Forest Park's village government finds itself in a tough financial pickle. It faces a roughly $1.6 million deficit in the current fiscal year. Expenses have risen by not quite 5 percent while revenues have been hit, most specifically on the sales tax side.
And while the shortfall is a serious one that requires immediate attention, we're more perplexed and troubled that this situation is only now being publicly discussed — nearly four months into a fiscal year that began on May 1 and close to a month after the village council oddly approved the legally required but seemingly financially bogus Appropriations Ordinance.
The challenges to this budget on both the revenue and the expense side did not sneak up on anybody. Village government, according to Administrator Tim Gillian, has for several years been eating cost increases for garbage hauling and dumping and on water costs coming from the city of Chicago. And on the revenue side sales taxes have suffered along with retail everywhere. Walmart, by far Forest Park's leading non-auto sales tax generator, saw receipts actually drop. The shuttering of Ultra Foods also cost the town over $100,000 in annual sales taxes. It will help when HOBO opens shortly. And there are rumors of a replacement for Ultra but we shall see. Uncertainty over various aspects of state spending also creates difficulties.
The point is that no public budget planning meetings were held among top staff and elected officials until last week. Last week!
The fiscal year is one-third over. And while we like and admire Gillian, we find his explanation unlikely that it had just proved too hard to coordinate everyone's schedules for budget meetings. This is a high priority. Turn a regularly scheduled village board meeting into a budget hearing, for heaven's sake.
Now all the decisions will have to be amplified if the gap is to be shut.
While we are sympathetic to the village's desire to protect taxpayers from endlessly higher fees or even new fees, it isn't practical to just absorb higher garbage and water costs. Those costs need to be passed through directly to taxpayers. And the village ought to start now.
Other revenue ideas are some sort of new annual sewer fee. Might help. However, floating the idea of selling off the Altenheim property after 13 years of protecting it from development is the sort of bad impulse that comes when you're cornered. Don't do that.
Gillian said department heads have been sent back to their line items looking for costs to cut. The reality is that Forest Park runs pretty lean. Saving on the expense side is going to require cuts to personnel. That's where the real costs of salaries and benefits are. Very painful choices.
We don't criticize Forest Park for running into a tight financial situation. That we get. But much more transparency is required from staff, the mayor and the council. We can only solve problems when they are put forward directly, honestly and in a timely manner.