A colorful awning for the community center? Art in the parks? A second dog park at Altenheim? Forest Parkers had some ideas for public property around town on Tuesday night, April 23, as Village Commissioner Chris Harris convened his first experiment in “participatory budgeting” at the Forest Park Public Library.
In what was almost a foretaste of the Village of Forest Park Comprehensive Plan, residents brainstormed about new and improved uses for local public property.
“I thought it was a fantastic exchange — and educational as far as people learning how the process works,” said Harris, who used two blown-up copies of the 2012-13 Public Property spreadsheet to point out where he wanted citizen input on the projected $1,701,118 Public Property budget in fiscal year 2014.
These included maintenance and repairs on public buildings: village hall, the Police Dept., the detective building (501 Desplaines Ave.), the Fire Dept. building, Public Works and the Community Center. The charts also included playgrounds and the dog park.
Problems at Forest Bark Dog Park, Lehmer and Circle Ave. elicited an emotional response from dog lovers in the audience. They complained that the park floods and that mud and wood chips make for messy dogs.
“I don’t take my dog there because I always have to clean her when we get home,” said a resident.
Forest Park Recreation Board member Jennifer Wolfe told the group she had approached the village several times about installing French drain tiles to assist with flooding in the park. Wolfe said she thought the drains would cost $7,000-$12,000, but former Commissioner Marty Tellalian, who also attended, said he remembered the cost being closer to $20,000-$25,000. Wolfe said a Friends of the Dog Park account had almost $2,500 in it, “some of it from children who gave me 50 cents from their allowances.”
Harris and John Doss, who is both director of the Public Works Dept. and the park board President, explained that the parcel was owned by the Illinois Dept. of Transportation and the village was reluctant to spend money improving a parcel they didn’t own.
This spurred talk of a second dog park, located on grass at the village-owned Altenheim property, or on private property near the Residences at the Grove. Harris said the cost of a temporary fence cost roughly $4,000 and the temporary park could be marketed to River Forest residents. Currently, out-of-towners pay $50 a year to use Forest Bark (local residents pay $10 yearly). One resident said he thought having a dog park would improve security in the secluded area behind the Altenheim.
But Vanessa Moritz, the village clerk, who noted she was participating as a citizen, said she had no interest in a second dog park and didn’t want her taxes to pay for one. She said she’d prefer some amenities for runners.
Giving parks to the park district
Harris floated the idea of saving village expenses by deeding the village’s pocket playlot parks to the Park District of Forest Park and freeing up public works money, personnel and time spent on their upkeep. Doss said the idea had never been discussed by the park district board to his knowledge.
Tellalian urged caution on that idea by pointing out that the park district might find the playlots expensive to manage and in years to come might decide to sell them.
“There would be nothing we could do about it,” he said.
Art in the parks
Wolfe brought a photo of “Bountiful Bench” an interactive outdoor statue currently displayed in Lincoln Park in Chicago. She encouraged the village to pay for outdoor art in the pocket parks around Forest Park.
“I’m trying to find a way to get sculpture into our parks,” Wolfe said. “When there is art and culture in our parks, that makes them a destination.”
Wolfe said “Bountiful Bench” could be rented for $5,000 a year. The price tag made some other participants flinch. Others suggested different images, such as animals, or a re-creation of the White Swan historic Forest Park river boat depicted in the mural at the Post Office. Tellalian said that art in the Forest Park cemeteries could be marketed regionally.
New roof for village hall?
Moritz mentioned that she thought some of the wood trim at village hall was leaky and deteriorating. Residents also learned that village hall needs a new roof. Doss said village hall’s roof would cost about $100,000, and the building may need to replace a $7,000 heating and air-conditioning unit.
Community center and parking lots
The community center also has leaks and could use a facelift. One participant suggested a colorful awning to update the building’s façade and make it more welcoming. Harris said he thought most village parking lots were holding up well.
The yearly line item expense of more than $247,500 for gasoline came to residents’ attention. Harris said he was working with Mohr Oil to time the purchase of gasoline for the village’s 150 vehicles so that petrol could be purchased during cheaper price lulls. He thought the village this year could save 20 percent on gas expenses by timing gas buys.
Doss also said the Village Forestry Department was working to remove parkway ash trees infected by the Emerald Ash Borer and that Forest Park was lucky that only 7 percent of parkway tress were ash. Doss said inoculations of the trees were not worth the money (more than $100 per tree per year) for the small percent of trees affected.
Harris said he felt the session went well and opened the door to more citizen input.
“This is obviously just the beginning,” Harris said, “but I think the idea [of participatory budgeting] got off to a great start. I wasn’t expecting a huge crowd, but I think there was great interaction.”