The $16.5 Million Question: More Sewers Or New Cop Shop? (Update 9/16/08)


Over the past few days we have learned once again – as so many Park Ridge residents have known for years but too many of our public officials seem intent on ignoring – just how vulnerable we remain to flooding. 

On Saturday (September 13) we endured what is being reported as a record-breaking single-day rain.  Fortunately, there were no major power outages, so at least sump pumps could keep on pumping – albeit into already-flooded yards and streets.  Which explains all the piles of sodden carpeting, furniture and assorted other items once again littering our parkways. 

Is anybody sick of this recurring scenario yet?  If so, are you finally ready to demand that our City government actually does something about it?

Yes, this may have been a record-breaking rain, but we don’t need anything close to record-breaking rains to flood our basements.  Not a summer goes by that the residents of at least some significant part of our city go through this drill.  Yet our local politicians and bureaucrats still appear to have no comprehensive plan in place to address the problem in a realistic way. 

That’s why the City’s $52.5 million 2008-09 budget includes the construction of only two relief sewers totaling a meager 1,060 feet – between three and four block’s worth!  And we can’t even tell what the exact cost of those relief sewers will be because the budget posted on the City’s website states (at Page 56) that “each capital project is explained in detail in the capital budget section of this document,” but we can’t find that “capital budget section” among those seven portions of the budget that are posted.

Now, we’re not saying that the $16.5 million (that’s without figuring in the interest payments on the bonds) the City Council has talked about spending on a new police station, if spent on additional sewers, will completely solve our flooding problems.  Frankly, we have no idea how much flood relief we can buy for how many thousands of Park Ridge residents at that price.  But based on what we do know and what we’ve been able to Google, neither does anybody at City Hall. 

They’ve apparently been spending their time on more pressing concerns, like trying to find a way to cut a deal for Bill “Friend of Frimark” Napleton’s vacant car lot at the corner of Busse and Greenwood, so that they can build a big new police station for the police department’s 100 or so employees.

But guess what, folks?  There’s a legitimate question of whether we can afford a $16.5 million anything, much less a $16.5 million new cop shop and major sewer improvements. 

Of course, there are those who will say we can have it all.  They share the mindset of those geniuses in Washington who insisted the federal government could cut taxes and increase spending, which is why our national debt is closing in on $10 TRILLION, almost double of what it was 8 years ago.  But what the heck – we need to leave some legacy for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.

Back at the local level, long-term debt – in the form of municipal bonds – is how local governments try to hide the true cost (and minimize the immediate pain) of these kinds of expenditures.  The longer the bond term, the lower the annual debt service payments.  Of course, that adds multi-millions of dollars of interest to the total purchase price of what are, in reality, depreciating assets; but by the time those chickens come home to roost the politicians who devised and/or approved the financing plan are usually out of office and beyond accountability, if not retired and living elsewhere.

Long-term bonds is how the City financed Uptown Redevelopment, and that’s what Ald. Frank Wsol (7th Ward) is advocating with his proposed “replacement” of the expiring Public Works building’s 10-year bonds with a new 22-year $16.5 million bond issue for the new cop shop.  Wsol has touted his plan for making the annual debt service payments on a new cop shop a couple of hundred thousand dollars less than we’re currently paying on the Public Works building’s bonds, but we wonder why he hasn’t also told us exactly how many more millions of dollars those extra 12 years of bond financing will end up costing the taxpayers?  

The City is currently carrying almost $44 million in bonded debt, with $5.3 million of this year’s $52.5 million budget – a full 10% – going to debt service.  If we issue $16.5 million in bonds to be repaid over the next 22 years for a new police station, how can we expect to pay for any significant sewer repairs or other flood prevention – in addition to the recurring expenses we already shoulder – without a substantial tax increase?

The bottom line is that we can’t have it all.  Which is why we think it’s way past time the taxpayers demanded that our elected officials start acting like grown-ups and talk publicly about the hard choices between what the entire community really needs and what some of us may merely want. 

Otherwise, they will continue to fiddle while Park Ridge floods.

Update (9/16/08)   A number of Park Ridge residents dealing with flooded basements last Saturday (9/13/08) morning have reported a sudden and unexplained – although very welcome – draining of their sewers around 9:45 a.m.  At least one knowledgeable resident has offered an explanation: Somebody finally decided to turn on all of the city’s sewer pumps.  We have not yet been able to determine whether that is true or, if so, how and by whom that decision was made.  But it does suggest that the City may have had the ability to prevent or reduce at least some of the flooding that was experienced. You may want to contact your alderman, City Manager Jim Hock, or even Mayor Frimark and ask if this is true and, if so, what’s the explanation for it.

Another source familiar with sewer and storm water handling has advised us that relief sewers are an alternate system to Park Ridge’s “combined” (rain water/sewage) sewers.  Relief sewers are designed to store rain water run-off in a separate system and transfer it slowly into the combined sewers.  While a full system of relief sewers throughout the City probably would not have kept all of our basements dry, it sounds as if they certainly could have prevented some flooding and reduced the amount of the flooding that could not be prevented.

Unfortunately, it appears that relief sewer construction has been reduced in recent years by budgetary constraints.  And oh, by the way: Yet another one of our sources points out that Ald. Wsol’s grand plan for the new $16.5 million cop shop with an annual debt service payment of $1.3 million over 22 years will end up costing Park Ridge taxpayers a whopping $28.6 million over the life of those bonds.  We thought you might want to think about that as you pull the last of the sodden carpeting out of your basement.