In communities that surround this one, the worst recession in decades has wreaked havoc on municipal budgets and in many cases forced layoffs and other drastic cuts.
Since the start of 2008, for example, Oak Park has cut 26 full-time positions. In Brookfield, nine people were laid off in May, and two senior positions within the public works and police departments are being eliminated now. Furloughs and wage freezes have also been implemented.
North Riverside managed to avoid layoffs, but cancelled its Fourth of July parade in an effort to save money. Riverside, meanwhile, cut in half its recreation budget, effectively gutting a list of special events and programs.
Money is tight at Forest Park’s village hall, and no one is suggesting otherwise, but the village has thus far weathered the storm with a steadier hand. There have been no layoffs, and the summer months brought the usual gamut of festivals and parades.
“In terms of services, I don’t think we’ve reduced any physical services that the public sees or feels,” Mayor Anthony Calderone said.
Credit for holding the line on spending while managing shrinking revenue streams is deserved at several levels, according to public officials. But it comes down to business acumen, according to Calderone, and that’s a trait he’s happy to bring to the table. Calderone owns his own business, Illinois Alarm.
“We’re a little more conservative and we have less red tape,” Calderone said in comparing Forest Park to surrounding communities. “I think we make decisions quicker, sometimes at the risk of being criticized.
“And because the mayor is passionately involved in the operations of the village,” he said. “You know, I’m not just a legislative head. I keep tabs on a macro basis.”
When village council members and department heads meet in the spring to discuss the year’s budget, Calderone often emphasizes that whatever spending plan is adopted is essentially an outline. How much money actually goes out the door – or will be taken in – can be tough to predict.
Since Judy Kovacs became the finance director about five years ago, department heads and commissioners have received a monthly line-by-line accounting of their spending. Those reports heavily influence how council members lean on administrators to allocate resources as the year progresses.
“I think the approach comes from the top down,” Commissioner Rory Hoskins, who oversees the Department of Accounts and Finance, said. “Department heads follow the leads set by elected officials.”
But not everyone has the same priorities.
In the spring, when council members were debating their budget, Hoskins tried to convince his colleagues that summer parades and outdoor festivals were not part of the “core services” that should take priority during lean times. He lost that debate.
More recently, Hoskins has been meeting with union leaders and is asking that existing contracts be renegotiated. Annual pay raises of 4 percent or more aren’t sustainable, he said. Hoskins does not have the support from a majority of the council on that issue, either.
“Our unions, in my opinion, have always gotten very, very generous contracts,” he said.
During the previous fiscal year, which ended in the spring of 2009, Forest Park’s general operating fund took in almost $900,000 less than expected. Spending had to be trimmed.
“Unfortunately, the only place you really make up significant money on the expense side is payroll,” Calderone said.
By seizing several opportunities to reduce personnel costs without resorting to terminations, taxpayer dollars were stretched. For a period of eight months that overlapped into the previous and current fiscal years, the village administrator’s position sat vacant following the resignation of Mike Sturino. Prior to that, when the current director of the public works department was promoted to lead the office, his position as the deputy director was left empty. The same was done at the community center, too, when the former director died unexpectedly.
Also in 2009, training for the police department was reduced by almost $55,000 from what was budgeted. Through attrition and holding the line on overtime, wages were cut by more than $200,000. The police department, which has the biggest budget at village hall and is overseen by the mayor, actually spent less in 2009 than in 2008, according to municipal data.
“I put the success on the constant reminder to our department heads that even though we’ve adopted a budget, we have to remain vigilant in our expenses,” Calderone said.
Hoskins judged the village to be “70 percent lucky, 30 percent good” in avoiding the painful cuts made by other municipalities. The payroll savings were timely, but not part of any budget strategy developed by the elected officials, said Hoskins. Also, money paid to the village after failed developments – one by the West Cook YMCA, the other by Amcore Bank – have given the coffers a recent cash boost.
Kovacs, the finance director, also dipped into the village’s savings.
In February, the cash balance was “perilously low” so Kovacs used the remainder of a certificate of deposit account, about $610,000, to plug the gaps. In 2003 and 2004, that same account held about $1.8 million, said Kovacs, but $1.2 million was drawn down then for the same reason.
“As I have said many times, we have no reserves to fall back on and depend entirely on our current cash on hand,” Kovacs said.
The mayor acknowledged that some of the opportunity to save on payroll expenses could not have been planned for, but that is where real world business experience comes into play. Companies have to be “fluid” in how they address costs, said Calderone. His professional experience, coupled with a more nimble local government, allow Forest Park to adjust when those opportunities arise.
In November, seven months into fiscal year 2010, Kovacs noted that village government had reduced its year-over-year spending by more than $99,000. Forest Park also has an additional $127,300 in cash.