Public Watchdog.org

Are Essential City Services Being Neglected?

01.10.13

When anybody mentions “essential government services,” we think in terms of sewer, water, police, fire, streets and sidewalks. 

The problem with water and sewer, however, is that they are buried under the ground.  Consequently, they tend to remain out of sight and out of mind – the easier to neglect without a hue and cry of protest – until a sewer collapses or a water main breaks.

So an article in last week’s Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“Dry summer meant tough break for water mains,” Jan. 4) caught our attention because it reported 65 water main breaks in Park Ridge during the first half of FY2012-13.  That’s 10 to 15 more than is customary for an entire year.  And that doesn’t include 22 water service leaks during 2012.

Worse yet, that also doesn’t include the winter months when most breaks tend to occur. 

This situation becomes even more problematic given that the City’s Public Works Department already has spent its $50,000 overtime budget.  So Public Works will likely need to use money from City’s the construction fund to address future water main breaks between now and the beginning of FY 2013-14 on May 1.

That got us thinking and looking for any comprehensive information about the City’s sewer and water systems. 

Unfortunately, we could find no such information on the City’s website.  That’s a problem for several reasons, the first and foremost being that it suggests the City itself doesn’t have such information – or at least not in a sufficiently user-friendly form that it could be posted on the website for all to see.  That lack of transparency is a dis-service to the taxpayers, especially when boatloads of tax dollars are spent on a variety of other things that those taxpayers may not consider as “essential” as sewer and water. 

What we would expect is a map showing the entire network of sewers and water lines, with clearly-marked date(s) when each particular section or feature (e.g., a pump) was last inspected, when it was last repaired, and when it was last replaced.  That way, residents would have real-time knowledge of the condition of our unseen infrastructure…and a better idea of whether some portions of that infrastructure are ticking time bombs that shouldn’t be neglected further.

According to the H-A article, Public Works Director Wayne Zingsheim correctly notes that a water main break is “something you can’t let run [because] people need to have water,” but that the City’s efforts at replacing older, less-durable piping have been slowed by the cost involved. 

The apparent lack of a comprehensive sewer and water map with accurate up-to-date status reports on the condition of those systems’ components would seem to leave the Public Works Dept. with an inability to develop a comprehensive, systematic multi-year process of inspecting, maintaining, repairing and/or replacing those components.  And it also makes sound budgeting decisions almost impossible.

But perhaps the worst part of having no such comprehensive analysis available to the taxpayers is that it prevents them from understanding a significant portion of the City’s infrastructure needs, including those needs that directly affect each individual taxpayers’ sewer and water systems.  Which means that, come budget time, those taxpayers are unable to provide their aldermen with any meaningful, informed input or feedback about how much money is being budgeted for those “essential” services – versus how much is being budgeted for discretionary spending.

The more the taxpayers remain in the dark on matters such as this, the easier it is for their elected representatives and the City’s bureaucrats to set the City’s spending agenda and manipulate public opinion.  Until a few more water mains break, or a few more sewers collapse.

And the City has already spent that money on discretionary items.

To read or post comments, click on title.

27 comments so far

Excellent prescription; I hope the City takes your very sensible advice on this, although why an attorney should have to advise public works professionals on how to assess, track and schedule crucial infrastructure repairs is beyone me. (But then, a lot is…)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve given up asking that particular “why” question because its as puzzling and frustrating to us as it seems to be to you. But we suspect it has something to do with the lack of transparency and accountability that seems to have become institutionalized throughout the whole of City government during the almost 20 years between Mayor Marty Butler and Mayor Dave Schmidt.

I guess it takes an attorney to point out what should be obvious to the people at city hall. The idea of a sewer and water map with the information you suggest makes a lot of sense, but I suspect you are right about the city not having such a map even for itself.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pointing out the obvious is often a thankless job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Just because it isn’t online doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I bet very few towns put a map of water main breaks online. Why not call Wayne and ask?

EDITOR’S NOTE: If it’s not online, then it’s not reasonably accessible to the public. And what other equally-or-worse managed towns do is meaningless.

“Why not call Wayne and ask?” Because the head of Public Works should not have to spend time answering questions from the public about stuff that should be on the City’s website, available when they want it.

I agree with you, PW. The more information that’s available online, the less public employee time needs to be wasted providing that information. Why don’t these City people realize that?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Because it’s not what they’re used to – they’re used to keeping information to themselves on the theory that knowledge is power, so sharing it with the average citizen diminishes the bureaucrats’ control over things.

Maps….where the City of Park Ridge is headed, we don’t need no stink’in maps!

EDITOR’S NOTE: And where is that, pray tell?

I know you likely have thought of this, but I think it is reasonable to believe that placing this information online might increase risk to the City.

By exposing this information it would increase the risk the City faces from either vandals or terrorists. Far fetched? Perhaps it is, but an ounce of prevention in this case makes sense.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Great point! Now that you mention it, we can see how Park Ridge and its sewer or water system would be a high priority target for Al-Qaeda. Time for TSA to start screening passengers at the Park Ridge METRA station.

I don’t know if I want water and sewer maps in the public domain. Certainly they should be readily and instanteously available in a secured fashion in the case of emergency, but why would the average person need such information?

EDITOR’S NOTE: “[T]hey should be readily and instantaneously available in a secured fashion in the case of emergency”???? An “emergency” like what – mutant cannibals living, “C.H.U.D.”-like in the sewers?

If you don’t know why that information should be publicly available, you might try re-reading the post. Or you can just disagree – that’s okay.

Perhaps Al-Qaeda targeting Park Ridge is a bit far-fetched, but more likely is a disgruntled, unbalanced citizen (know any), with an axe to grind against the City and who doesn’t have a healthy way to vent, like running a blog.

EDITOR’S NOTE: And exactly how is a map of the City’s sewer and water system going to facilitate this “disgruntled, unbalanced” citizen’s nefarious plot in ways that couldn’t be carried out without such a map?

Park Ridge is part of the GIS Consortium, so you would think they would have the capability of generating such a map:

http://www.gisconsortium.org/members/Details.aspx?community=CPR

And according to a 2011 Christopher Burke report, the City has a GIS database:

http://www.parkridge.us/assets/1/Documents/Summary%20Report.071111.pdf

EDITOR’S NOTE: And after looking at that GIS database, the closest we could come to the information we believe would be useful to the City’s elected officials AND its taxpayers in understanding the City’s infrastructure condition and budgeting for its systematic maintenance, repair and replacement is: 158.37 miles of water main; 1,546 hydrants; 2,168 water valves; and 169.62 miles of sewer main.

We are aware that maps of the City’s sewer and water lines, etc. exist. But unless more comprehensive information of the type we are talking about is accessible only by certain City officials and not the taxpaying peasants, it’s looking like it doesn’t exist in any mapped form. And that makes sound, proactive management a lot more difficult.

Weighing in on the side of the cautious citizens who don’t want key infrastructure maps online for every crazoid to make use of. If you can’t imagine how some homegrown, smart-but-crazy, self-styled patriot could screw us up royally, you need to watch more TV. Duh!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hmmm, what changed since Thursday when you called the post an “[e]xcellent prescription” and “very sensible advice”?

Is this something we should expect at no additional cost? Are there software license fees? Additional web server fees? Does the City have its contract bidding procedures fine tuned in case we need a consultant’s expertise? Maybe we could get a guest column from someone from at the GIS Consortium to help identify our options. You’d probably get a better response from them then that Ryles dude…

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some folks talk about this GIS Consortium like it’s a silver bullet. But since the City already has sewer and water main maps, sound proactive management would seem to suggest that staff should already be identifying when each section and component of each system was last inspected, maintained, repaired or replaced.

And notwithstanding the ever-present threat from Al Qaeda and home-grown hooligans, that information should be publicly known so that the taxpayers can judge for themselves whether the City is on top of this infrastructure responsibility or neglecting it.

I only brought up the Consortium because that is what a quick Google search revealed. As an engineer, I agree the logic would suggest the staff should already be identifying the condition of the system and where repairs are needed. And as an engineer and taxpayer, I would love to see this information available on the City’s website. I find the ‘homeland security’ issue to be outlandish and not worth wasting our breath to respond to. However, I believe there are dollar costs associated with this service that I am unsure what additional benefit would be gained. I believe this service will eventually be implemented but don’t we have an ugly TIF burdening our operating budget? Do you think it is just laziness/stubbornness on our elected officials and city workers part that this service has not been implemented yet or are actual costs currently making it prohibitive?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We hate to even hazard a guess about what – if anything – is going through the public officials’ and bureaucrats’ minds on this topic. But we look forward to the upcoming budget discussion of infrastructure needs.

The chances of Al-Qaeda attacking Park Ridge and taking out our infrastructure are a lot less than the chances of another property tax increase attacking our savings and taking out my childrens’ college fund. And the perpetrators are likely to be found on the parks and rec board or one of the school boards.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hand-wringing about possible terrorist or vandal attacks is so much easier than actually doing something, FWT, but we agree with you on the irresponsible and unaccountable taxing, borrowing and spending of those governmental bodies you name. In each instance, the head bureaucrat of each of those bodies is the “alpha” force; and most of the various board members are just go-along-to-get-along rubber stamps.

the impact the park district has on your college funds vs the impact the school districts have on those funds is a sneeze vs a hurricane. If you’re really worried about college funds, demand that your elected officials restore work-study, grants and affordable loans — the kind that existed in your day.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ah, yes, the “if-you-think-the-government-is-taking-too-much-of-your-money, demand-some-government-benefits-for-yourself” school of political science.

Dear Anon. yesterday at 7:54 pm: I agree that the school districts’ tax burden on Park Ridge dwarfs that of the park district. That doesn’t mean the park district should borrow $10 million to expand an outdoor pool or increase taxes $13 million to buy and renovate the youth campus.

We’re all forced to exercise fiscal restraint with our own money; the local taxing bodies need to do it, too. With our money.

I agree with the blog publisher’s response above. I’ll only add that if I were to “demand” anything of the government, I’d really be demanding it of my neighbors.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Good point, FWT. Most of our public officials – and almost all of our bureaucrats – seem to be trying to create the appearance that the “government” is an independently wealthy entity rather than a conduit of the taxpayers’ money.

FWT, you can have your own opinions, not your own facts. The PRRPD is borrowing $6.3 million to replace Centennial pool, not $10 million. It is using $800,000 out of previous budget surplus. I will give you the fact that there is an option to do a second phase for $3 million, but every one of the commissioners has said in open session that they have no plans or desire to implement the second phase, but that it was designed for possible expansion should some future board decide to do so.

Didn’t the rate study that was completed several months ago include some information on the City’s sewer and water infrastructure?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We don’t believe it included the information we are talking about.

What I lauded was this: “The apparent lack of a comprehensive sewer and water map with accurate up-to-date status reports on the condition of those systems’ components would seem to leave the Public Works Dept. with an inability to develop a comprehensive, systematic multi-year process of inspecting, maintaining, repairing and/or replacing those components. And it also makes sound budgeting decisions almost impossible.” The staff paid to handle the process should have such a map, in my view; just as they should have a log of all public trees, all sidewalks, all streets, all public vehicles. I am not persuaded that we and the next nut job need to see them, but if things aren’t being repaired and replaced in a timely (i.e. before the deluge) fashion, it seems the City must not have such a map, either. That I do object to and I appreciate your bringing it up. Emergencies happen, but repair and replace should be pretty dang systematized.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We still haven’t heard how Al Qaeda, nut jobs or vandals will be aided in their efforts to sabotage our water or sewer system because of the information we believe the taxpayers are entitled to.

Apparently you are the only one in town who has had sleepless nights over this issue. Flooding and our sewer system has been a fairly visible issue over the years (or at least the 10 or so years I have been here). As I recall, you had a post on this blog that talked about when you moved here in the 80’s and the flooding you saw even back then.

The Mayor put together a task force that has made decisions and spent money on a consultant to try and imporve flooding issues. So not one time during this entire process did one elected official think to ask “hey…do we have a map???”

To be crystal clear, that includes Mayor “transparency and infrastructure”. So let me get this strait. When it comes to CoC we demand to know down to the gnats hair (do they even have hair??) what they spend on what. How many paper clips do they buy??? It is tax payer money!!!!! And yet we are going to spend millions (taxpayer money) on our sewer system and already spent 100’s of thousands on a consultant and our elected officials have no idea if we have a map??!?!?!?!?!

baaaaahhhhh!!!!!!!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Whatever speed reading course assured you that you that sufficient comprehension could be achieved by reading only every third word lied: Nobody said there are no maps, only that they do not appear to have correlative systemic information about inspection, maintenance, repair and replacement.

In the same vein, nobody has asked for anything from CofC except proof of what the City was paying for each instance and kind of service being provided to provable Park Ridge residents – so that the City could determine whether that was good value or whether those services could be provided better and/or less expensively. And CofC couldn’t/wouldn’t even prove any of that.

Dear Anon. yesterday at 4:38 pm: Thanks for the clarification, which is of course correct. I will point out, however, that they borrowed “only” $6.3 million for the pools in part because they had already borrowed the rest of the $10 million they are allowed to borrow without consulting voters. So, although it’s not all for the pool, it’s still $10 million, which taxpayers still pay when the loan comes due. On top of this, they will vote this Thursday night to put a referendum on the April 9th ballot asking taxpayers if they want to add $13 million in new property taxes to buy and renovate the Youth Campus. I’m eager to see how the referendum will be worded (or slanted).

Not to worry about the repair/replacement costs..speed cameras on Cumberland will cover it!
Psssst… don’t tell uncle Davey..

EDITOR’S NOTE: No, that’s how the Chief’s Task Force plans to pay for the deadly cop shop mold removal in two more years.

For the “eager” FWT, the wording is in the Advocate online http://parkridge.suntimes.com/17599523-781/park-ridge-park-board-to-vote-on-youth-campus-referendum.html:

The language of the referendum that the Park Board will be asked to consider reads, “Shall the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District, Cook County, Illinois, acquire land known as the Youth Campus (11.35 acres), build and equip improvements and demolish some of the 12 buildings thereon and issue its bonds to the amount of $13.2 million for the purpose of paying the costs thereof?”

Doesn’t sound “slanted” to me, but hey why look for information before making accusations? That would take all the fun out of this blog discussion.

EDITOR’S NOTE: That resolution is straight up. HOWEVER…if the Park District Board wanted to be even more honest with the voters, it could/would have added – in connection with the $13.2 million of bonds – “not including bond underwriting and issuance fees, or debt service, in an anticipated amount of $__ million.”

But that would be way TOO honest for this Board, just as it traditionally has been way too honest for most politicians who want to make the borrowing of money look as benign as possible, especially when they need voter approval.

Thank you, Mr. Anon., but I have since seen the wording myself and agree it is fair (if not complete as the blog publisher points out).

I will point out, however, that I did not throw any accusations. I fully admit that I was expecting some slanted language, based mainly on recent statements from the park district board that if we don’t expand Centennial Park’s outdoor pool, we’ll have to demolish it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: FWT, everything we’ve seen and heard about the current Centennial Pools seems to support the PRRPD’s contention that it’s on life support – much as Oakton was on life support until it was declared dead by the County Health Dept.

Unfortunately, like the Park District did with the Community Center back in 1991, this small-minded Park Board didn’t want to be told “no” by the taxpayers on a referendum, so they are spending a boatload of money – making sure to keep the bonding amount under the non-referendum debt limit – on a second/third-rate facility that the community will be stuck with for the next 20-30-40 years. That’s reprehensible, but not atypical.

Most if not all of our facilities are second or third rate when it comes to size, shape, bells, whistles, etc. We are a fiscally conservative town proud of our Republican cloth coat (apologies to Pat Nixon). But there’s a big difference between second rate and utter collapse. A second-rate pool is better than no pool at all, to most residents. You are amusing in your disingenous attempt to make it seem you want a referendum for a much bigger, better pool. It’s obvious your hope is that a referendum would result in no pool, even though the Park District’s budget is miniscule compared to the City’s and the School Districts’ — but perhaps you’ve given up tilting at those windmills and the Park District seems an easier target?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Supporting 15-year bonded debt for a $7.1 million third-rate pool that will last for the next 30-40-50 years yet only provide 3 months/year of use isn’t “fiscally conservative”: it’s outright moronic. And the arrogant, gutless, anti-democratic Park Board and Director Mountcastle KNOW IT, which is why they refuse to let the taxpayers vote on it.

At least a bigger, better, 6-12 month/year pool – even at twice the price – would make more sense on every meaningful level. Would the taxpayers vote for it? Maybe a majority of them don’t think Park Ridge needs more than Hinkley and South Park outdoor pools. But we’ll never know because the current Board and Director prefer to dictate assured mediocrity.

We never give up.

Unrelated to this post, so I apologize, but an interesting article based on some of your previous posts.
http://www.rrstar.com/blogs/x1781258165/Morrissey-seeks-open-arbitration-hearings

“Maybe a majority of them don’t think Park Ridge needs more than Hinkley and South Park outdoor pools.”

Minor point but South Park can hardly be called a pool. It’s a splash/sprinkler park for tiny tots. That would leave Hinkley as the only public pool in town if Centennial’s pools were to be demolished.

I’m all for facilities that are of a modest scale but having Hinkley as the only pool isn’t modest, it’s downright paltry.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We don’t necessarily disagree, but we also think that’s another question for the taxpayers – with the current gutless-but-arrogant Park Board is too afraid to ask.

The fact remains that this is a democratic republic, a representative form of government, and each and every significant decision doesn’t have to go to the public at large. It’s that kind of rigid ideology that makes you look, well, rigid. And not in a good way. If a taxing body is required to put an idea to referendum, it does; if not, it doesn’t. And every voter is welcome to vote for someone with different values and different priorities next election. Think of all the financially significant decisions made during your eight years on the Park Board and then think of how many went to referendum. Were you an arrogant, undemocratic whatsis? The Park Board actually dropped the ball on a couple of biggies during your era, but involving another 20,000 souls in the decisions would not have improved the outcome.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Neither this blog nor its editor ever have suggested that “each and every significant decision…[has] to go to the public at large.”

Nevertheless, in most instances public officials who commit the taxpayers to multi-year expenses/debt and/or a project that will impact the community long term, without going to referendum to gauge public support, are arrogant fools and insipid cowards. And the current Park Board is Exhibit A in that regard.

Can you name even one of “all the financially significant decisions made during [this editor’s] eight years on the Park Board” that (a) cost the Park District multi-millions of dollars, or (b) incurred multi-millions of dollars of long-term debt, and (c) substantially changed the appearance and/or use of any Park District facility. Can you name even one of those two “biggies” on which the Park District allegedly “dropped the ball” between April 1997 and May 2005?

Tic toc.



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