Another Real Estate Sham…Wow!


With the City Council already having dug us even deeper into its 2009-10 budget hole by throwing extra public money at private organizations which invoke their 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status to justify their perennial money-losing performances, we thought it worthwhile to bring some attention to what could become another financial black hole for Park Ridge taxpayers. 

As reported by both local newspapers during the first week of this month, a board member of the 501(c)(3) Kalo Foundation of Park Ridge [pdf] is looking to buy 720 Garden Street – most recently, the home of American Insurance but unofficially re-named the “Clute House” by the Kalo-ers – for a “Park Ridge Non-Profit Center” to house our community’s non-profit organizations. 

Ironically, the Kalo board member driving this plan is none other than John Sasser, who in the waning days of last month’s mayoral campaign tossed a cool $1,000 into the political war chest of former Mayor Howard “Let’s Make A Deal” Frimark [pdf], whose semi-secret attempt to negotiate the City’s purchase of that very same property for a new police station was “outed” by then-alderman, now Mayor Dave Schmidt.

At the time, Frimark and his Alderpuppets howled like banshees about Schmidt’s disclosure, falsely accusing Schmidt of violating the non-existent confidentiality/secrecy of “closed session” City Council meetings.  But when the city attorney opined that nothing in the Illinois Open Meetings Act prohibited such disclosures, or provided any sanctions against it, Frimark cooked up a silly, kangaroo-style “condemnation” of Schmidt – which infuriated many citizens and may well have helped propel Schmidt into the mayor’s office.

Well done, Howard!  

But back to Sasser’s plan.  According to the Park Ridge Journal article (“Kalo May Buy Historic Clute House,” May 6), Sasser is “trying to set up financing to purchase the building directly as a non-profit.”  Sasser calls his plan “a leap of faith.”

Sounds to us more like a white elephant in the making.

Right now, we understand that 720 Garden is generating a nice chunk of property taxes each year which benefits the City, the Park District and, to an even greater degree, School District 64.  But if that property is purchased by a non-profit, in all likelihood that tax revenue will disappear because non-profits in Illinois are eligible for tax-exempt status. 

And judging by past and current City Council practices, the non-profits who would own and/or occupy 720 Garden would soon be asking – and getting – tax dollars from the City to keep that building open and operating.  So, once again, Park Ridge taxpayers would be providing welfare to a bunch of private organizations, many of which are run like hobbies instead of businesses.

What’s Sasser’s angle (because there’s always an “angle” with deals like this)?

We’re not sure, because we don’t know all the tricks of the real estate trade, or the various ways that property can be leased, optioned or otherwise managed so that it can be purchased at its currently-depressed market price using the currently-low financing rates, carried on a non-profit basis while the real estate market recovers, and then sold off for a tidy profit when the market recovers, and/or when the Uptown Redevelopment plan eventually moves down there to Target Area IV.

We here at PublicWatchdog believe that taking any private property off the tax rolls is bad public policy unless it is absolutely necessary for an over-riding public purpose.  And that policy becomes even worse in practice when the taxpayers also end up paying for the operation and upkeep of the tax-exempt property, via City welfare payments to those organizations.

We’re already being fleeced by a TIF District that has sucked millions out of City coffers while providing only promises of profits to come.  We don’t need to add to that problem by taking a revenue-producing property off the tax rolls in that District.

How To Balance The City Budget


We here at PublicWatchdog don’t make the approx. $200,000 (all in) City Manager Jim Hock is paid each year to be the City’s chief operational officer.  Or the approx. $120,000 Assistant City Mgr. Juliana Maller receives.  Or the approx. $115,000 paid to Community Preservation & Development Director Carrie Davis.  Or the approx. $130,000 paid to each of Public Works Director Wayne Zingsheim, Acting Police Chief Tom Swoboda, Fire Chief Craig Gjelsten and Finance Director Diane Lambesis. 

(Frankly, we don’t make anything running this blog.  The only good thing about that sad fact is that it’s harder to accuse us of having a conflict of economic interest.) 

Throw in the $12,000 paid to Mayor Dave Schmidt, and the $1,200 paid to each of the Alder-dunces, and we’re talking about almost $1 million a year in payroll for the people who, in one way or another, are responsible for balancing the City budget – which means they are being paid pretty big bucks, collectively (and even individually), to saddle us with the $2 million deficit budget the City Council recently passed. 

And despite the demand from Mayor Schmidt that they come up with amendments to get the budget in balance, the occupants of this financial clown car recently added to that deficit by giving away even more handouts to a bunch of private organizations which – as a matter of public policy – have no business sucking public tax dollars out of the City’s coffers while legitimate City infrastructure needs are neglected for lack of funding. 

Because the folks paid to balance the budget have yet to display the intellectual honesty and intestinal fortitude needed to get the job done, we’re going to give it a try – secure in the knowledge that we can’t do worse, and that we’re costing the taxpayers nothing.  So here we go:

· Implement a pay-as-you-go policy for every fee-based service, starting with water.  Just passing through the entire 2009 water rate increase [pdf] charged Park Ridge by the City of Chicago will not only take a big bite out of the deficit, but it just might encourage more water conservation, making it a win/win. 
  Reduction: $400,000. Deficit remaining: $1,600,000.

· Freeze wages at 2008-09 rates. And when the employees (and the union) beef, remind them of the 570,000+ private-sector workers in Illinois who are currently jobless and the fact that a “flat” paycheck is better than no paycheck at all, especially when it comes with a great pension and all the other benefits that most of the people paying the bill for them don’t themselves enjoy. 
  Reduction: $800,000. Deficit remaining: $800,000.

· Chop two-thirds of the $900,000 budgeted “to complete construction of the streetscape on Summit, Touhy to Prospect.” [pdf]  Once again, folks, it’s a question of priorities. During a recession/depression, things like appearance need to take a back-seat to necessities. Frankly, given the sad state of the City’s finances, we have to question the sanity of the City even commencing this project in 2008.
  Reduction: $600,000. Deficit remaining: $200,000.

· Rescind the $39,000 over-budget “welfare” payments to local community groups [pdf].  It’s just plain bad public policy for City government to funnel tax dollars to private organizations, at least unless and until there is an official determination by the City that: (a) each such organization receiving City tax dollars provides services that the City itself must/should provide; (b) each organization provides those services at a lower cost than that at which the City could provide them, or provides better services at the same cost; and (c) each organization provides the same degree of financial and operational transparency that is required of the City.   
  Reduction: $39,000.  Deficit remaining: $161,000.

· Eliminate the “original” (pre-increase) $34,000 contribution to the Park Ridge Senior Center.  The Senior Center is already gorging at the public trough to the tune of the $159,740 in tax dollars the Park District has budgeted for it in 2009 [pdf].  And last we heard, the Center has less than 1,200 members, many of whom aren’t even Park Ridge residents/taxpayers. That means we are paying $130+ a year for each member to belong to this little club – if not more, depending on whether any public money makes up that “miscellaneous” revenue source that is supposed to provide an additional $97,445 of revenue in 2009.
  Reduction: $34,000. Deficit remaining: $127,000.

· Eliminate the “noise abatement” funds [pdf], which are supposed to go for the rental of noise monitors to tell us what we already know; and about what nobody in a position of authority seems to give a rat’s derriere about: That we’ve got high levels of air plane noise over Park Ridge.  Unless and until somebody with any clout – the FAA, either of our two U.S. senators, or any members of our state’s congressional delegation – assures us in no uncertain terms, and in writing, that they will actually do something about the situation if, and just as soon as, they are provided with specific noise readings, we’re just chasing our tails with noise monitors and decibel levels.
  Reduction: $25,000. Deficit remaining: $102,000.

· Eliminate the funds that have been earmarked for training ($9,000), tuition reimbursement ($12,000) and new carpeting ($40,000) in the Library [pdf].  If police training is being cut back, there’s no reason to spare the training of library staffers.  And why are we giving anybody “tuition reimbursement”?  As for new carpeting: not this year.
  Reduction: $52,300. Deficit remaining: $49,700.

And for that last $49,700, we’re going to let Ald. Don Bach – who has been whining about too many City employees for months – put his money where his mouth is: we invite him to recommend which single City employee should lose his/her job; and we promise to publish his selection should he finally demonstrate that he has the cojones to actually make one.

Tick tock, Bach.

How About Something Special For Memorial Day 2009?


On Monday the traditional Park Ridge Memorial Day Parade will step off from South Park (Cumberland and Talcott) and end after passing the reviewing stand at City Hall.

The Parade is always a festive occasion, with the typical blend of elected officials, political organizations, community groups and various and assorted other participants mixing in for an entertaining event that brings the community together in a Norman Rockwell-esque sort of way.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But Memorial Day is really not meant to be a celebration.  It is a national holiday intended to commemorate and honor our fallen heroes, the men and women who have died in service to our country.  Unfortunately, that purpose seems to be increasingly lost among both the parade marchers and the parade watchers.

So we have two suggestions for those of you marching in this year’s Memorial Day Parade:

First, every group marching in the parade should invite one or more veterans, or current servicemen/women, to lead the group.    

Second, every individual marcher, adult and child alike, should buy a poppy from the folks selling them on the street corners and shopping areas all over town, and wear that poppy proudly as you march on Monday.  The same goes for those of you watching the parade.  And when you do, think of the poppies that inspired Canadian Army Lt. Col. John McCrae to write the words to “In Flanders Fields”:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The City Budget And The Culture Of Stupidity


In the 1993 movie, “Dave,” the title character – Kevin Kline as a presidential look-alike who fills in for a disabled president – seeks advice on balancing the national budget from his store-front accountant buddy, played by Charles Grodin.  The Grodin and Kline characters spend an all-nighter poring over the budget, with Grodin at one point commenting: “If I ran my business this way, I’d be out of business.”

That pretty much describes the way the Park Ridge City Council has been running the city since the voters cut the Council in half, beginning in 2007.  After booking $3 million in deficits over the past two years, the Council outdid itself this year by passing a budget with a built-in $2 million deficit. 

At the prodding of new Mayor Dave Schmidt to come up with some amendments to balance the budget, City staff and the aldermen appear to merely be going through the motions.  Worse yet, however, is that when they actually do something more than that, they go in the wrong direction!

Monday night, the Council, as expected, approved an amendment adding $39,000 more in “welfare” payments to several local community groups who either can’t or won’t do what it takes to pay their own way.  And, as expected, the Council approved a 5% water rate increase that is patently insufficient – by $400,000 – to cover the price increase on water we purchase from the City of Chicago.  

Illinois has a well-deserved reputation for its state-wide “Culture of Corruption,” a symptom of which is budget deficits which end up turning into massive and chronic debt.  And it would be foolish to think that Park Ridge is immune from that Culture of Corruption: although we’re pretty small potatoes, the opportunity for kinkiness is always there when land deals, developers and consultants converge. 

But what it looks like we’re dealing with here isn’t so much corruption as plain unvarnished stupidity. 

How many more deficit budgets can this City endure before it reaches the point where it can’t pay its bills, and its infrastructure collapses – or where we need a substantial tax increase because the Council (and our former mayor) didn’t have the courage to tell us the truth about the City’s finances and do what was necessary to fix them?  How much longer will City government keep whistling past the financial graveyard?

Right now, we’ve got a leader-less Council.  It’s “dean,” Rich DiPietro (2nd Ward), is the consummate follower whose next original budget idea will be his first.  And the next most-senior alderman, Frank Wsol (7th Ward), voted against the meager 5% water rate increase not because it was too low but because it was too high! 

Wsol wanted no increase at all, preferring to dip into reserves even though the City already appears to be cash-poor.  What Wsol really endorsed here, however, is a kind of financial socialism: by the City eating the increased water cost, that cost gets spread over the entire community rather than landing more heavily on the biggest users, thereby providing a subsidy to those biggest water users.  As we have said before, that’s bad government, bad economics, and political pandering.      

As for the other (besides Wsol’s) “no” vote on the water rate increase, Don Bach (3rd Ward), he’s a one-trick pony – that “trick” being to respond to any and all calls for a balanced budget by braying for staff cuts.  So far, staff isn’t budging; and Bach has offered not even one concrete suggestion of what staff cuts should be made and how much those would save.  In other words, he’s been a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The taxpaying residents of Park Ridge deserve better than this.  Unfortunately, this cast of characters appears incapable of providing it.

Mr. Einstein, Meet Mr. Stengel


A quote attributed to Albert Einstein is that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  If so, then tonight’s City Council meeting promises to provide some insanity, as our City Council is expected to respond to Mayor Dave Schmidt’s call for filling the $2 million deficit in the 2009-10 budget – by going an additional $39,000 in the hole on handouts to private community groups. 

These are the same Alder-dunces who helped former City Manager “Tiny Tim” Schuenke foist on us unsuspecting taxpayers the budgets in 2007-08 and 2008-09 which posted, collectively, over $3 million in deficits while at the same time making sure that those private community groups got tax dollars that could have gone toward such important infrastructure needs as relief sewers or street repaving.

And if that’s not insane enough for a community who’s finances are already on the ropes, look for the Council to also approve only a 5% increase in water rates, thereby locking in a $400,000 deficit in the City’s water fund for the coming year.  Unless, of course, they want to get even nuttier and follow the lead of Ald. Frank Wsol (7th Ward) and Ald. Don Bach (3rd Ward) in rejecting any water rate increase, despite a 15% increase in the price of water that Chicago is charging Park Ridge!

Our new mayor apparently re-thought the insanity of a third straight deficit budget while on post-election R&R in Hawaii, and upon his return he called for an amendment to balance that budget the night he was sworn in (May 4).  Unfortunately, we have seen and heard nothing from City staff that offers any hope for filling the current budget hole.  And it sounds as if a solid majority, if not a unanimity, of the City Council is ready to make that hole even deeper by approving the over-budget giveaways to those community groups because (according to Ald. Jim  Allegretti (4th Ward)) they “add, dollar for dollar, a lot more than we give them.”

Oh yeah?  Prove it!

If those organizations really provide such obvious and indisputably important services at such bargain-basement prices, why do they need handouts from City government in the first place?  Can’t the taxpayers themselves see all that value they provide and contribute directly from their own pockets far more money than what the City is donating, ostensibly on their behalf? 

After all, that’s the essence of why (according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker in his May 10, 2009, post on the Becker-Posner blog) the great socio-political philosophers John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith opposed “big government” and favored the private decision-making of individuals rather than the decision-making of hamstrung government bureaucrats and the special interests who are adept at manipulating them.  To those keen thinkers, even wrong decisions leading to bad outcomes are useful because they provide learning experiences that improve future decision-making.

As we’ve said before, most of those organizations do add some value to the quality of life in our community, although we have yet to see it quantified in any objective or credible way.  More importantly, however, as private entities they are not required to be accountable to the taxpayers – nor do they really try to be, as shown by the fact that most/all of them don’t even post their financial reports, payrolls, etc. on their own websites for the public to scrutinize.  As we see it, that’s reason enough to deny them scarce tax dollars in the middle of a fiscal crisis.

But if the Council wants to be fiscally irresponsible in that fashion, then it should come up with some countervailing frugality.  For example, Bach has made repeated calls to “cut senior management,” but he has offered nothing specific on what positions should be cut to reduce the $2 million deficit, or even to make up for the extra $39,000 giveaway to those community groups.  That should come as no surprise to anybody who remembers his all talk, no action response to the new O’Hare runway, or his vote to give as much as $2.4 million of our tax dollars to Napleton Cadillac only because (so he claimed) 30 of his constituents he polled told him they favored it. 

And what else but insanity can be blamed for certain Council members’ seemingly mindless opposition to increasing the price of water dollar-for-dollar to reflect its increased cost?  When our elected officials follow up two successive budget shortfall years by passing a budget with a built-in $2 million deficit, one that will burn off needed fund balances to subsidize (and thereby implicitly encourage) water consumption, they are engaging not only in bad government but in bad economics that smacks of political pandering to boot.

In the early 1960s, the manager of the expansion New York Mets reacted to yet another bumbling loss with the question: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”  If Casey Stengel were alive today and managing the Park Ridge City Council, he could ask that very same question.

It’s Charade Time At School District 64


Over the past few weeks we have been beating up on the City of Park Ridge for its $2 million deficit budget.  But of our three main local governmental units, neither the City of Park Ridge nor the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District can hold a candle to Community Consolidated School District 64 when it comes to spending the taxpayers’ money.

Not only does District 64 have the biggest budget of the three but, as can be seen from the “expenditures” pages (11 & 12) of District 64’s 2008-09 budget document [pdf], District 64 has been on a two-year spending kick, apparently to make up for those years when it teetered on the brink of financial catastrophe and regularly flirted with the unfriendly takeover of its finances by the State Board of Education.  Expenditures jumped $6 million (a/k/a, 12.5%) from 2005-06 ($47,985,622) to 2006-07 ($54,134,215), and another $8 million (a/k/a, 14.8%) from 2006-07 to 2007-08 ($62,290,761).

That’s a whopping 27.3% increase in just two years!!!! 

Unfortunately, we can’t tell exactly what real educational benefits the taxpayers, or even the students, have received from that monumental increase, because District 64 tends to be vague and mysterious on such things as objectively measurable performance or standardized (ISAT) test scores.  But one thing we can tell you with certainty: you won’t find one District 64 school on the Chicago Sun-Times’ lists of the Top 50 Illinois elementary schools and the Top 50 Illinois middle schools [pdf].

But we can always feel better about ourselves knowing that District 64 Supt. Sally Pryor makes it into the “Top 50” elementary school district administrators (as reported by the Family Taxpayers Foundation) with her 2008 salary of $228,911.  Is that what they call paying for performance?

Not only can District 64 spend our money like drunken sailors on shore leave, but it is absolutely masterful at public relations – as evidenced by the award just-departed School Board president Sue Runyon won from the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), a non-profit 501(c)(3) propaganda machine for the “education” community (translation: teachers and administrators).

And that propaganda machine is hard at work again, as evidenced by the District 64’s May 4, 2009 Press Release [pdf], in which Supt. Pryor hails the District’s new “Strategic Plan” as an “exciting plan” which “captures the hopes and vision we share for the education of our students.”  Warning: If you continue reading the Press Release beyond that point, you had better put on some waders – because the you-know-what gets a lot deeper.

Not surprisingly, there’s no clear mention of this “exciting plan” raising standardized test scores or achieving other objectively-measurable academic standards.  But when somebody talks up a strategic plan by pointing out that it was produced “through more than 35 hours of strenuous effort,” you can pretty much assume that the warm breeze you feel is smoke being blown up your kilt, especially when all that “strenuous effort” occurred “[u]nder the skillful leadership of Dr. Howard Feddema of the Cambridge Group” – the hired-gun consultant we wrote about back on November 3, 2008.

But the real clue that this strategic planning session wasn’t intended to be taxpayer-friendly, or even taxpayer-conscious, comes from the list of folks who participated in that “strenuous effort”: 17 of them were District 64 teachers or administrators, while 11 were “community members” – only one of whom (Bill Kann) had no children in District 64 schools and, therefore, could reasonably be viewed as having no direct personal stake in the process other than as a taxpayer.  Talk about a stacking the deck!

That’s what passes for “community outreach” at District 64, however.  And since “community outreach” is just the propaganda substitute for “round up the usual suspects,” what the taxpayers are really getting with this new “Strategic Plan” and its “Action Teams” is just another charade.

A very expensive charade.

Are Park Ridge Taxpayers “Mad As Hell” Yet?


In the 1976 movie satire of the television news industry, Network, the central character, a veteran newscaster being pushed out the door by his younger, ratings-whoring bosses, strikes a responsive chord with the general viewing public by his valedictory rant: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Well, Park Ridge taxpayers, we’ve got a City government that has been mismanaged into a financial sink-hole from which recovery is neither imminent nor assured.  And our City Council recently passed a budget that has an almost $2 million deficit – on the heels of the two most recent budgets which racked up over $3 million in deficits. 

If that has you scratching your head, or looking for some torches and ropes, you are not alone.

Yet this past Monday night, the Council, operating as a Committee of the Whole (“COW”), responded to our new mayor’s call for a balanced budget by, among other things, restoring the taxpayer funding to primarily private community organizations to the level of last year’s appropriations, $271,000, which appropriations contributed to last year’s million dollar-plus budget deficit.  But as Ald. Jim Allegretti (4th Ward) blithely noted: “$38,900 is not going to make or break this budget.”

You’re right, Jimbo…but that’s only because this budget is already broken in so many places that City Mgr. Jim Hock should send the City’s Super Glue contract out for competitive bidding. If fiscal irresponsibility were a crime, Allegretti and the rest of the Alder-dunces over at 505 Butler Place would be wearing orange jumpsuits and addressing each other by number instead of name.

But the mental disconnect over spending money the City doesn’t have – and has no realistic plan for getting – isn’t just Allegretti’s.  7th Ward Ald. Frank Wsol, the Council’s self-proclaimed “fiscal conservative” who lost most of his credibility supporting the ridiculous, multi-million dollar new police station, may have lost the rest of it with his comment Monday night (as quoted in today’s Park Ridge Journal article, “Contributions Back For More Discussion”) about why these private community organizations deserve taxpayer funding: “The volunteers on these boards do things that you can’t pay for, you can’t buy.”

That’s just not true, Frankie. The volunteers on those boards apparently mismanage their organizations’ finances and spend money they don’t have in much the same way you and your fellow Alder-dunces do.  And we pay you guys $100 per month, so that gives us the going rate in Park Ridge for mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility.

Wsol continued to earn his $100 monthly stipend at the same COW meeting when he – indicating his preference for handouts to mismanaged community organizations over maintaining the integrity of City Hall’s physical plant – led the charge against waiving the competitive bidding process for replacing a leaking 70-ton chiller for the City Hall air conditioning system.  Replacement cost: $84,000, or less than 1/3 of what Wsol and the Council want to give the community organizations.

Without the new chiller, or its repair to the tune of about $40,000, Public Works Director Wayne Zingsheim warns that air conditioning at City Hall might not be sufficient to keep the City’s computers and servers operating.  He asked for the bidding waiver because he found an available chiller (which otherwise takes 8 to 10 weeks to manufacture) at a dealer in Tennessee, who agreed to hold it for a day or two until the Council could make a decision.   

We here at PublicWatchdog are big fans of the competitive bidding process and don’t take kindly to its waiver.  Whether there should be a waiver of that process in this instance, however, is unclear.  But that’s beside the point of this post.

The point of this post is that the Alder-dunces are delaying the repair or replacement of a key element of City Hall’s air conditioning system – and arguably putting its computer network at risk – in order to go through the competitive bidding process to save a tiny fraction of what they are throwing at the people running those private community organizations which seem unwilling and/or incapable of functioning without government handouts.  That’s just bad government, purely and simply.

Unfortunately, this is only chump change when compared to the $2 million of budget deficit still on the table, and whatever other potential financial catastrophes are lurking out of taxpayer view.  But given their track record, we shudder to think of how the Alder-dunces will end up dealing with any of this – although if past is prologue, expect the same kind of not-so-benign neglect over the past two years that got us to this point.

Are we “mad as hell” yet?

The Watchdog’s Kibbles and Bits – Box 11


Brick Headed: This week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate features a woe-is-us piece on the Brickton Art Center, another one of those private not-for-profit corporations that seems to perpetually live on the taxpayer dole because it just can’t (or won’t) figure out – or sign onto – the concept of “capitalism.” (“Hard times hit Brickton Art Center,” May 7)

According to the H-A story, BAC is in financial trouble because “donors are contributing less, grants have dried up, class attendance is down by about 25 percent, and funding once received from the state has significantly decreased.”  By our count, 3 of those 4 funding sources are handouts rather than real live earnings. And that’s assuming that “class attendance” actually covers its costs.

The people who run BAC are fine folks, and BAC is a nifty kind of place.  But if you’re going to run a “business,” run a BUSINESS.  One that doesn’t rely more on taxpayer welfare than it does on turning out desirable products or services which real live customers are willing to purchase at a price that at least covers the costs of doing…wait for it…BUSINESS!

Otherwise, you’re just running a hobby.  Which is all well and good, so long as the already-strapped taxpayers don’t end up holding the bag as involuntary investors.

Bud No Dud: We’ve taken issue in the past with local commentator Bud Jones when he beefed about spending $130,000 to televise City Council meetings (“Air Bud,” The Watchdog’s Kibbles and Bits – Box 7) – although we now know it can be done for next to nothing by a regular citizen sitting in the front row of the gallery filming with a tiny hand-held camera and then downloading it on YouTube.  

But we’re 100% solid with Bud’s objection to the H-A’s posting a separate story – instead of merely a “Police Blotter” item – on the DUI arrest of Ald. Robert Ryan’s son. (“Objection to story on DUI arrest,” May 7)

We disagree with Ryan on most public issues, but what the H-A did to his son is dirty pool.  Young Mr. Ryan is not a public official, nor is he a “public figure” merely because his father is.  And at age 23, he is legally an adult, not a minor – so his mis-step cannot even reasonably be viewed as some form of failure of parental supervision.

Ryan should be treated the way any other ordinary citizen is treated, not subjected to the glare of a harsh spotlight he has not sought and from which he has not benefitted.

A Good Start For Mayor Schmidt


Shortly after being sworn in Monday night, Mayor Dave Schmidt took an important first step in proving that his election was the right thing for Park Ridge: He broke the 3-3 tie among the six remaining aldermen and sent the “charitable contributions” portion of the 2009/10 budget back to the Finance & Budget Committee for re-evaluation.

In so doing, Schmidt put in motion a complete review, and possible amendment, of the entire recently-passed 2009/10 budget.  He made it quite clear that not only would he like to see the current $1.8 million deficit eliminated, but also that he does not take kindly to $630,000 of that deficit resulting from giveaways to private community groups and from the City Council’s refusal to pass on the full costs of increased water prices to the consumers, as reflected in Schmidt’s comment on the latter point: “Water rates must reflect pay as you go economics.”

Amen to that.

We couldn’t understand how the City Council, after having booked over $3 million in deficits during the past two years, could still pass a 2009/10 budget that included another $1.8 million deficit.  Spending more than it has been taking in is why the City is in such a financial mess in the first place, a fact that still seems lost on the folks seated around The Horseshoe who purportedly represent us.

So with the price the City of Chicago charges Park Ridge for water having just increased 15% (with another 14% increase already scheduled for next year), how does the Council justify raising the price to us water users by only 5%, leaving the City $400,000 in the hole?  If you’re Ald. Frank Wsol (7th Ward), who fancies himself the Council’s resident fiscal conservative, you push for subsidizing that shortfall with money from the Water Fund reserves, claiming that those reserves represent money “[w]e’ve taken from the taxpayers already.”

Indeed they do, Ald. Wsol, but so what?  Most of the money sitting in City accounts at any given time didn’t come from a winning Powerball ticket – it’s money that’s already been taken from the taxpayers, one way or the other.  But that’s never stopped you or your fellow aldermen from spending it before, so why are you so hung-up on it now? 

The Water Fund reserves that Wsol wants to deplete are intended to cover a variety of water-related costs, including the cost of paying the debt service (almost $900,000/year) on the remaining $10,625,000 of bonds issued in 2004 to pay for the City’s new water reservoir at Hinkley Park; the cost of water main repair and replacement ($1.47 million); and the cost of repair and replacement of fire hydrants and water meters ($267,000).  Depleting that fund puts at risk the City’s ability to pay for those needs.

The City’s subsidizing of water costs to its residents is also irresponsible because it artificially influences the application of market forces to the cost of water use.  Manipulating the price to the consumer is dishonest, and doing it to reduce the price of water below its cost encourages over-use and even waste of water.  That’s a lot closer to fiscal insanity than fiscal conservatism, Ald. Wsol.

As for the $226,000 in handouts to private and quasi-private community organizations, both Ald. Jim Allegretti (4th Ward) and Robert Ryan (5th Ward) keep insisting that the community gets back far more value than the tax dollars handed over to those organizations – without one lick of proof to support such grandiose claims.  If the taxpayers really thought these organizations are that valuable, however, why wouldn’t donations of money and services be sufficient to eliminate the annual begging for these government handouts? 

Maybe that question, along with a lot of other ones, will be adequately asked and answered in the upcoming review and amendment (hopefully) of the 2009/10 budget.  If that happens, it will be a good start indeed for Mayor Schmidt…and for the taxpayers and residents of Park Ridge.

New, Challenging Era Of City Government Starts Tonight


A new era in the history of Park Ridge City government will begin tonight (City Hall, 7:30 p.m.) with the swearing in of Mayor Dave Schmidt. 

He inherits a City in its worst financial condition in memory.  Several million dollars of budget deficits during the past two years and a newly-passed 2009/10 budget sporting $1.8 million of red ink are just two of the many indications of a City government that has been operating for the past two years – and looks like it will operate again this coming year – by cannibalizing its own fund “reserves” (i.e., its savings accounts).  And, not surprisingly, those reserves are dropping to levels that are currently uncomfortable and on their way to dangerous. 

How has this been allowed to happen?

First of all, for the past four years we have had no meaningful leadership in the big chair at City Hall.  Frimark fiddled while Park Ridge figuratively “burned” in the economic sense.  

Second, for the first three of those years we had a city manager who might not be able to competently manage a kid’s sidewalk lemonade stand but who was masterful at concealing that fact from a City Council that wasn’t really looking all that hard.  So spending was occurring in ways that were not as productive as they could have been, while revenues received inflated projections with no basis in reality.

And, third, for the past two years we have had a Mayor and City Council as unable as they have been unwilling to make the hard decisions required to run what amounts to a $50 million-plus business cost-effectively.  They preferred to engage in indiscriminate and irresponsible spending, even as they bragged about how modest they were keeping the tax increases.

As a result, revenues stopped covering expenses and the reserves began being tapped.  One example is our Emergency 911 service, which will cost the City $1,264,000 this year while the corresponding telephone surcharge revenue is only expected to raise $525,000, leaving a $777,200 shortfall that the City will have to cover.  Another one is the City billing us water users $400,000 less in water fees than it will pay out to the City of Chicago for that water, because a majority of the City Council would rather bleed down the Water Fund in a way City Manager Jim Hock politely calls “worrisome” – in part because the Water Fund balance has provided a source of cash that the City can “borrow” for other purposes. 

And according to the City Manager’s April 15, 2009, “Budget Message,” the City’s future cash solvency – its having enough cash on hand to pay expenses – has reached the point where it is a “concern.”    

Frankly, this kind of crackpot financial management should be a “concern” to all of us, or at least those of us who haven’t already stuck the “For Sale” sign in the front yard and have the movers on order.

There’s no real magic to managing the city’s finances, so long as the people doing it can grasp the simple concept that they have to make the ends meet: revenues have to equal or exceed expenses.  If you can’t or won’t cut the expenses, then you have to raise more revenue.  Unfortunately, the outgoing mayor and his Alderpuppets have refused to do either at a sufficient magnitude to make up the difference.

Which is where Schmidt is coming in. 

Make no mistake about it, unless leopards truly can change their spots Schmidt cannot expect much responsibility or support from the Alderpuppets who will continue to dominate the Council for the next two years.  Every one of them except Frank Wsol (7th Ward) publicly endorsed and actively supported Frimark’s re-election bid.  And they regularly crossed swords with Schmidt on Council matters like the new police station and abuse of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, even well before Schmidt declared his candidacy.

So instead of looking for further cuts in expenses or more ways to raise revenue, at last week’s COW meeting, the Alderpuppets – sans a vacationing Schmidt – continued to ignore the warnings of Hock and City Finance Director Diane Lambesis and, instead, voted to add another $38,900 to the $1.8 million budget deficit by giving even more handouts (beyond the $187,100 already approved) to the private “community group” corporations who can’t or won’t fundraise in a way that makes them self-supporting.    

It would almost appear that these Aldermopes are actually trying to sabotage the new mayor, except that from the nature of their comments and questions it is pretty clear that they don’t have a clue about City finances – so any sabotage is more inadvertent than intentional.

We can only hope that during the next two years Hock and Lambesis, if they stick around, stick to their guns and continue their dire warnings about fiscal irresponsibility as loudly and as frequently as possible; and that Schmidt uses the “bully pulpit” that the mayor’s office provides to convince the citizens of Park Ridge that the business-as-usual mentality that has taken us to this point has got to change. 

Starting tonight.