By Nona Tepper
Commissioner Joe Byrnes is running for re-election, campaigning on the issues of economic development, developing the proposed Cultural Park, adding compost options to the village's garbage pickup, and more.
"I've lived here since 1961 and I'm probably going to die here. What goes on in this town really concerns me," Byrnes said. "I have life experience, I have a knowledge of the way things are supposed to be, and I am a good listener. I'm the type of guy who can bring people together."
Byrnes said he wasn't planning on running for re-election but, on the urging of neighbors and businesses like Starship Restaurant & Catering and Hawk, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, he decided to run again, to complete some of the work he started.
As commissioner of Accounts and Finance, he pointed to his work helping the fire department recently secure a more than $420,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which they used to purchase a new fire engine. He said he also helped the department buy a new ambulance — "Our old ambulance was down half the time; we had to borrow River Forest's secondary ambulance to transport patients" — as well as a new automatic stretcher. Last year, Byrnes also introduced the idea of charging a "sewer tax," as a way to generate revenue to repair the village's aging water mains. The village council has taken no official action on the matter.
"Striking while the iron's hot and getting everybody on board is the best way to get things done," he said. "Our council meetings should not be 20, 15 minutes long; they should be an hour long with an honest discussion about things. We should have the residents of this town and the business people of this town coming to those meetings."
When the issue of video gaming came up, he said he voted in favor of the practice from a strictly business perspective, pointing out that the village needed an extra influx of cash to help balance its budget. Although he supported the practice for the money it added to village coffers, he said he also supported a public vote on the issue. "Outlandish referendum questions" that clogged the ballot and prohibited residents from voting on the practice divided the town, he noted.
"When you have citizens who are against something, let them vote," Byrnes said. "Don't let it build up to the momentum where they have to spend money and take people to court; then you're tearing the village apart."
After the village council voted to legalize video gaming in October 2016, he said, residents started to look at everything the village council did in a "bad light." That has led to the village council becoming stagnant in its decision making. If elected again with a new set of commissioners, and a new mayor, he might have a better chance of getting some of his ideas off the ground.
He named finances as the greatest challenge the village faces, saying the village should work more with the Chamber of Commerce, keep a closer eye on its vendors, and look into new revenue sources to bring increased revenue.
"For about 13 years we've been rattling Peter to pay Paul. We were taking money from reserves, and now we're taking money from the water fund to balance the budget and pay our bills. We shouldn't have to do that," Byrnes said. "It's nothing that this council did; it's nothing that prior councils did, although they should have realized that the money that they're getting to pay the bills is getting less and less."
Byrnes named increasing costs, such as insurance fees and state mandates, as a few reasons the money coming into the village was decreasing. He said the village should check in with its vendors to make sure they're doing the job they're being paid to do at a fair price.
"Let's look for a new collection agency because we've had a number of outstanding parking tickets that have been sitting out there. If we collected half the money, we could probably cut about a third of the deficit with it," he said.
He also "kind of agrees" with a proposal submitted by the ad hoc Cultural Park Committee, which states that the village should sell a portion of the north end of the Altenheim property to help fund development of the park's green space. About a year and a half ago, he solicited a bid for knocking down and environmentally remediating the abandoned buildings and it would have cost $570,000 to complete the job.
"Then we procrastinate on this because we don't have any money," he said. "I like to do things, I like to get things done. I think that sometimes we wait too long to get things done and people just start to forget what our main purpose on the village council is, to make decisions to make things better."
Byrnes has served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, police officer with the Forest Park Police Department, and as a sales representative for an international freight carrier. He now works part-time in the summer picking up garbage at the Park District of Forest Park.
Last round, Byrnes ran as a commissioner on Mayor Anthony Calderone's slate "for the advertising portion of it," he said. But this round, there's "no way" he'd run as a part of a slate.
"It's about time for me to be independent; I feel if I'm more independent, I'm able to voice my opinions more."