Clear philosophical differences and lingering personal tensions remained evident as the River Forest village board passed its 2008-09 budget Monday night by a 4-3 vote. Village President Frank Paris, who cast the decisive vote after trustees deadlocked 3-3, stressed that details of the budget could be revisited in the coming months as needed.

The 3-3 tie stemmed from disagreements over several issues, including the desire by three trustees to put off passage of the budget until further discussion, and concerns expressed at above standard raises given to five senior employees. Those increases, ranging as high as 13 percent, are intended to help retain key personnel.

Paris said there would be time to address any concerns in future meetings, saying, “What we do is, we review the budgets and we modify the budgets.”

There was no public comment on the budget during the public hearing portion of the process. In fact, there were only two citizens in the audience.

“I make a motion to close this public hearing, seeing as there isn’t one,” said Trustee Russ Nummer. The meeting then reconvened as a village board meeting.

The budgeting process was complicated by flat revenues and unanticipated expenses stemming largely from last August’s storm damage followed by snow removal and street repair expenses related to the recent excessively harsh winter. Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez cautioned the board that it must still consider how to deal with an additional $222,000 in estimated street repair expenses “over and above the current estimates.”

That figure reflects an additional 3.6 miles of village roadways recently classified as being in “fair condition or worse,” by Public Works Director Greg Kramer. Those streets will be repaired, Gutierrez said, on an interim basis.

Gutierrez said he wanted to take a more deliberate approach to revenue and expense projections in the future. In a four page memo summarizing the current budget process, he said, “I intend to bring a five-year financial plan within the next six months which will include recommendations(s) on fund balance, investment and salary policies.”

Among the fiscal challenges looming are tighter federal reporting requirements for post employment benefits, increased pressure on the village’s police and fire pension funds as more people retire, and tree removal and replacement costs over the next few years as the Emerald Ash Borer arrives in River Forest.

“Current estimates for removals and replanting run as high as $740,000,” said Gutierrez.

While the debate remained relatively civil and focused, the old factional animosity surfaced strongly in an exchange between trustees Patrick O’Brien and Stephen Dudek.

“I haven’t heard anybody yet explain how we ran $600,000-$700,000 in the hole. There’s a big picture reason for that,” said Dudek. “There’s something that we missed.”

Dudek then asked O’Brien, who sat laughing, what was funny.

“We increased the police pension fund ($200,000), do you remember that? That’s part of your $600,000,” said O’Brien.

“Why is that funny?” Dudek asked.

“Because I don’t believe you could be that stupid,” said O’Brien. “Where have you been?”

Referring to the overall budget deficit, Dudek said, “I don’t believe that’s all because of the police pension fund.”

$500 towing fee for select criminal offenses

The new River Forest budget includes implementation of a $500 administrative towing fee assessed on drivers arrested for DUI, for driving on suspended or revoked licenses, or driving on licenses that have been expired more than one year.

The fee can legally be applied against vehicles towed in any felony offense committed while driving a vehicle, including drug offenses, though River Forest’s plan doesn’t include those circumstances. People arrested will be required to file a $500 bond before retrieving their car. Upon conviction the money will be turned over to the village.

Gutierrez said conservative projections showed that the program would likely bring in $80,000 the first year.

The approach has proven effective in nearby municipalities, including Berwyn, Countryside, Cicero, Downers Grove, Justice and Chicago. Last April Riverside and Lyons established towing fee programs. Riverside has taken in nearly $140,000 over the first 12 months, according to Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel.

Lyons racked up roughly $120,000 in fees and court costs in a nine month period ending Dec. 31, according to Lyons Police Commander Neil Sexton.

Bill Dwyer and Bob Uphues

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