With costs jumping, and the village taking in less money from taxes, mostly because of the slumping housing market, Oak Park is projecting a $4-million deficit in fiscal year 2009.

That means Oak Park’s 2009 expenses will outpace its 2008 revenues by $4 million, said Craig Lesner, chief financial officer for the Village of Oak Park. The village scratched and clawed last year to build a small “rainy day” fund balance, but the economic downturn has wiped that out, Lesner said.

“Simply, we are spending money quicker than it is coming in,” he said. “This is not at all unusual for government-or business for that matter. However, the gradual spend down of our fund balances has put us in a very thin position, cash-wise.”

The village board will start the 2009 budget process tomorrow, when Lesner will paint Oak Park’s financial picture. Six to eight workshops will be held in the coming months, and the village hopes to adopt a budget by Thanksgiving.

Officials originally predicted a $3-million deficit for next year, and laid off five employees in public works to help bridge the gap. But Village Manager Tom Barwin said increasing salt and asphalt costs, and depleted housing bonds are driving up the deficit.

Lesner has not made any specific requests to village departments on how much to cut next year. However, he has asked them to drop overtime. He has also compiled a list of possible cuts for the board to consider, which he declined to reveal before Thursday.

No specific tax increases have been eyed, but the village is considering bumping up various fees that haven’t been raised in years. Those include business license and garbage hauler fees, he said.

“We have identified some user fees that have not reflected the village’s cost for quite some time, and I will be recommending those charges be increased,” he said.

Members of Oak Park’s various labor unions also sent a packet of suggested cuts and changes to the village board in August. Those changes range from adding red light cameras to eliminating middle management, unpaid furlough days, reducing or increasing the temperature in village hall by five degrees (seasonal), reducing deputy managers, eliminating costs for seminars or magazine subscriptions, cutting back on vehicles for management, and cutting outside contractors.

What about the village board’s suggestions?

“I think everything is on the table,” said Trustee Colette Lueck. “I don’t think there’s anything that won’t be examined carefully; there’s no sacred cow.”

Lueck said the board needs the most accurate information possible from staff in order to make informed decisions. Ideally, she doesn’t want to cut anything. She’s against slicing entire items, instead eyeing specific places to surgically cut.

Trustee Greg Marsey agreed. He wants to rank services the village delivers, and make decisions based on those rankings.

“We need accurate information to make decisions; there’s just no two ways about it,” he said. “The magnitude of the cuts we’re going to make better be driven by solid numbers.”

Village President David Pope said the property tax burden “weighs heavily upon residents and business owners alike.” So the board needs to bring a critical eye to its budget deliberations over the next two or three years, to look at how much services cost and how the village can respond to declining revenues, and drops in the values of pension fund portfolios.

Trustee John Hedges wants the village to keep its portion of the property tax bill the same. He would like to shy away from any cuts to public safety.

Trustee Jon Hale is also against any property tax increase or cuts to public safety. However, the village’s shuttle program remains on his “hit list.” Hale would like to see the program cut, saying it duplicates already provided services, and it’s a waste of $200,000 a year.

“This year’s budget picture is not all terrible news,” Hale said. “I think it’s an opportunity to reinvent some of the ways we do things.”

One idea he suggested was having some of the village’s loan and grant programs administered through banks, rather than village hall.

Trustee Ray Johnson believes the village needs to stay on track with street repairs and other capital improvements, also saying he’s hesitant to cut public safety or raise property taxes.

“We certainly don’t want to do anything that would be detrimental to our police force,” Trustee Jan Pate said, adding that the village already sliced $3.5 million last year, and further cuts might reach the bone.

Pate wants the board to remain “absolutely transparent,” so the community understands exactly why cuts or fee raises are being made.

“I want future boards and future generations of Oak Parkers to look back and say, ‘Yeah that was a tough time, but that board made some good calls,'” she said.

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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