expensive public educations, including some of whom are also paying out-of-pocket for private/parochial educations.

That situation already is producing some problematic responses.

From talking to a few local RE brokers, we’re hearing that empty nesters are downsizing sooner than they used to, or are moving out of Park Ridge entirely and heading to lower-taxed communities. And in most instances, the homes they are moving out of are being purchased by young families with multiple school-aged kids – and the prospect of more on the way.

The math is simple, albeit a bit rough because of all the variables that need to be taken into consideration. So to make it a bit easier, we’ll use a residence with a $15,000 RE tax bill as our example.

Almost $6,000 of that $15,000 tax bill goes to D-64, while D-207 gets around $5,000. The City of Park Ridge gets a meager $1,700 and the Park District even less.

So with D-64 per-pupil costs closing in on – if not already at – $16,000, our sample residence creates a $10,000 deficit  if only one kid from that residence attends a D-64 school. If two attend that deficit grows to $26,000 and likely crests at $42,000 for those homes where three kids are in grades K-8.

Which means that it takes 7 empty nests being taxed at that same $15,000 rate to subsidize the educational costs of just that one 3-student residence.

Or looking at it another way: If each of D-64’s roughly 4,500 kids were dispersed as tax-optimally as possible, each of them would reside in one of 4,500 individual homes, each of which would be paying $6,000 in taxes to D-64 while drawing out $16,000 in education, producing $10,000-per-home deficits totaling $45 MILLION overall. And that $45 MILLION deficit would have to be absorbed by the other 9,500 of the roughly 14,000 Park Ridge residences, at an average cost of roughly $4,700 per residence per year.

Ouch!

Yes, we know: These calculations aren’t adjusted for variables like the contributions of commercial taxpayers, or the fact that D-64 also takes in some areas outside of Park Ridge proper, etc. That’s why we labeled them “rough.” But these calculations also aren’t adjusted to reflect the reality – as we understand it – that more Park Ridge residences have RE bills below $15,000 than above; and that the students are not distributed in that tax-optimal manner.

Meanwhile, according to the “Illinois-At-A-Glance Report Card” for the 2015-16 school year, the D-64 per-pupil cost of $15,613 was $2,600 more than Glenview D-34 ($13,013); $5,000 more than Mt. Prospect D-57 ($10,663); $3,000 more than Arlington Hts. D-25 ($12,610); $5,000 more than Western Springs D-101 ($10,602); and $800 more than Wilmette D-39 ($14,804).

And according to that same source, the average D-64 teacher salary (“for teachers over the past 5 years… calculated by using the sum of all teachers’ salaries divided by the number of FTE teachers.”) was $85,970, while Glenview D-34’s was $61,207; Mt. Prospect D-57’s was $57,996; Arlington Hts. D-25 was $72,962; Western Springs D-101’s was $60,417; and Wilmette D-39’s was $76,425.

Needless to say, D-64’s average teacher salary accounts for a significant part of D-64’s higher costs.

Hence our, and many of our readers’, concern when facially-legitimate third-party ratings, rankings or other evaluations show our schools performing below many of its competitors.

It’s one thing to pay less and get less, but quite another to pay more and get less.

That’s why we think it’s time for the City Council to start a public debate about the further proliferation of multi-family residential, especially through up-zoning and variances, that could – because of its impact on our schools – adversely affect the value of Park Ridge property in ways that have the potential for becoming more significant than flooding and jet noise now are.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Mr. K’s Should Not Get A Special-K Deal

05.24.17

For years various developers reportedly have sought to acquire the Mr. K’s Garden and Material Center at 1440 Higgins for commercial development. And for years the owner apparently has said “no.” Or his asking price was too high to make development feasible.

But suddenly a developer wants to stick 34 townhouses on that 2.19-acre parcel and the owner sounds willing to say “yes” – even though the site is zoned “B-2 Commercial” and the City of Park Ridge’s “Higgins Road Corridor Plan” (the”Plan”) identifies that site as one of the City’s last prime office/commercial properties.

At least a couple of the members of the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission (“P&Z”) appear to be taking the site’s B-2 zoning and Plan status seriously. According to a recent article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Developer shares plan for townhouses on site of Park Ridge landscaping business,” May 14), Commissioners John Bennett and Jim Argionis criticized the idea of multi-family residential on that site – with Bennett suggesting a low-rise hotel might be a worthwhile goal and Argionis saying that the space “screams commercial.”

Indeed it does.

And two of Park Ridge’s unofficial zoning and land-use mavens, Pat Livensparger and Missy Langan, warned of the effect of more multi-family residential on Park Ridge schools, a concern echoed by new 3d Ward Ald. Gail Wilkening.

Back in our 09.12.13 post about the Trammel Crow development just east of Whole Foods, we pointed out how almost every multi-family residential project in Park Ridge is an overall money-loser for Park Ridge taxpayers IF they house children who will be attending our public schools. Just one public school student per residence eats up double or even triple that portion of the average RE tax bill paid to either Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 or Maine Twp. High School District 207.

Trammel Crow persuaded the City to permit that 116-unit rental project on the basis that it was designed for individuals and younger couples, not people with school-aged children. And if we recall correctly, Trammel Crow’s project was a “planned development” that did not require re-zoning, just some density relief which it obtained by offering not only to retain all of its own run-off water but, also, to double the size of the City’s adjacent water detention basin.

We have not heard whether the actual demographics of that project have matched the no-schoolkids sales pitch, although we would expect that somebody at D-64 or D-207 would have said something by now if they didn’t.

But for the past 20 years or so, residential development has been the lowest-hanging fruit in Park Ridge. In part, that’s because the risk to developers of residential is minimal and short-term – as opposed to the greater, more long-term risk of commercial development.

And the cash-strapped City has too often been lured by the Sirens’ song of more property tax revenue coming from residential developers, and also from the City’s real estate brokerage community that understands how there will be far more profit-making opportunities from 34 townhouses – that may flip owners every 5-10 years – than in 1 or 2 commercial/office structures that may flip every 10-20 years, if that.

In addition to the re-zoning needed for the Mr. K’s townhouses, the H-A reports that the project would require a 3-townhouse variance from the City’s density requirement, a height variance, and variances for front and rear yard setbacks. In other words, the developer wants to create a sardine-can subdivision and needs a lot of City help to pack the can.

The main reason for shoehorning that many townhouses onto that site? “The cost of the site is very high,” said the project’s architect, Guido Neri.

Bingo! Mr. K’s owners want to cash out at a top-shelf price, and the developers want to maximize their profits.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

But the City, a/k/a the taxpayers, don’t owe Mr. K’s owner(s) or any developer a zoning change, a basket of variances, or windfall profits – especially if it means losing one of the last significant commercial parcels in Park Ridge. That neighborhood has accommodated Mr. K’s for decades, and it can continue to do so while the owner decides whether a lower sales price might entice some commercial development instead of simply pandering to the low-hanging residential fruit pickers.

After all, a lower sales price usually beats no sale at all. And once that commercial site is lost to residential development, it’s gone for good.

Meanwhile, we have yet to hear a persuasive, or even rational, elevator-pitch for adding to Park Ridge’s population, especially if it includes more public school students and further exacerbates the already-onerous tax burdens from D-64 and D-207.

To read or post comments, click on title.