Early budget numbers are in for Oak Park Village Hall, and it appears the village government may face a $1.7 million deficit next year if cuts aren't made or tax increases implemented.
Trustees were given preliminary budget numbers for 2011 at a meeting on Monday, to start thinking about next year's financial picture. Early estimates say that village hall's expenses will outpace revenues by about $1.7 million, said Chief Financial Officer Craig Lesner.
To bridge the gap, Lesner and Village Manager Tom Barwin were suggesting that Oak Park dip into its $2.2 million "rainy day" fund balance. Trustees, however, seemed loath to try that idea, and Lesner said he will instead explore other ways to balance the budget, whether through trimming expenses or increasing taxes and fees.
"I'd rather make, as we have the last couple of years, some pretty hard decisions, now," said Village President David Pope.
Cuts would be tough though, Barwin said, since village hall has already reduced its workforce by 70 people, or about 20 percent, over the last few years. Some possibilities might include keeping a deputy police chief position vacant for another year, or eliminating funding for four parking enforcement officer positions that are currently not filled.
Village expenses are expected to increase by about $6.6 million next year, up to $49.6 million in 2011. Officials said that uptick is caused by various factors, including a 5 percent jump in health care costs, salary increases, and higher contributions to the police and fire pension funds. Anticipated salary increases are built in for certain employees, but Trustee Jon Hale suggested those be removed, so village hall isn't beholden to them.
"If you budget something, you're going to have to pay it," said Hale.
Barwin countered that some of those pay increases aren't negotiable. For example, police and firefighter salaries are bound by arbitration, under Illinois law.
Lesner said the village is looking at a roughly 2 percent increase to Oak Park's property tax levy. However, all that money would go toward increased contributions to the police and fire pensions, and not the village's general operations.
Trustee John Hedges expressed worry about village hall cutting too close to the bone, and said they may need to explore upping property taxes to help cover the gap in village operations.
"I don't know that we necessarily want to take that off the table, as we have in the past," he said.
On the other side, Hale said it's still the wrong time to put more pressure on taxpayers. In anecdotal conversations with residents, he didn't recall hearing any complaints about the levels of service that village hall is providing.
"I don't think it's the right time to raise people's taxes even more," he said, later adding, "There's probably more that can be cut. Until there's pain, I don't know if we can tell."
Lesner emphasized that the numbers are preliminary and changing daily. He and Barwin planned to come back to the village board later this week with alternative ways to bridge the gap, outside of dipping into the fund balance.
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