Public Watchdog.org

How Much Is Enough – Part 2?

12.06.17

After borrowing over $20 million between 2013 and 2016 to build the Centennial water park and the new Prospect Park, one might think that the Park Ridge Park District might want to cool its jets about taking on more debt and more capital projects.

But, instead, it held a “Public Input Meeting” on November 30, 2017. The “public input” being sought? Coming up with a wish-list for borrowing and spending multi-millions of dollars at Oakton Park.

Why?

Because the Park District recently learned that the Oakton Ice Rink’s R-22 refrigerant will be eliminated by 2020, meaning that the Park District will have to tear up the rink and replace all the mechanicals to accommodate a new type of refrigerant.

But simply replacing the ice surface and mechanicals apparently isn’t enough for the Park District, even though the ice surface was replaced back in the mid-1990s because (as we recall) of cracks in the surface – and, ironically, the phasing-in of the R-22 refrigerant to replace a more environmentally-unfriendly refrigerant – without adding millions of dollars to the project for accessories.

According to an article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Pools, more ice among citizen suggestions for Park Ridge’s Oakton Park,” 12.04.17), although money for the actual replacement has been budgeted, there reportedly is no funding for any additional expansion of the ice rink or other wish-list projects at Oakton. But (per the H-A article) that didn’t stop the District from going out and hiring “Wight and Company architects and two other professional firms” to seek input from residents about what should be done at Oakton.

We’re big on “input from residents” but we’re not big on such input without any price tags affixed – especially since the Park District went to referendum on three Oakton projects in 2005-2006 – all of which were soundly rejected by the voters.

Although there is no video of the Public Input Meeting posted on the District’s website, a string of comments posted to the H-A article on the H-A Facebook page indicates the strongest support for either: (a) a major renovation of the Oakton ice rink and the addition of at least one more ice surface; or (b) a new pool, indoor or outdoor.

Back in 1994-95, the District spent over $100,000 on studies and actual plans for a Centennial water park. The then-board intended to use those plans to steamroll the taxpayers, but a group of 40 or so Centennial Park NIMBYs organized and made enough of a ruckus that the 1994-95 park board backed off and submitted the project to an advisory referendum. That project got soundly rejected by the voters, and its proponents took their cue and dropped it – until it was taken up again as one of the two referendum questions by the Park District in April 2005: The Centennial water park lost by 70% to 30%, while a referendum for building an indoor recreation center at Oakton failed 73% to 27%.

In March 2006 another Centennial water park referendum failed 69% to 31%.

And in November 2006, a $10 million plan to put a new aquatic center/water park at Oakton failed 57% to 43%.

Mindful of those failures, in December 2012 that park board chose to blow right past “permission” and head directly to “forgiveness” when it committed, based on very limited resident input, to borrow $7 million to build the current second/third-rate water park – sans the “lazy river” which was the single most wanted feature of the original design, based on 682 survey respondents – without a referendum. We wrote about it less than kindly in our posts of 12.05.12, 12.13.12, 12.19.12 and 12.29.12.

That decision by that board was both dishonest and gutless. Which, to paraphrase the fictional Dean Vernon Wormer, “is no way to go through [public] life.”

Frankly, we don’t care what the Park District wants to build at Oakton so long as it puts whatever the project(s) might be – along with a credible price tag – to referendum, preferably binding but advisory being better than nothing.

Before that is done, however, a lot more information and discussion is needed to determine what kind of project(s) deserve a referendum question, or two, or three on the November 2018 ballot. That’s assuming the Park Board doesn’t rush to judgment and try to ram something onto the March 2018 primary ballot by the filing deadline of January 2, 2018.

We trust that won’t be the case with this Park Board, the new majority of which act and sound as if they actually understand and respect the interests and concerns of the taxpayers as much, or more, than those of the users of the District’s resources. Such a rush to judgment would be a major dis-service to all the District’s stakeholders except for the highly-motivated special interests who, like their water park counterparts in December 2012, can be counted on to turn out and dominate any discussion over the next few weeks while the majority of folks who will end up footing the bills are busy getting ready for the holidays.

The deadline for putting a Board-originated referendum resolution on the November 2018 ballot is August 20, 2018. That should provide plenty of time for an intelligent, well-informed debate by both the Park Board members and the general public about what project(s) deserve consideration for a referendum question.

Because how much is enough at Oakton, or elsewhere in the Park District, is a question that needs to ultimately be answered by the countable votes of a fully-informed electorate, not by rank speculation and anecdote from a few handfuls of the specially-interested.

To read or post comments, click on title.

 

Increasing Park District Fees: Are You F-Ing Kidding Us!?!?! – Part 2

11.14.17

Today we discuss the economics of Kathy (Panattoni) Meade’s “Are you F-ing Kidding Me” demands for low-cost – if not “free” – amenities (not “necessities”) from the Park Ridge Park District, such as  organized recreational and sports activities, assorted types of entertainment, and a variety of “classes,” “camps” and activities that effectively serve as low-cost babysitting for many parents.

But, first, we need to make sure everybody understands the basic premise underlying these Park District amenities: The Park District (like all other units of local government) has no money of its own.

There’s no “Lost Dutchman” gold mine under the Centennial Park sled hill, nor any vast Vatican-like real estate holdings in Downtown Chicago and Manhattan. The Park District gets its money from the taxpayers, either through RE taxes or user fees. And because the District’s share of our total annual RE tax bills is roughly 6%, if your total RE tax bill is $10,000 per year you’re paying a modest $600 to the District whether you use the facilities and programs or not.

We also need to make sure everybody understands the genesis of the Park District’s money problems, which occurred around 1992 when it dug itself a large financial hole by borrowing approximately $8 million – more than the District’s annual budget at the time – to build the Community Center (now the “Centennial Recreation Center”) without a referendum that would have permitted the District to specially tax the residents to cover the capital cost of that facility.

Why did those 1990-92 park board members – Garry Abezetian, Joyce Clark, Bob Hamilton, Dave Hilquist, Mike Rozovics, Roy Sues and Mary Hester Tone – authorize such a facility without a referendum?

For the same reason that the City Council in the early 2000s didn’t go to referendum for its borrowing of tens of millions of dollars to subsidize the Uptown Redevelopment project. And for the same reason the Park Board didn’t go to referendum in 2012 for its borrowing of over $7 million for the new Centennial water park:

They were afraid they would lose a referendum vote! And then they would have had to assume the political consequences if they chose to disregard that vote and do the project anyway.

So in 1992 the Park Board basically maxed out the District’s non-referendum bonding power to build whatever it could get for $8 million. And all it could get was a haphazardly designed and hastily built facility with (a) an indoor pool too short and too narrow for sanctioned swim meets, (b) two basketball courts instead of the needed four, (c) an equivalently-undersized running track, (d) an exercise room that the exercise classes outgrew within the first year, (e) a lobby providing no way to control or manage access and traffic, and (f) so many other flaws and deficiencies that in 2004 the regional manager of a national fitness chain – after thoroughly inspecting the facility – pronounced it unworthy of purchase by, or even a management contract for, that chain.

Worse yet, the Community Center debt service severely handicapped the District’s ability to maintain, repair and renovate its parks and other facilities, especially after Cook County voters (in 1995) approved RE tax caps that limited annual tax increases by the Park District to the lower of 5% or the increase in the CPI.

The District’s finances were so shaky that it began issuing short-term, non-referendum bonds to pay the Community Center’s long-term debt service. Think of it as using your VISA card to pay your mortgage – only without getting any miles or points.

Consequently, Hinkley Pool was allowed to fall into such disrepair that it was pronounced “unsafe” and closed for an entire summer until it could be rebuilt. Oakton and Centennial pools suffered similar neglect from a lack of funding.

At least 4 times between from 1995 and 2006 – in November 1995, in April 2005, in March 2006 and in November 2006 – the voters rejected referendums for new outdoor pools. That’s why the 2012 Park Board decided to build the new Centennial water park by doing exactly what the 1992 park board did with the Community Center: Max out the District’s non-referendum borrowing power without giving the taxpayers a vote.

In order to cope with the Community Center debt fiasco and the tax caps, however, the District was effectively forced to institute and/or increase user fees so that the facilities, classes, sports and recreational programs that could generate revenue would begin covering some of their own costs.

And, ‘lo and behold, it actually worked!

As we understand it, the Park District now generates almost 51% of its $20 million annual revenue through user fees. And a good chunk of the credit goes to Executive Director Gayle Mountcastle (whom we have excoriated at times for sins of both commission and omission) and those Park Board members who have supported and encouraged that user-fee strategy, including the current Board majority.

What’s wrong with paying for the amenities you use?

Plenty, if you’re a big-time user of the District’s pay-to-play facilities, classes and programs. Paying for what you and your family use is a stake through the heart of our local “freeloaders” who are constantly “looking to leverage maximum benefits for themselves, their families and their friends by shifting the costs of those benefits onto the backs of their fellow taxpayers.”

In the freeloader universe, the Park District is like a Club Med-style, all-inclusive resort where your property taxes entitle you to anything you want at no extra charge, or at a nominal upcharge. And if that means your usage is subsidized by your fellow taxpayers, so much the better! Hence the beefing about fee increases by uber-users like Kathy Meade, who believe they shouldn’t have to go to Niles, Des Plaines, Chicago, or other communities to get “affordable” facilities, classes and programs.

Why not?

We’ve always advocated for “value” in local governmental services, meaning that the quality and/or quantity of the facilities, services, programs or activities should meet or exceed their costs to the taxpayers and consumers. That being said, consumers should be able to get their value wherever they can find it.

So if Niles, Des Plaines, Chicago or other nearby communities can offer better facilities, classes and programs – or comparable ones at cheaper prices – than our Park District can, why not take advantage of those? If our residents think they can get a better deal on their amenities from other communities, they are actually doing our non-freeloading taxpayers a favor by consuming those other communities’ resources rather than our own.

Better yet, they can start patronizing PRIVATE facilities like FFC Park Ridge that actually pay RE taxes rather than consume them.

In an optimal situation the taxpayers could cover the cost of the District’s capital expenditures for the parks, playing fields and facilities, as well as routine maintenance and repairs. To the extent the costs of operating those parks, fields and facilities – e.g., the costs of combatting the wear and tear from organized and programmed usage – can be allocated to those organized and programmed users, they should be. And the entire, fully-loaded cost of programs, classes and activities should be charged to the users.

That way, Ms. Meade and her ilk can choose to send their kids to Taft High School’s “week long soccer camp for $60 for 5 days and 3-1/2 hours a day AND offer lunch and a t-shirt” (which might help explain why the Chicago Public Schools are bankrupt) while still paying her taxes to our Park District.

We call that a win-win for the taxpayers. And we encourage Ms. Mountcastle and the current Board majority to keep up the good work in that regard.

But, just for a reality check, maybe the Park Board could put a referendum question on the ballot that lets the taxpayers vote on whether they want to pay higher RE taxes so that the District’s facilities, classes, programs and activities can be all-inclusive without any user fees whatsoever.

Then those Park Board members could sit back and wait for a different kind of “Are you F-ing kidding us!?!?!” complaint – followed by the inevitable landslide of “No!” votes.

And another predictable whine from Ms. Meade.

To read or post comments, click on title.

More Ice At Oakton? Take It To Referendum

08.16.17

It was public intellectual George Santayana who penned that well-known aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

That’s the thought that popped into our mind the other day when we read a string of comments to a Facebook post on the Park Ridge Concerned Homeowners page about how the Park District’s Oakton complex NEEDS a second ice surface.

Why?

Because “[t]he demand for ice time in this area is astronomical”; and “[h]ockey players, figure skaters and coaches are being forced to look elsewhere for ice time (Which translates to finances leaving Park Ridge),” according to the FB post’s author, Teresa Smith Nelson.

Those of you who have been around Park Ridge and who actually can “remember the past” may recall how the issue of a second ice surface at Oakton has popped up every so often over the past 20 years, usually wrapped in the same rhetoric: A huge demand for ice time, “finances leaving Park Ridge” and how the facility will pay for itself. That rhetoric is advanced primarily by parents who are tired of schlepping their kids to other towns for early morning or late night ice time, as well as those who object to paying the higher non-resident rates for the ice-time and/or programs.

Government-owned recreational facilities rarely pay for themselves even on merely an “operating” basis, much less by covering the debt service for their construction costs. Consequently, even preventing all those “finances leaving Park Ridge” rarely, if ever, generates enough revenue to turn the ledger ink for that facility from red to black.

Which is why there are so few purely private ice rinks (a la Johnny’s Ice House on West Madison in Chicago) being built in the Chicagoland area. And why many/most of the private rink complexes still in operation have gone through one or more foreclosures and/or bankruptcies until vulture investors could pick them up at deep discounts (a la Seven Bridges in Woodridge).

This blog’s editor played hockey from age 7 to age 40 so, frankly, we have no problem with a second, or even a third, ice surface being added at Oakton. Heck, throw in a major renovation and expansion of the current locker rooms, team rooms, etc. Maybe go whole hog and add a restaurant, bar, gift shop and parking deck!

But unless some private developer shows up with a grand plan and a check big enough to pay for it, we hope the Park Ridge Park District Board sends any proposal for more ice at Oakton to referendum.

That way, the taxpayers who will end up on the hook for a facility only a small fraction of our residents seem to want – an amenity, not a necessity – can get the chance to express their support or lack thereof at the voting booth.

We already have two second/third-rate Park District facilities that were foisted on the taxpayers without referendum, both coincidentally at Centennial Park: The Fitness Center (formerly the “Community Center”) and the water park, each one costing the taxpayers over $10 million, give or take a million or so once the debt service is added in.

The Fitness Center was so undersized and so badly designed from the day it opened back in the early ‘90s that, fifteen years ago, an executive of a major fitness chain took a tour of the place before concluding that his company wouldn’t accept ownership or management of it even if they could get it for free!

Among his many deal-breakers: Only two basketball courts; no exercise room; not enough racquetball/handball courts; a swimming pool too short and too narrow to hold swim meets; and access to that pool area that required walking through the middle of the men’s locker room showers, where curtain-less showers (at that time) created an interesting dilemma for dads taking their young daughters into the pool area for swimming lessons.

Similarly, by keeping the cost of the 3-month-a-year water park within the District’s non-referendum debt limit so that it didn’t have to go to referendum, the 2012-13 Park Board limited its borrowing to just over $6 million of 15-year non-referendum bonds by cutting out some features, including a lazy river – the feature most desired by the District’s 682 survey respondents.

Fortunately for District taxpayers and fans of good government, this past April the voters elected Harmony Harrington, Jim Janak, Rob Leach and Jim O’Donnell, thereby creating a Board majority which already has demonstrated – with their anti-perks vote – that they are a more fiscally-responsible majority than the profligate Board majorities that built the Fitness Center or the water park.

If the drumbeat for more ice surfaces at Oakton continues, expect to hear the traditional war cry of those folks who doubt their pet project can actually win a referendum and, therefore, need to avoid it: “You Board members were elected to make these kinds of decisions!”

They weren’t, of course – because over the past two decades none of them actually campaigned by promising multi-million dollar special-interest amenities without voter approval. Even tone-deaf candidates who believe in spendthrift government know that such overt disrespect for the taxpayers would be political suicide.

So they wrap themselves in the mantle of “fiscal responsibility” and solemnly insist that they “respect the taxpayers”… until they get elected.

Hopefully we now have a Park Board majority whose members really are what they campaigned as, and who really do respect the taxpayers.

To read or post comments, click on title.

New Park Board Members Bid Adieu To Freebies (Updated)

07.07.17

Every so often one of our units of local government does something that is unequivocally good and right.

Today that accolade goes to the Park Ridge Park District for its June 15 vote to eliminate free use of the Park District’s facilities and programming by our elected District officials.

What a difference a change in Board membership makes!

Back at the Park Board’s November 19, 2015 meeting, Commissioner Mel Thillens was the only Board member in attendance (Commissioners Biagi and Phillips were absent) to vote against an amendment to the District’s Policy 3.03 – somewhat deceptively titled “Opportunities for Oversight of Park District Programs and Facilities” – that slightly modified, but nevertheless continued, the District’s policy of letting Commissioners use District facilities and programs free of charge.

Those kinds of benefits are known as perquisites, or “perks”: a privilege, gain, or profit incidental to the holding of office.

They very well also may be unlawful “compensation” because the Illinois Park District Code prohibits compensation of Park District commissioners.

But that didn’t stop then-Board member Joan Bende and Richard Brandt, along with still-Board members Cindy Grau and Jim O’Brien (Rick Biagi and Jim Phillips absent), to retain those perks back in November 2015. Only Mel Thillens voted “no” that night, stating (according to that meeting’s minutes) that “he believes the amount of free stuff Commissioners receive should be limited.”

Not a Lincolnesque statement, to be sure, but accurate nonetheless.

The leader of this successful effort to ban Commissioner freebies appears to have been new Board member Robert Leach, who was concerned about the perks being prohibited “compensation.” He was joined in his repeal vote by fellow Board newbies Jim Janak, Jim O’Donnell and Harmony Harrington (all of whom we endorsed in April) agreed, joined by veterans Thillens and O’Brien, the latter of whom apparently finally found religion.

Or maybe he just didn’t want to be the only dissenter, given that freebie-lover Cindy Grau was absent.

Perks had been a mainstay of the Park District for decades, interrupted only when a Park Board majority – of which this blog’ s editor was a member – voted to discontinue them in the late 1990s, before a new Board majority reinstated them.

Freebie-loving Commissioners always have argued that free memberships and programs enable them to better observe and evaluate the facilities and programs. Not surprisingly, rarely if ever did any of the Commissioners partaking of those freebies report back to the Board or Staff on the facilities and programs they were using.

And since they weren’t paying for the perks, their ability to do any cost-benefit analyses was totally compromised.

The elimination of the perks was termed “a great idea” by veteran Park District attorney Thomas Hoffman – although he refused to opine on their legality, according to an article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Park Ridge Park District board ends free classes, memberships for elected commissioners,” June 27).

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Association of Park Districts (“IAPD”) – a shameless self-promoting, fluff-and-stroke organization that serves as a quasi-union and lobbying arm for career park district bureaucrats statewide – is quoted in the H-A story as justifying such perks as being “within the discretion of these elected boards.” Of course, the IAPD has never seen a taxpayer dollar it didn’t like or couldn’t find a way for its members to spend, so its attempt to justify perks of any and all stripes was to be expected.

But the good news is that we appear to have four new Park Board members – a majority – who may actually represent the taxpayers every bit as much as, if not more than, the tax spenders and tax consumers.

In the State of Corruption and profligacy that is Illinois this new jerk-the-perks policy, led by the newest Board members, is a good start.

Updated 07.14.17.  Glad to see the Chicago Tribune editorial board agrees: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-park-ridge-perks-free-edit-0713-jm-20170712-story.html

Another group of freeloaders bites the dust.

To read or post comments, click on title.

A Big Win For Yesterday’s Victors, An Even Bigger Win For H.I.T.A.

04.05.17

Eight years ago mayoral candidate Dave Schmidt sparked the flame of good government when he promised to bring H.I.T.A. – Honesty, Integrity, Transparency and Accountability – to a City administration that was bereft of those principles. He also pledged to put taxpayers first because there would be no City government without the taxes they provide.

Since then that flame has grown stronger and burned brighter, finally becoming a torch that illuminated the workings of City government through initiatives like televised meetings, the online posting of meeting materials in advance of meetings, and reducing closed sessions to the barest minimum.

Yesterday that torch was officially passed to a new generation of leaders with the election of Marty Maloney, a staunch Mayor Dave ally and an even stauncher proponent of H.I.T.A., as mayor of Park Ridge.

His election alone, by a margin of roughly 70% to 30%, would have been enough to keep Park Ridge on the H.I.T.A. path and moving forward in all other respects, especially because it was accompanied by the re-election of pro-H.I.T.A. aldermen Nick Milissis, Marc Mazzuca and Roger Shubert.

But that wasn’t the half of it.

The voters of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 made their voices heard with the election of vocal H.I.T.A. proponents Rick Biagi and Fred Sanchez to that Star Chamber Board which, by our unofficial tally, leads all units of Park Ridge local government in the number of closed sessions it holds, and in the obfuscation that comes with them. At the same time those voters just said “No!” to three candidates whose most notable – and controversial – qualification for office was that they all were married to D-64 teachers and shamelessly wanted to put themselves in the untenable position of voting on their wives’ raises and working conditions. Or recusing themselves, thereby effectively reducing the Board to the bare mininum of four members required to do business.

That was about as anti-H.I.T.A. as you could get, and the voters wisely rejected such shamelessness.

Over at the Park Ridge Park District, Harmony Harrington, Jim Janak, Rob Leach and Jim O’Donnell – although not espousing H.I.T.A. by name – advanced many of its principles in their successful campaigns to oust two decidedly non-H.I.T.A. incumbents and their two unofficial running mates.

The same can be said for successful Maine Twp. High School District 207 candidate Linda Coyle, who we understand was, ironically enough, a law school classmate of Mayor Dave’s.

All told, yesterday may have been the single greatest across-the-board good government day Park Ridge has had in decades – in no small measure because it was a victory, first and foremost, of principles instead of just personalities.

But make no mistake about it: Yesterday’s victories didn’t make everybody happy.

There are still residents, some of them very brazen and vocal, with special-interest axes to grind and a related lust for spending OPM (“Other People’s Money). These residents will continue to denigrate H.I.T.A. as a kind of code word for “conservative” (shudder) or “Republican” (double shudder) guys and gals.

That’s just sour grapes from folks who can’t accept the voters’ repudiation of the dishonest and failed tax, borrow and spend policies of local governments past and present.

So don’t be surprised if those naysayers try to demean yesterday’s results by decrying the “low turnout” – which was 28.29% for the mayoral race, down from the 34.87% of 2013. A similar decline in voters was also the case for the other races as well.

But it was the late Rev. Theodore Hesburgh who stated: “Voting is a civic sacrament.” So those who refused that sacrament deserve whatever damnation they may subsequently complain about as being visited on them by yesterday’s winners.

The H.I.T.A. revolution, while started by Schmidt and advanced by the aforementioned winners, hasn’t been the work of any one person, or even several people. Instead it has been the work of hundreds of Park Ridge citizens who initially believed that local government could be made better than it was, more cost-effective than it was, and more respectful of the taxpayers than it was. But where H.I.T.A. really gained traction was when those same people came to realize that making local government better in those aforementioned ways actually was an achievable goal.

Schmidt’s election in 2009 and his re-election by an even larger margin in 2013 proved that. So did the elections and re-elections of Alds. Maloney and Dan Knight in 2011 and 2015, respectively, as well as the election and/or re-election of Alds. Mazzuca, Moran, Milissis, Shubert and the other aldermen who served on the Council these past several years.

Now it’s time for Maloney and the rest of yesterday’s victors to emerge from the long H.I.T.A. shadow Schmidt created and start creating shadows of their own by walking their campaign talk.

And doing so in bright sunlight.

That will be most challenging for Biagi and Sanchez at D-64, where there is a longstanding anti-H.I.T.A. bias and culture, and where they likely will have to confront Board president (and closed-session aficionado) Tony “Who’s the Boss?” Borrelli and his puppetmaster, Supt. Laurie “I’m the Boss!” Heinz, right out of the gate. Whether Biagi and Sanchez can get any support from Board members Mark Eggemann and Tom Sotos – heretofore regular rubber-stampers of Borrelli’s closed-session motions and uber-secrecy about the PREA contract and Heinz’s contract extension – remains to be seen. So do the proclivities of newbies Larry Ryles and Eastman Tiu.

Over at D-207, Coyle will find herself surrounded by Board members afraid of their own shadows – and, therefore, possessed by a vampire-like fear of sunlight likely engendered by the desire to avoid any accountability for Maine South’s continuing and heretofore ignored decline in the rankings of Illinois high schools.

These local races, however, need to be viewed in the context of our state government which, over the past 40 years, seems to have grown as ethically bankrupt as it has grown financially bankrupt. That state of corruption won’t be reversed overnight.

But maybe, just maybe, the torch of good government passed last evening to these new Park Ridge leaders can also light the way for the officials of other communities to raise their games and adopt H.I.T.A. as the overarching principle of good government in their own communities – which can, in turn, start a grassroots turnaround statewide.

If so, it’s you voters who showed up yesterday to put your own imprints on local government – by means of the candidates you elected – who will deserve the credit.

Well done, voters!

To read or post comments, click on title.

Our Endorsements For Park Ridge Park District Board

04.03.17

For many years the Park Ridge Park District has had the highest number of contested races, and this year is no exception.

First-term incumbents Joan Bende and Jim Phillips appear to be running on an unofficial “slate” with newcomers Carol Becker and Laurie Pegler Mallin for four seats on the 7-member Park Board. Phillips, in a March 24 letter to the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate, claims that those four are the true “Friends of the Parks” – running against alleged “Republican candidates” while identifying only Jim O’Donnell, former Republican candidate for State Senator, by name.

For us, Phillips’ – and his running mates’ – philosophy of government is captured in Phillips’ minimizing the District’s recent tax increase as “the amount added to the typical property tax bill this year is $3.42, the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks!” Politicians who demean tax increases in that fashion rarely have any respect for the taxpayers or the money taken from those taxpayers.

That was demonstrated four years ago when Bende and Phillips also ran on an unofficial “slate” with then-incumbent Steven Vile – billed as “The Last Three” because of their ballot positions. Their major issue then was support of private corporation Senior Services Inc. and its efforts to walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars bequeathed to what was then known as the Senior Center, which they used to form their own short-lived senior club in Niles.

Vile lost his bid, but Bende and Phillips did not. And, not surprisingly, during the past four years they have consistently voted for annual property tax increases, voted against competitive bidding, and voted against repeal of the District’s policy of freebie uses and memberships of District facilities by Board members, and have regularly blanched at the mere thought that the Park District can be operated somewhat like a business.

Yet the Park District is the unit of local government best suited to operating on a business model.

It is both the smallest, budget-wise, and least essential of our four units of local government: Its 2017 budget of $22 million is less than 1/3 that of either the City or Park Ridge-Niles School District 64, and less than 1/6 that of Maine Twp. High School District 207. And most, if not all, of its facilities and services are amenities – albeit desirable ones – rather than necessities like police, sewer, water, or education.

Unfortunately, there were no debates (or “forums,” for those gentle souls like the League of Women Voters who view debates as too harsh and adversarial, if not downright traumatic) for the Park Board candidates. That prevented the Bende/Phllips/Becker/Mallin “slate” from having to answer hard questions about the costs and cost-effectiveness of their cause celebre this time around: The GoGreen “natural” method of grass, tree and plant management.

But from information about the candidates – available primarily from the March 9 Park Ridge Herald-Advocate article (“Q&A with eight candidates running for the Park Ridge Park District Board”) and Facebook– we believe the best choices for filling the four Park Board vacancies are first-time Park Board candidates who (in alphabetical order) favor a more business-oriented approach to District operations: Harmony Harrington, Jim Janek, Bob Leach and Jim O’Donnell.

Harrington is an attorney and lobbyist, which makes her the candidate best-suited to pursue the private partnerships and grants she believes can supplement the property taxes and user fees now funding the Park District. She believes that “a healthy park district needs to operate like a business, use market-based principles yet maintain affordable access. While we all pay our share of taxes – 5% of our City of Park Ridge tax bill goes to the Park District – those taxes cannot cover all Park District amenities. Hence, the reliance on market-based user fees is essential.”

She also believes that “for major capital projects outside our current means, public referendum is a very important component.” Exactly right!

Janak is running with O’Donnell. Both of them favor voter input, via referendum, as a condition of any tax levy increase. That novel idea means that the Park Board would need to anticipate its revenue requirements and levy on a two-year basis to correspond to the odd-year local election calendar, unless the District wished to also utilize the even-year primary and general election calendar. That might mean more work for the Board and staff, but it would also ensure more thought than currently goes into the moronic “Use It Or Lose It” reflexive increases favored by Bende and Phillips, which would also mean greater taxpayer scrutiny and accountability.

They also realize that the competition from other recreation and fitness vendors like the new Fitness Formula Club (“FFC”) only a few blocks from the District’s Centennial Fitness Center (f/k/a the “Community Center”) requires that the District be more circumspect about the strengths and weaknesses of its facilities and programs.

Interestingly enough, Leach favors a two-year strategic plan – of a more readily understandable 20 pages instead of the current 331 pages – which would fit neatly into Janek’s and O’Donnell’s levy referendum process the he also supports. He wants the District to focus on improving the quality and value of those programs our residents actually want or need instead of trying to be all things to all people.

Harrington, Janak, Leach and O’Donnell deserve a shot at making the District a better value for all of our residents.

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A Couple Of Basic Ways To Screen Local Candidates

01.19.17

Nominating petition challenges are a good thing.

They serve as a basic, first-level screening to identify those candidates who are at least competent, committed and conscientious enough to gather sufficient petition signatures so that no reasonable challenge can be posed.

And to identify those who are not.

So when someone like Patrick DeStefano files only the bare minimum 67 petition signatures to get on the 6th Ward aldermanic ballot, and then gets bounced because 17 of them are disqualified by the Cook County Clerk’s office, voters can legitimately wonder whether his candidacy was anything more than a lark, or the product of some late-night gripe session ending with a “Screw this, I’m running for alderman!”

The same can be said for incumbent Maine Twp. High School Dist. 207 Board member Jin Lee, who reportedly filed only 55 signatures – a mere 5 more than the required minimum – and then had to gather several affidavits to prove to the election board that enough live registered voters actually signed his petitions. Instead of owning his ineptitude, however, Lee whined – according to a recent article in the Park Ridge Journal (“Maine High School Candidates Names Will Be Placed On April 4 Ballot,” Jan. 15) – that he “wish[ed] there was more of a way for first-timers to know how to handle objections.”

Here’s a thought: Try getting 25 or 50 signatures more than the bare minimum, so you don’t have to “handle objections.”

That should also be the lesson for Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 candidate Monica Wojnicki, who reportedly has been knocked off that ballot by filing 52 signatures, only 2 above the required minimum, of which 32 were successfully challenged. And a lesson for Park Ridge Park District Board candidates Jennifer Barcal and Carol Becker, whose ballot challenges are still being sorted out.

But getting on the ballot is the bare minimum level of competence, commitment and conscientiousnous. At least one more level of screening is necessary to determining whether a candidate might be worthy of the office.

Motive.

For example, you can immediately write off any candidate who claims to be running to “give something back to the community.” That’s the default answer for all those empty-suit candidates trying to avoid admitting that they “got nothin’ ” in the way of ideas or agendas. And it’s those kinds of empty suits who end up becoming puppets or stooges for some special interest – assuming they aren’t already some special interest’s puppets or stooges trying to fly below the radar with their “give back” mantra.

If you want to know one reason why the D-64 School Board consistently ends up with so many puppets and/or stooges for the Park Ridge Education Association (the “PREA,” a/k/a the teachers union) and the PREA-beholden administrators, check out the sixth page of the recruiting handout for prospective D-64 Board candidates who attended Supt. Laurie Heinz’s dog-and-pony show last October 12, and you’ll see “give back” as one of the four reasons for Board service.

And if you can stomach wading through the rest of that propaganda piece (on which we detect the fingerprints of D-64 propaganda minister Bernadette Tramm as well as Heinz’s), we dare you to find the words “taxes” or “taxpayers.” That’s because Heinz and her current D-64 Board puppets/stooges don’t want nobody the taxpayers sent – or anybody that’s going to hold all those very well-paid PREA members and those overpaid administrators like Heinz and Tramm accountable for the boatloads of tax dollars being spent on what seems to be, by all objective measures, relatively modest educational quality.

Barely one notch above the empty-suited give-backers are the “teasers.” They’re the candidates who try to win over those clueless and/or stupid voters by teasing and tantalizing them with vague or veiled suggestions about what they might do about some situation or other…if only they were to be elected.

For example, this past Tuesday night mayoral challenger Lucas Fuksa posted news about the closing of the Jos. A. Banks store in Uptown and then (a) suggested there are “real reasons” for that retailer’s closing, which he teasingly chose not to identify; and (b) claimed Park Ridge needs to be made “business friendly” (How?), zoned “appropriately” (How?) and with improvement to “our parking situation” (Like what?).

But since that might not be quite enough teasing for some voters, Fuksa added – in a comment to a comment to his post – that we need “infrastructure improvements [Paid for how?], less restrictions [On what and why?], zoning changes [What kind?], branding [For the City’s cattle?], and long term future planning” [Gee, now that’s original!]. For a candidate who is already viewed as mostly a pawn of certain developers, that’s a whole lot of foam but very little beer.

Our favorite, however, is his teaser claim that he “spoke to Jos. A. banks [sic] so I know what some of those issues are” – presumably related to its closing – but he apparently is keeping those secrets to himself for now.

Doesn’t that just make you tingle with suspense?

It sounds to us like Fuksa is channeling 2013 mayoral challenger Larry Ryles’ business development strategy which – as we wrote about in our 03.19.13 post – consisted in large part of hugs and handshakes. But at least Ryles actually named some of the businesses he wanted to bring to Park Ridge: Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, Ann Tayor, Clarks and GameStop.

As best as we can tell, Fuksa was MIA four years ago during that last mayoral race, so we can understand how he may have missed such a failed campaign strategy and now considers it his original.

Besides, it’s so teasing and tantalizing.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Hinkley’s High-Priced Out-House

01.10.17

Make no mistake about it: The Park Ridge Park District needs to repair or replace the bathroom building at Hinkley Park.

But at a project cost of $746,000 – $563,000 for an unheated/un-air conditioned, five-stall, 16’ x 30’ out-house, and another $183,000 for an adjacent picnic shelter and rainwater harvesting system?

Why will such a project cost as much or more than most Park Ridge homes? Blame something called the Prevailing Wage Act, another boondoggle perpetuated by the Democrats in Springfield that requires our local governmental bodies to pay what amounts to the highest cost for construction labor – as much as one-third (in the case of the Hinkley bathroom, that’s around $188,000) more than the price private citizens and businesses might pay for the same labor.

But that’s not the whole story.

To compound the problem, the Park District gave a no-bid contract to FGM Architects to design and manage this project. And FGM’s fee will be based, in part, on a percentage of the total cost of the project.

Can you say: “An incentive to maximize costs”? We knew you could.

FGM has a history of feeding – if not gorging – at the public trough. Unfortunately, Park Ridge has become one of its favorite feedlots, with Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 giving FGM virtual carte blanche over its “secured vestibules” project, which is (a) an ill-conceived/unnecessary/stupid and wasteful palliative for those parents who insist on bubble-wrapping their kids at the taxpayers’ expense; and (b) what passes for an “achievement” by Supt. Laurie Heinz and those D-64 administrators and school board members who don’t seem capable of doing their “Job 1”: significantly improving the quality of education and academic performance of the District.

As best as we can tell, that “secured vestibules” project also was no-bid, presumably because D-64 gave FGM a Willy Wonka-style golden ticket over a year ago when it made FGM its “architect of record” – which also gives it the inside track on another $20 million or so of construction projects the District already has queued up. Rumor has it that the Park District gave a similar golden ticket to FGM, thereby making it legal for the District to seek and accept a single, no-bid proposal for the Hinkley project and any other construction projects that come down the pike.

By that measure, that piddly $746,000 for the Park District’s glorified out-house – including FGM’s cut – is chump change. But that doesn’t mean that Park Board members Rick Biagi, Jim O’Brien and Mel Thillens weren’t right in challenging the wisdom of that kind of expenditure at the Board’s meeting on December 15, 2016.

Not surprisingly, Biagi led the charge in demanding that the Board seek input from other architects and construction managers in order to determine whether FGM is on or off the mark with its proposal. The result of Biagi’s diatribe – which you can watch on the meeting video, starting at the 42:20 mark – is that the Board will now hold a hearing on January 26 so that the public can voice its concerns or support for the project, and about the perverted process that birthed this boondoggle.

Biagi, O’Brien and Thillens also were the ones, along with Commissioner Dick Brandt, to vote “no” on adopting the Democrat-dominated Illinois Dept. of Labor’s tricked-up-and-inflated “prevailing wage” schedule at the June 16, 2016 Board meeting. Unfortunately, the District’s panicked general counsel almost immediately was able to scare O’Brien and Brandt into a do-over vote and a flip-flop, with dire warnings of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, rivers and seas boiling, forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together.

And law suits, even though Biagi and Thillens offered to secure pro bono counsel to defend any such suits.

So the District likely will spend that $750,000 or so for that glorified out-house and attendant amenities. And FGM will pick another shrimp or two off the public barbie thanks to the inflated labor costs due to the prevailing wage.

Because that’s the way “Fleece the Taxpayers” is played in our deep blue State of Illinois, Michael J. Madigan proprietor.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Park Board Wimps Out On Challenge To “Prevailing Wage” Scam

07.07.16

Today’s topic is another way that Illinois fleeces its taxpayers: the “prevailing wage.” 

Once upon a time people sold their labor for what the market would bear. Not surprisingly, that resulted in many inequities sometimes manifested in what were called “slave” wages. But it also spurred the creation of guilds and trade unions that eventually expanded beyond the conventional trades into the labor unions we know today. 

Those unions have been responsible for virtually every benefit working people enjoy today, including the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, vacation and sick days, etc. In short, unions succeeded in “better[ing] the standards of life for all who work for wages and…seek[ing] decency and justice and dignity for all Americans,” as AFL-CIO president George Meany described it back in the 1950s. 

In the free market, profit-driven real world of the private sector, union demands were moderated by market forces that generally tied increases in wages and/or benefits to increases in productivity and profits. Private-sector unions developed a realistic view of the interdependence of labor and capital, which kept their members’ labor profitable and competitive – at least until globalization re-introduced the concept of slave wages. 

Not so in the monopolistic, profit-free fantasyland of the public sector. There unions and politicians eagerly colluded – the former trading their political support of the latter in return for the latter’s loosening of the public purse-strings whenever it came to the former’s wages and benefits.

All at the taxpayers’ expense, of course.

Which is why the very same George Meany also said that although “[t]he main function of American trade unions is collective bargaining…[i]t is impossible to bargain collectively with the government” because governmental units have no profits in which labor can share. That means every wage or benefit increase comes not out of the value created by that labor (a/k/a, “profits”) but directly – and by the force of our tax laws – out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

Which brings us to the prevailing wage.

In this state of corruption known as Illinois, local governments hiring outside contractors are required by state law to pay those contractors the prevailing wage for such services in the county where the service is to be performed. Thanks to that union/politician collusion, the prevailing wage has been conveniently calculated (by the Democrat-dominated Illinois Department of Labor) to approximate union scale, even though much/most of such labor is done by non-union workers paid significantly less than union scale.

The result: government (a/k/a the taxpayers) ends up paying the highest labor rates instead of the lowest, or instead of even a blended rate of union and non-union wages. Which means tens and often hundreds of thousands of extra taxpayer dollars are unnecessarily spent on individual public projects – often at the expense of better quality materials or additional features in order to meet project budgets.

In the cock-eyed view of the Democrat-dominated Illinois General Assembly, the prevailing wage law ostensibly endeavors to mandate a “level playing field” that ends up reducing, if not eliminating, competition for the lowest bid. Indeed, under prevailing wage, non-union contractors who normally operate with lower overhead/labor costs are forced to artifically inflate their employees’ wages to the same level as their unionized competitors, thus taking away any potential competitive advantage that a non-union shop might have over a union shop.

As usual, the taxpayers are the losers. 

A 2014 study by the Anderson Economic Group, LLC for the Illinois Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors concluded that from 2002 through 2011, Illinois public schools spent approximately $29 billion on construction and repair projects; and that the prevailing wage ended up costing taxpayers an estimated $1.6 billion in extraordinary and unnecessary wages and benefits.

But at the June 16 meeting of the Park Ridge Park District Board, three Commissioners – Rick Biagi, Jim O’Brien and Mel Thillens – tried to do something about that. They just said “no,” arguing against the adoption of the Dept. of Labor’s skewed prevailing wage numbers. And they were joined by Commissioner Dick Brandt in out-voting “progressive” Commissioners Joan Bende, Cindy Grau and Jim Phillips.

That victory, however, was short-lived.

Just as soon as the dust settled on that vote, the District’s long-time attorney, Tom Hoffman, began issuing dire warnings about the potential litigation the District might face from either the Illinois Attorney General – whose daddy, Dark Lord of the Sith “Darth” Madigan, presumably has the prevailing wage law engraved on a stone tablet along with his other nine commandments of graft and corruption – or some of the affected unions.

Despite clearly being torqued-off by the prevailing wage costs, O’Brien promptly backed down, explaining that he didn’t want to cause the District to incur legal fees defending itself against such litigation. And Brandt followed suit, with only Biagi and Thillens holding their ground.

Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.

We are the last folks to suggest that any unit of government expose its taxpayers to frivolous and expensive litigation. But from what we understand about the prevailing wage law, it seems both arbitrary and anti-competitive – an exercise in political pandering that apparently has survived primarily because of the cowardice and/or stupidity of public officials who have been afraid to challenge it.

Perhaps the Park Board will try again next year to challenge the prevailing wage, only a little more aggressively.

Meanwhile, we pose the following question to Commissioners Bende, Brandt, Grau, O’Brien and Phillips:

How many hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars did you waste, WASTE, because of the prevailing wage, on labor costs for the Park District’s $8 million Centennial Water Park and it’s $13 million Prospect Park?

Can you say “penny wise and pound foolish,” Commissioners?

We didn’t think so.

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Park District Endorses End-Run Around Competitive Bidding

11.28.15

It’s been awhile since we last checked in on what the Park Ridge Park District has been doing with its approximately $25 million annual budget.

As we’ve written previously, the Park District has done an exceptional job of generating non-tax (i.e., user fee-based) revenues to the point that they now exceed tax revenues. And that deserves kudos, because the path of least resistance is to underprice fees to keep the users happy while letting the all-too-silent taxpayers subsidize those users.

Unfortunately, it sounds like the District stumbled a bit in its contracting for the retrofitting of the buildings on the former Park Ridge Youth Campus – now known as “Prospect Park” – to accommodate a modern computer network and integrate it into the District’s existing system. Fortunately, it sounds as if the Park Board is taking reasonable measures to square that away.

The District’s administration apparently tried to steamroll a “bundled” contract for the purchase of IT services with the purchase of the hardware for the project. And that’s where the Board balked.

At its meeting on October 15, the Board – with president Jim O’Brien absent – deadlocked 3-3 on a vote to approve the integrated service/hardware contract. Commissioners Joan Bende, Jim Phillips and Cindy Grau voted for approval while Commissioners Rick Biagi, Mel Thillens and Richard Brandt voted against it.

Biagi and Thillens expressed their belief that the District might be able to get a better price than the approximately $80,000 quoted by IT consultants Sikitch LLP for the “equipment” (hardware and software) – along with its $30,000 of actual IT services – if the District went out to bid.

We don’t know if that’s true or not. But allowing consultants (like Sikitch) to bundle their professional services with a much larger dollar amount of products that customarily require such bidding is a common scam by government contractors, consultants and bureaucrats that often bamboozle the folks we elect to look out for the taxpayers’ interests.

That’s because the bureaucrats love it: it reduces their workload and greatly reduces the likelihood that they will be held accountable should something go wrong. But it improperly mixes the contracting for professional services that can legally be done (although it doesn’t have to be) on a no-bid basis with the purchases of commodities (hardware and software) that should be competitively bid.

According to the Park Ridge Journal article (“Park’s Computer Needs Concern Park Ridge Commissioners,” Nov. 11), a Sikitch rep and the District’s IT manager, Mark Somera, claimed that Sikitch could get reduced prices on the hardware/software from manufacturers like Hewlett-Pcckard through volume buying for Sikitch clients.

Not necessarily the best prices, mind you.  Just “reduced” prices.

But when Board members asked why the District couldn’t just take Sikitch’s list of components and shop around for the best deal, the Sikitch rep in attendance pled ignorance, claiming that wasn’t his area of expertise. Apparently Sikitch was so confident its no-bid deal had already been cooked to the right degree of doneness that it didn’t to send someone capable of answering what sounds like a pretty basic question.

Hence, the 3-3 tie that prevented the contract’s approval.

That reportedly torqued Exec. Director Gayle Mountcastle, who responded with a litany of delays and woes that would ensue from any type of competitive bidding on the computer hardware – including a further delay in the opening of Prospect Park.

Which, reportedly, already is a year behind the original target date.

And already hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget.

And already having cut some of those features the District used to sell the project to the voters in the April 2013 referendum.

Of course, any additional delay related to the IT contract might have been avoided if District staff didn’t try to play it too cute by half in the first place.

Or, actually, the 73% of the total contract price that the $80,000 of hardware represents.

But at the Board’s November 5, 2015 meeting, staff – primarily Finance Supt. Sandra DeAngelus, with a little help from Somera – came up with what sure sounded like a half-baked (at most) attempt at backfilling the omitted due diligence to justify the District’s original decision to give the whole deal to Sikitch, without bidding the approximately $80,000 hardware/software portion.

You can watch and listen to it starting at around the 10 minute mark of the meeting video, and continuing through the vote at the 17:43 mark.

As best as we can tell from that discussion, Somera got an incomplete (or inadequately detailed) product list from Sikitch and made some attempt to contact three suppliers, only one of which appears to have responded in whatever time frame was set. That alternate supplier’s bid was $20,000 higher than Sikitch’s, although it does not sound like an apples-to-apples situation because, among other things, Sikitch proposed a hardware-based firewall while the other vendor chose a software-based one.

Not surprisingly, only one Board member questioned that apples-to-oranges choice: Rick Biagi.

But by that point the charade was convincing enough for the other six Board members to approve the pre-cooked deal with “best boy” Sikitch by a vote of 6-1.

And the no-bid scams continue.

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