Public Watchdog.org

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.

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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!

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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.

To read or post comments, click on title.

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.

To read or post comments, click on title.

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.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Saying “Goodbye” To The Short-Lived Kemnitz Center

11.03.15

Simply saying “We told you so” would be too easy.

And not nearly enough to capture the pettiness, greed, stupidity and waste by the masterminds behind the private corporation called “Senior Services, Inc.” (“SSI” or “Seniors Inc.”) that founded something called “The Kemnitz Center for Active Adults” – the imminent demise of which has been reported in both the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“ ‘Senior-driven’ Kemnitz Center to close by end of year,” Oct. 26) and the Park Ridge Journal (“Kemnitz Center In Niles Closing At End Of This Year,” Oct. 21).

For those keeping score, that’s a mere 15 months between the Kemnitz Center’s September 2014 opening and its anticipated December 31, 2015 closing.

And, from the sound of things, they burned up approximately $300,000 in the process.

That $300 grand was a bequest from the late Betty Kemnitz to the “Park Ridge Senior Center” – which, at the time the bequest was made, just happened to be the name on the building at 100 S. Western owned and nominally operated by the Park Ridge Park District, and a place that Kemnitz frequented and apparently treasured.

But after Kemnitz died and her bequest “matured,” the Seniors Inc. crowd – already bristling at some Park Board members’ complaints about the $100,000-plus annual operating deficits the Senior Center was posting while charging members a paltry S43 in annual membership “dues”– collaborated with former Park District employee/Senior Center manager Teresa Grodsky (who had been sacked by the Park District about a year earlier) to file a lawsuit intended to make sure that Seniors Inc. could keep that $300K bequest for itself.

You can get all the background on this you need or want by checking out our 05.13.13 post “Good Riddance To Greedy Geezers” and the other posts referenced there.

But long story short, when the Park District decided to give up its fight for the Kemnitz bequest, the Seniors Inc. “leadership” – current D-207 School Board member Carla Owen, Grodsky, Barbara Ingolia, Helen Roppel, Millie O’Brien, and Ken Butterly – triumphantly packed up and moved to the former Our Lady of Ransom school building in Niles.

And fifteen months later, it sounds like they’re flat broke and busted.

But still remarkably shameless.

As quoted in the H-A article, Seniors Inc. chairman Ken Butterly is bragging that they “broke a barrier in the region” by allowing seniors from outside the District’s boundaries to belong – even though the Senior Center always allowed non-resident members, albeit at a higher price. And although the Kemnitz Center’s membership reportedly topped out at about 250 people ages 55 to 90, Seniors Inc. chairman Ken Butterly is bragging that: “It’s been a great run.”

Seriously.

Not surprisingly, the District is already welcoming back the secessionists with open arms – to a re-purposed and re-branded facility now known as the “Centennial Activity Center” from which it runs the “Seniors Together At Recreation” (STAR) program.

But apparently senior centers are bad investments irrespective of whether they’re publicly or privately run.

Even as Seniors Inc. was blowing $300,000 in less than two years, as best as we can tell from the District’s own reports the Centennial Activity Center lost a whopping $240,000 in 2014, and looks on track to lose around $190,000 this year. Those deficits have to be covered by…wait for it…the taxpayers. But in typical government fashion, we hear that District staff and certain Park Board members consider that “moving in the right direction.”

And in typical Good-Time Charlie fashion, Butterly and his Seniors Inc. buddies intend to “press on and have a good time until the last day.” And the last pennies of Kemnitz’s $300,000 get spent.

Before they come back onto the Park District dole.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Park District Spares Taxpayers, Ticks Freeloaders

10.21.15

Readers of this blog know that we’re not the biggest fans of Park Ridge Park District Executive Director Gayle Mountcastle.

Not because she’s a bad person. She isn’t, although we try to leave those kinds of judgments to higher powers because they’re generally above our pay grade.

Our main beefs with Mountcastle are the things she has done in her ED role that we find abhorrent to honest, transparent and accountable government – most notably her manipulation of too-compliant Park Board members to push through a second/third-rate, over-budget $8 million Centennial water park without the voter referendum that previous directors and park boards scrupulously held for every major Park District project since the misbegotten Community Center was built, without referendum, 20+ years ago.

And a design and budgeting process for the new Prospect Park that now seems inept at best, and a bait-and-switch at worst.

But we have to give the “devil” (tongue firmly planted in cheek) her due – and also toss a few kudos in the Park Board’s direction – for turning the District’s collection of amenities into a business-like operation that is projected to derive nearly 51% of its budgeted revenues – up almost 4% from the current year’s projections – not by squeezing already-pinched taxpayers for more property taxes but, instead, through charging user fees.

What a novel concept for government: Make the District’s pay-per-use facilities and programs provide enough value that residents, and even non-residents, are actually willing to pay something close to fair market price for them!

Well, not quite all of our residents.

There’s a contingent of local “freeloaders” – our one-word shorthand for what we otherwise would have to describe, in 31 words, as “those residents who are always 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” – who don’t like these fee increases one bit.

How do we know?

Because perhaps the most outspoken poster-child for local freeloading of all types, Kathy Panattoni Meade, tells us so.

Shortly after the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate published its article about the Park District’s plan to increase certain user fees in its 2016 budget (“Park Ridge pool passes, fitness center memberships could get more expensive,” Oct. 6), KPM was burning up the Park Ridge Concerned Homeowners Group Facebook page about…wait for it…how she pays taxes that should entitle her to free use of whatever her heart desires, including all Park District facilities and programs.

Just for kicks, let’s look at a few of her FB comments – which we present in italics, followed with our own comments in bold for the reader’s convenience:

“I can put my kids in programs in other communities for less money – even as a non-resident. This enrages me because my taxes should be offsetting the cost of the programs.”

Vaya con Dios, KPM. If you can get a better deal in Niles, Skokie, Winnetka, Lake Bluff or Medicine Hat, adios!

“If the price of the pool passes is going up then the ban on outside food needs to be lifted. The Park District can not ask people to pay over $200 [for a family full-season pool pass] and then forced [sic] Park Ridge residents to pay for over-priced snacks. That is unconscionable.”

Let’s try some Econ 101, KPM: If you aren’t going to go to the pools often enough to justify the family full-season pool pass, don’t buy one! Problem solved…without the Park District having to change its rules to let you roll in a cooler of drinks, a bucket of KFC, or a 6-foot sub from Tony’s.

“I have no problems with paying high taxes for services and that our high taxes in Park Ridge should be off setting the price of the programs at the PRPD.”

Let’s try a little more Econ 101: If the increased fees are paying only 51% of the District’s budgeted revenues, 49% of the budgeted revenues are still being covered by the taxpayers. Reducing the fee revenues as you desire means the taxpayers – including you – will need to pay even higher taxes. But, then again, freeloaders like you don’t mind higher taxes so long as you can recoup them through excessive use of the facilities and services.

“I don’t mind paying high taxes. I knew it was part of the package when I moved here. I want to live in a community where people aren’t complaining that the police are overpaid or the teachers are overpaid yet the city manager is making $140k and the school superintendent is making nearly $200k.”

That “$140k” (actually more than $150K) for the City Mgr., and that “nearly $200k” (actually $250K-plus) for the D-64 Supt. presumably reflects the fact that both of them are the CEOs of their respective $70 Million-plus business enterprises. A patrolman starts at around 40% of the City Mgr.’s salary, and a classroom teacher starts at about 25% of the Supt.’s salary. So your beef is…?

“I posted about the holiday lights which sparked a conversation and now a fund to pay for the holiday lights!”

KPM, you had NOTHING whatsoever to do with the creation of the Park Ridge Holiday Lights Fund. And, true to your freeloader form, as of the time of publication of this post the Fund has no record of your having donated one cent – as if that should come as any surprise.

But enough about the freeloader mentality and the freeloaders who revel in it.

The Park District really is onto something. And all you taxpayers – you folks who are net “payers,” as opposed to the net “users” (like KPM) whose principal goal is to pull more out of the public trough than they put into it – should be supporting that effort.

Now that the Park District is crossing the 50% threshold of non-tax revenue, its next goal should be having tax dollars cover only those CAPITAL costs of the District’s parks and facilities, while having user fees cover all the operating expenses.

That’s the kind of twofer we like: Making the taxpayers happy.

And making the freeloaders howl.

To read or post comments, click on title.

Caution: Freeloaders On [The] Board (Clarified)

08.24.15

Back in the early 1980s it seemed like you couldn’t drive more than a few blocks in any urban or suburban area without seeing one or more of those black-on-yellow “Caution: Baby On Board” signs slapped on the back of a mini-van or SUV.

The intent of those signs was an obvious appeal to other drivers to exercise special care and caution around such vehicles, presumably because of some unrealistic expectation that a reckless motorist might be constrained from imitating his favorite NASCAR driver if he thought the neighboring vehicle he was about to “rub” into the concrete divider on the Kennedy was carrying a baby instead of his favorite NASCAR driver’s main rival.

Predictably, those signs were followed by signs with even sillier cautionary assumptions, like “Caution: Mother-in-Law On Board” or “Caution: Rottweiler On Board” – assuming, of course, that those are not redundant or interchangeable warnings.

But after watching the video from last Thursday’s (08.20.15) Park Ridge Park District Board meeting, we’re thinking that the Park District might need to consider making and hanging one of those black-on-yellow signs on the door of the Board room whenever a couple of our Park commissioners are inside. And it should read:

“Caution: Freeloaders On The Board.”

Regular readers of this blog already know that “freeloaders” is a term we use as shorthand for local residents who try to disproportionally profit from their fellow taxpayers’ tax payments, a/k/a “Other People’s Money” or “OPM” for short. They are to be distinguished from “parasites,” which are non-residents who help themselves to the facilities and services paid for by our Park Ridge taxpayers, especially when they can get them for free.

Today’s featured freeloaders are none other than Park Commissioners Joan Bende and Cynthia Grau.

You can see and hear their freeloader arguments against  park commissioners giving up their currently free uses of Park District facilities and programs by going to the Park District’s meeting video at around the 1:51:00 mark where the discussion begins. You’ll need to listen closely, however, because the audio is muddied by the constant rattle/rumble of the Board room’s window air conditioner.

Such freebies have been a bone of contention at the Park District for decades.

They were S.O.P. prior to 1997 when they really came into their own as the Park Board members who railroaded the land acquisition, construction and bonded debt for the $8 million Community Center (n/k/a the “Fitness Center”) promptly rewarded themselves with free memberships to that facility. Meanwhile, the District started issuing short term bonds to pay the long-term CC debt service, but then found itself with insufficient funds to do needed maintenance, repairs and renovation of existing parks and facilities.

But in 1997 a new majority of commissioners (including the editor of this blog) came into office and voted in several changes to business-as-usual, including a ban on those free Community Center memberships and all the other lesser “perks” that commissioners had been enjoying for years on their fellow taxpayers’ dimes.  It wasn’t a game-changer economically, but it sent a message that the Park District wasn’t an “Ubi est mea” (“Where’s mine?”) kind of place.

The proponents of the perks back then howled about how free usage enabled them to better observe and evaluate the facilities and programs they oversaw. But the perks opponents prevailed with their arguments that (a) facilities and programs could be equally, or better, evaluated by commissioners simply observing them and actively listening to the users’ opinions; and (b) that if use of a facility or program was truly necessary for a proper evaluation, a specific freebie use could be arranged…with the expectation of a written status report by the commissioner in return.

We’re not sure when that no-perks policy was rescinded and the freebie commissioner usage of facilities and programs became “encouraged.” But we shouldn’t be surprised that freeloader commissioners found a way to resurrect freebie commissioner perks without fanfare or media scrutiny.

Freeloaders have a knack for ripping off the taxpayers in a variety of stealthy ways.

So when Commissioner Rick Biagi raised the topic of repealing the current freebie-perk policy – and also instituting an anti-nepotism policy to prevent commissioners and their families from obtaining District employment – it should have been expected that some commissioners would hoist their freeloader flags and object

Enter Bende and Grau, stage left.

In arguing to repeal the freebies, Biagi correctly noted that every commissioner was free to audit programs and facilities when such audits were deemed necessary to properly discharge their official duties; and that the greatest benefit of such audits would be for the auditing commissioner to report his/her findings and conclusions to Exec. Director Gayle Mountcastle.

We’d go Biagi one step further, however, by requiring a written report of those findings and conclusions that not only gets sent to Mountcastle but that also gets distributed to every other commissioner and department head. And that gets published on the District’s website so the taxpayers can read it. Otherwise, there’s a clear and present danger of many/most of those fact-finding tours becoming magical mystery ones that merely provide a freebie for the commissioner’s personal/private benefit.

We also concur in Park District Attorney Tom Hoffman’s observation (at 1:54 of the video) that any one commissioner’s audits of any one facility or program should be occasional rather than regular. While there may be a reason to audit a yoga class, there’s no reasonable need for the same commissioner to audit it every Tuesday morning for several months.

If you have a twisted sense of humor you might want to check out the argument between Biagi and Bende beginning around 1:57:30 of the video and continuing to around the 2:04 mark, in which Bende sounds like she is telling Biagi she would be fine with his regularly inspecting the Driving Range by knocking out free bushels of golf balls.

That’s because freeloaders are like Amway salespeople: they love recruiting more freeloaders who, in turn, recruit even more of them.  Call it gaining acceptance by increasing market share.

But the winner of last Thursday’s “Freeloader On The Board” competition was Park Board newbie Grau, who – if we heard her correctly over the air conditioner – had the audacity to actually admit (between 2:03 and 2:04:35 of the video) that, since her election in April, she has decided it was high time to get back into a fitness regimen at the Community Center via the free pass for commissioners…although, not surprisingly, she failed to note that she would be putting those charges on the taxpayers’ tab.

As we’ve said before: freeloaders are extraordinarily shameless.

But the only way they can keep getting away with it is if the rest of us are equally spineless. 

CLARIFICATION (08.26.15)  Commissioner Grau has objected to this post on the grounds that it accuses her of receiving a free Community Center membership that she has not received.  Athough it was not our intention to create that impression, and although we believe that “she would be putting those charges [for that “free” membership] o the taxpayers’ tab” denotes a future event, after re-reading the post we can see how it might be misinterpreted.

As she makes clear in her remarks (from 2:03:56 and 2:04:40 of the meeting video), whether she can use the Community Center for free might be a factor in her deciding whether to work out there or someplace else, but she had not yet made that decision.

To read or post comments, click on title.