We Can’t Affford To Gamble On Another Fast Shuffle


There’s a big poker game in Park Ridge tonight. 

We suspect all the players will be wheelin’ and dealin’, bluffin’ and blusterin’, some holding cards close to the vest, others tipping one or two – as one might expect when the “pot” exceeds $50 million.  Some of the players will hold ’em, some will fold ’em.  And by the end of the night, some will walk away, one or two might even run.

The poker game is what the City Council will play during and immediately following the “public hearing” on the City’s 2010-11 budget scheduled for 7:00 p.m., which is the taxpayers’ last chance to comment on how the City is going to tax us and spend our money during the upcoming fiscal year. 

Although these public hearings have been sparsely attended in past years, this year might be SRO if all the special interests (police, fire, the O’Hare Airport Commission, seniors, private community groups, etc.) show up.  After all, they have to make sure they get the deal the City Council has already promised them, and not some watered-down version.

Will any plain old ordinary taxpayers show up in sufficient numbers to off-set all the special interests in the audience and cause our City officials to finally act in a fiscally responsible way?  We can only hope. but we’re not holding our breath.

Will the budget be balanced by evening’s end?  We can only hope.  But that will depend in large part on whether the revenue projections City Mgr. Jim Hock and his Staff have produced are credible.  Frankly, they seem overly-optimistic to us, especially in view of all the unenthusiastic economic forecasts for the coming year and our memories of all the pie-in-the-sky revenue projections that didn’t pan out and produced the torrent of red ink that has filled the City’s ledger for 9 of the last 10 years. 

It will also depend on whether all the proposed expense cuts can actually be achieved, something called into question by the story in Tuesday’s on-line Herald-Advocate (“Budget hearing: Debate over public safety cuts goes on,” April 13) that reports on the impasse between the City and the police union on how to save the jobs of four officers.  The police department reportedly still has to cut $283,768 from its budget in order to retain those four low-seniority officers – which could be done by things like an annual $6,500 pay reduction for every officer on the force; or by an additional $8 increase (above and beyond the already-approved $5 increase) in the price of vehicle stickers; or by a variety of furlough arrangements; or by things like cutting the funding to the O’Hare Airport Commission and the private community groups; or by a combination of several of these alternatives, and others.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t account for the prospect of $936,000 less revenue than Hock budgeted, if the Illinois General Assembly goes along with Gov. Quinn’s proposal to cut 30% from the state income tax payments scheduled to be sent to municipalities like Park Ridge.  Despite our own state rep (Rosemary Mulligan) telling the Council to expect that cut, the folks sitting around The Horseshoe – with the notable exceptions of Mayor Schmidt and Ald. Frank Wsol (7th Ward) – are like kids whistling past the graveyard, refusing to even acknowledge that looming danger.

Which pretty much convinces us that what the taxpayers of Park Ridge are getting, once again, is another budget fast-shuffle from City Mgr. Hock and a complicit City Council – a fast-shuffle designed to minimize public scrutiny and understanding of the proposed budget necessary for ordinary citizens to ask the tough questions before tonight’s public hearing and the adoption of the budget expected immediately thereafter.

The evidence?

Let’s start with Hock, who claims to have a “contingency plan” of expense cuts to cope with that potential 30% revenue reduction from the State.  What are those cuts?  Hock’s not committing to any, which suggests he’s either talking through his hat, or that what he’s come up with is so questionable or ridiculous that it wouldn’t pass the smirk test if subjected to any real scrutiny.

If Hock were being straight with the taxpayers, each of the specific cuts of his “contingency plan” would have been publicized and posted on the City’s website immediately after he announced that he had such a plan, back at the March 31, 2010 budget COW meeting. 

The same goes for the “red-lined” version of Hock’s budget book showing all the changes that the Council has already approved, copies of which we understand he distributed to the Council at Monday night’s COW meeting but have yet to made it to the City’s website. 

Why wasn’t that information available to the taxpayers well enough in advance of tonight’s public hearing so that it could be reviewed?

By now it should be obvious to all but the legally blind why Mayor Schmidt wanted to start these budget discussions months earlier than Hock and the Council did.  Unfortunately, Hock and the Council won that battle, and we’re now back to the kind of eleventh-hour rush-to-judgment that characterized past budgets, and which started and continued the City down the current path to financial instability.

So expect to see a lot of wagering tonight, with money from here going to there, money from there going elsewhere, and not a lot of reliable countin’ going on.  Don’t be surprised if you can’t follow what’s getting cut, what’s getting funded, what’s staying the same, and whether and how the budget balances.  Or doesn’t. 

That’s the way the fast shuffle is done: Hock and the aldermen don’t want to actually do a final count of the money while they’re still sittin’ at the table with the public hanging around.

As Kenny Rodgers sings: “There’ll be time enough for countin’, when the dealin’s done.”