Like losing a loved one or scraping your knee, budgets are always difficult.
The village of Oak Park’s 2008 finances are no exception.
“This is going to be a difficult budget year; they’re all difficult,” said Trustee John Hedges. “I think we’ve got some difficult decisions to make.”
The village board and staff are meeting twice this week to chew the fat of the proposed 2008 budget, wrestling with key issues like a proposed 3-percent property tax increase, a hike in some parking fees, and a proposed 5.3 percent increase in expenditures.
The board, president and village manager have had time to soak in the budget’s complexities. What are they thinking just before entering the gauntlet of budget discussions spanning the next several weeks?
“We have the opportunity, with this budget, to take more positive steps forward as a village, and at the same time, we also have some important choices to make,” said President David Pope.
Village Manager Tom Barwin said it’s critical that the village determines how to balance the parking fund, which projects an almost $3 million deficit in 2008. Barwin recommends that the village starts a parking authority to oversee the operations, management and revenues of the parking system.
“The parking structures (garages) have been treated as an afterthought, a forgotten stepchild of village operations,” Barwin said. “We need to bring them to somebody’s full attention, and turn them into the assets that they should be: clean, bright, well-lit, safe and paying for themselves.” It’s too expensive to operate and maintain the structures when 82 percent of parking in village (garages) is free. Rates for street parking should be higher than garage rates to create an added incentive for drivers to park inside, Barwin said.
“My preference is not to turn these structures into cash cows, but to have at least a combination of the businesses and users covering their operational costs.”
Oak Park can stay frugal by removing any duplicate tasks at village hall or finding other ways to limit expenses, “whatever we can to keep tightening our belt,” Barwin said. “There’s a lot of sensitivity to what the taxpayers are going through.”
“I’m bothered by the size of the tax increase,” said Trustee Greg Marsey. He’d also like to find a better way to manage and share parking costs, perhaps by privatizing the garages. “The biggest thing I would like to accomplish is making sure we have thoroughly analyzed every possible way we can save money in this budget,” he said.
Trustee Ernest Moore feels the village is headed towards balancing its budget but says using long-term debt for funding is inappropriate. “Perhaps we could find ways to delay some capital improvements so we don’t have to go out to the marketplace to borrow money again,” he said.
Trustee Jon Hale is bent on limiting the property tax. “I’ll be very unlikely to support a property tax increase, given the fact that the county is considering such a large increase itself,” he said.
Hale is hoping to bring a higher level of fiscal responsibility to the board, and he hopes to use the budget as a tool to reflect its priorities (an open village hall, fiscal responsibility, commercial district revitalization and building a sustainable community).
Trustee Ray Johnson said he is curious about the double-digit increase in expenditures in certain departments. Overall, operating expenditures are projected to increase by 10 percent in 2008. He was pleased to see the village spend less than budgeted in 2007 and thinks Barwin managed expenses carefully.
Like Hale, Johnson wants to focus on revenues, rather than increasing expenses, and he wants to be mindful of any property tax increase. “We’re in a tough spot here because we’re concerned about property taxes, but at the same time, the economy is flat,” Johnson said. “We’re not seeing an increase in the real estate transfer tax and sales tax. That’s going to make it even more challenging.”
“We knew the upcoming budget was going to be a difficult one, but I don’t think it’s going to be devastating,” said Trustee Jan Pate. “We’ll be able to come up with some really creative ideas to make it work.” She also views the budget as a tool to achieve board goals and wants to look at the budget from a broader perspective, anticipating long term effects.
“I know the  budget probably won’t satisfy everyone in the community,” Pate said. “Some increases and decreases might make people unhappy, but that’s the reality of budgets. We have to make some choices; my hope is that the community will be engaged in the process.”