By Thomas Vogel
Forest Park village administrators and elected officials are trying to close a roughly $1.6 million deficit in the recently passed appropriations ordinance and are working to finalize a budget document about four months into the fiscal year, which began May 1.
A dozen or so village staff and elected officials, including Mayor Anthony Calderone, Village Administrator Tim Gillian and Finance Director Letitia Olmsted, along with the village council, met Aug. 17 for a budget workshop at village hall.
They plan on meeting again on Aug. 31, and village staff, according to Gillian, has been tasked with re-examining their departments to look for further expenses to trim. According to an operating funds summary document given to the Review by Gillian, the village is forecasting $26,441,256 in total revenues and $28,097,645 in total expenditures.
"I first want to bring some clarity to the term 'deficit' because this is our proposed budget, internal budget. We haven't accepted it. So we're not currently operating on a deficit," Calderone said Aug. 17. "We certainly are going to have to make some adjustments one way or the other so we can get everything in balance and hopefully not be operating in a deficit. Right now, this is just a forecast. It's our job to get this at a point where we feel comfortable."
Illinois law requires non-home rule communities, like Forest Park, to pass an appropriations ordinance, which authorizes all municipal spending, by July 31, the end of the first fiscal quarter. The village council passed it on July 24. A village budget — wholly separate from the appropriations ordinance — is used more as a planning document for staff to help with day-to-day operations.
Commissioners on July 24 authorized spending $27,976, 018 in the general fund, an increase of 4.8 percent over last year. The overall appropriation is $49,242,563, an increase of 4.6 percent over last year.
As reported by the Review, Commissioner Dan Novak abstained from the unanimous vote, citing lack of transparency. Novak did not return a request for comment by press time.
At the council meeting, Calderone acknowledged that budget workshops had not been held but said at least one would be scheduled.
"We've been really slammed this year. Everybody has been. The ability to get all five of them and the entire staff here all together at one time has been a problem just to find the dates that will work," Gillian said. "We just couldn't pull it off this year. We couldn't get everybody together."
Village Commissioner of Accounts and Finance Joseph Byrnes, in an Aug. 21 phone call, said "we probably should have met a bit earlier," but he added that uncertainty at the state level left municipalities like Forest Park less able to forecast future funds.
Adding to the squeeze, there is also a "collector's fee" provision in the new state budget, passed in early July that skims off 2 percent of the municipal non-home rule sales tax revenue, leaving the village short about $40,000, according to Gillian.
"If somebody wants to complain about the process, I'm the guy in charge of finances," Byrnes said. "And I'll take the hit for it."
At the Aug. 17 meeting, Gillian noted the budget process has been months in the making, and he and Olmstead have met with department heads, such as Police Chief Thomas Aftanas. But there is still work to be done.
"We started totaling up the numbers again and we were still faced with a significant deficit," Gillian. "I know this sounds simple but I truly believe that our problem is more on the revenue side than the expense side. We looked at the expense side as hard as we can and there's not much to cut there, as far as I can tell."
Gillian said the village in years past has "usually been under budget on the expense side." Indeed, in the fiscal year that ended April 30, the village spent $24,869,239 after taking in $24,608,676 in revenue. So while expenditures exceeded revenue by $260,564 the village had budgeted roughly $28 million in expenditures.
But certain costs are going up, including garbage hauling and dumping and water fees. At least as far back as 2012, even as rates have gone up for those essential services, the village has not passed those increased rates to residents, Gillian said.
"We get an increase in those fees every year," Gillian said. "By design, we've tried to absorb those as much as we can to make less of an impact on our residents. We didn't want to make it a large burden."
At the Aug. 17 meeting, Gillian did suggest bringing those rates up. Olmstead agreed.
"We need to find where we can generate new revenues," Olmstead said.
"I would be wholly in favor of bringing those up to where they should be," Commissioner Tom Mannix said.
Sales taxes, a large source of local revenue, are also down, Gillian added, mentioning Walmart, 1300 Desplaines Ave. But the soon-to-be-opened HOBO, 7630 W. Roosevelt Road, plus filling the now-vacant Ultra Foods location, could bring in more sales taxes for the village. No deal is imminent for the Ultra site, but there could be one coming, he said.
The village could raise fees on building permits and business licenses, for instance, to bring in more funds. But as a non-home rule community, the village is limited there, too. Gillian said Forest Park's fee structure should stay comparable relative to neighboring towns to avoid scaring off potential businesses.
"We still have to remain competitive with other communities," he said. "It's a balancing act."
At the Aug. 17 meeting, Mannix said he was wary of burdening Forest Park's business community any further with higher fees and preferred "expanding the base" — in part, by exploring fees on new types of commerce, like ride sharing or Airbnb listings. Director of Public Safety Steve Glinke floated the idea of selling the village's portion of the Altenheim property, which has been suggested as a potential site for a "mini-Ravinia" culture park.
As reported by the Review, there is currently an ad-hoc village committee tasked with developing the culture park plan.
"I think now is a realistic time to take a look at the Altenheim," Glinke said. "We're in the middle of a building boom. We could have a developer there in 120 days."
Others, including Calderone, said the one-time sale would be short-term "hot money" but would not help in the long run.
"To sell the Altenheim for a one-time profit is not my idea of a solution." Commissioner Joe Byrnes said. "I want that to be green space. I want to see that be a culture park."
Byrnes, in a phone interview Aug. 21, said the village must increase revenue and mentioned his proposed $25 per year sewer tax that would be added to water bills. That new funding, if approved, would be earmarked for sewer system infrastructure.
Regardless of any new streams of revenue, which have to be vetted and go through an administrative and legal process, Calderone emphasized trimming expenses.
"I think we're not going to be able to avoid, you know, having to go through each department and look at each department and see if there's any adjustments the commissioners at least want to talk about in terms of making reductions," he said. "I mean it's all great that we can talk about revenue sources, but there's no way they can go into play next month. I mean, reality is, it's probably going to be calendar year 2018."
"The revenue conversation, first quarter is already gone in fiscal year '18; these revenue conversations and new ideas, realistically, are for '19 and beyond," Novak added. "Beyond revenue, the question now is the expense side."