As the River Forest village board continues to struggle with ways to eliminate a projected $700,000 budget deficit in the 2009-10 budget, it appears to be turning away from a previously suggested plan that would have balanced the 2009-10 budget.

Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez is now actively seeking givebacks from the village’s three main unions: police, fire and public works.

Fire Chief Jim Eggert has publicly told the finance committee on two occasions that there’s little or no room for cuts in his department’s budget. Monday, members of the police union made it clear they are not happy with threatened reductions in their department’s staffing.

In a series of finance and administration meetings in March, a consensus appeared to be forming that the 2009-10 budget could be largely balanced through a combination of passing through $377,000 in refuse collection costs to residents, and not transferring about $300,000 to the village’s Capital Equipment Replacement Fund, or CERF. With the addition of $273,000 in fee and tax hikes, a non-union wage freeze and other cost-saving measures, the 2009-10 budget gap would be closed. The pass-through of refuse collection costs, currently subsidized by the village, would represent an ongoing annual budget savings, unlike the non-transfer of funds to the CERF.

That’s no longer the case, Gutierrez said Tuesday morning.

“The board is still working toward finalizing their decision on various pieces of the puzzle,” Gutierrez said.

Trustee Russ Nummer, who has attended the previous finance committee meetings and who was at Monday committee of the whole meeting, said, “We now have a different opinion than we had at the committee of the whole finance meeting last week.”

Pressed on the issue Tuesday, Gutierrez disagreed that there had been strong support for a pass-through of refuse collection cost, saying that only trustee Susan Conti was amenable to passing on the costs, with trustee Pat O’Brien possibly open to a phased-in pass through. In the meantime, Gutierrez noted a consensus to put the transfer into the CERF back.

“They were willing to recommend $273,000 in new revenue,” Gutierrez said.

With the savings related to the CERF and refuse collection pass-through, a balanced budget is impossible without cuts in personnel costs. Gutierrez confirmed he was working on that.

“We talked to the FOP and the other unions regarding the deficits we’re looking at, and if they’re interested in helping us close those deficits,” he said.

The police union does not appear to be willing to give up much, if anything. On Monday, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge put out an open letter ripping Gutierrez and criticizing proposed takebacks.

Noting that the village’s contract was the result both of agreement during negotiations and benefits awarded by an independent arbitrator, FOP President Justin Labriola questioned the propriety of the village asking to re-open those discussions.

“Now Mr. Gutierrez would like to eliminate those contractual items,” Labriola wrote. Among the contractual items the village is considering asking back, according to Labriola, are annual cost of living salary increases, holiday pay, educational pay and medical exams. In addition, the Gutierrez has proposed switching medical plans, resulting in a 30 percent decrease in network size. In all, the cuts being proposed, Labriola said, would amount to a loss of $11,000 per officer.

The alternative, Gutierrez said, is cutting two additional police officers.

Trustee Susan Conti, who serves on the finance committee, said Gutierrez is in fact looking at the take backs at the direction of the village board. “No one’s targeting any one department,” she said. “We’re just trying to see that each department is as lean and efficient as possible.”

Regarding the CERF, Conti said, “We’re trying to decide if that’s really the right thing to do. That’s a real sticking point.” The village board approved not transferring funds into the CERF last year. Upon reconsideration, concerns have grown that doing so again for the 2009-10 year may be unwise and cause problems in future years.

Conti said that, though no decision has been made, there’s a good possibility that there will in fact be some sort of phased-in pass-through of the refuse collection costs.

Monday night, Gutierrez told trustees that he wanted to schedule another finance meeting for Monday, April 20, and at least one more before the regular board meeting April 27. The board is required by law to have a budget approved by April 30. That budget, however, does not have to be balanced.

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