1) Budget woes dominate ’09

As 2009 progressed, the low buzz of economic anxiety grew into a roar of financial trepidation. Village officials found themselves trapped between the rock of ever-rising costs and the hard place of steadily declining revenues.

Money issues dominated 2009 as they have in no other year in memory.

“This is the scary slide,” Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez said at a mid-February finance committee meeting called to discuss three-year budget projections. “There is no happy slide.”

The village board unanimously approved a hiring freeze Feb. 23, in the face of projections showing a $620,000 deficit for the 2009-10 budget year, and a $1.45 million shortfall the following year. By 2011-12, the village would be short 113 days of operating funds, almost a full third below required funding.

In March the police department cut the first of three police patrol officers. In May a second officer was laid off, and a sergeant’s position vacated through retirement was not filled. A budgeted assistant village manager position has gone unfilled.

The old village board closed a $1.4 million hole in the 2009-2010 budget in April. In August, however, new board finance committee chair Jim Winikates told his colleagues they were facing a nearly $600,000 hole in the budget, due mostly to slumping revenues, and despite staff layoffs, wage and hiring freezes and across the board cost cuts. That new deficit was erased in October, when it was discovered – some said belatedly – that the village could access $1.2 million for the fiscal year by ending the sales tax portion of its tax increment financing district, or TIF.

A total of $4.3 million in projected red ink between 2011 and 2013 remains, if current circumstances are allowed to continue, with the village running out of operating cash in April 2011.

Fees only help if residents apply for permits, and there was a $267,000 shortfall in permit fees midway through 2009. Taxes only help if people are consuming the things being taxed, and there was a shortfall there, too.

Sale taxes don’t appear likely to recover anytime soon. Two village retail icons closed in 2009 – Plunkett’s Furniture, in April, and Hines Lumber in August. For Your Entertainment, a chain store in the River Forest Town Center, will close in January.

“Continuation of the current trends will result in a structural deficit for the foreseeable future,” Winikates said. The bulk of the deficit, he noted, was due to soaring health care benefits and pension costs, which account for 12 percent of the general fund budget.

In September the village board approved the formation of a village board directed Citizens Advisory Committee on Finances, to advise the board on what expenditures to cut and what additional revenues might be pursued.

After some initial disagreement on focus and direction, the committee is reportedly making genuine progress identifying potential expenditure cuts and revenue enhancements.

The nine citizens on the committee made it clear that all possible expenditure cuts and revenue enhancements will be considered, including the possibility of asking the village’s two universities to make “payments in lieu of taxes” for village services they’re provided.

2) End of an era: Frank Paris steps down

After two decades on the village board, the last 16 as village president, Frank Paris declined to run for re-election. The decision marked the end of a distinctive era in River Forest governance and a change in the style and content of board deliberations.

Paris’s last two years were marked by increasingly contentious battles over board procedure, direction and a series of issues, most notably police department unrest that had led to two federal lawsuits, multiple grievances and harassment complaints and a year long behind the scenes process to replace the police chief.

During that period, Paris was frequently called on to break 3-3 ties along partisan lines between two groups, one led by Paris and one by Trustee Steve Hoke.

Following John Rigas’s election, Paris was feted at a banquet held May 7 at Dominican University.

3) Rigas elected village president

John Rigas’s first eight months in office were spent addressing a number of major issues facing the village in addition to the daunting economic outlook.

Following two contentious years, Rigas also initiated discussions of the manner in which the board wishes to conduct its business the next two years.

Rigas called for a less formal approach to the formulation of agendas and board discourse than was crafted during Paris’ last two years in office.

Rigas shrugged at that history, saying it reflected a lack of trust between board members that he intended to change. Rigas initiated the practice of regularly scheduled committees of the whole to address a plethora of issues.

Paris, who served nearly eight year with Rigas in the 90’s, expressed confidence in his successor and lauded Rigas’s leadership style following the new board’s first meeting.

“I’m envious of John Rigas and his adept handling of the chair,” said Paris. “I’d like to be nearly as good as he was.”

4) Police revamped as RF joins WEDGE, creates FOREcast

New Police Chief Frank Limon spent his first full year reorganizing the River Forest department and instituting a number of innovations in intelligence gathering and operational support.

As with most issues in 2009, Limon’s workload was made more difficult by the economy, which forced him to cut his staff.

Limon made River Forest the ninth department in the West Suburban Directed Gang Enforcement (WEDGE) task force, joining Oak Park, Forest Park and six other area communities. In addition, in November, River Forest, Oak Park, Forest Park and Elmwood Park formally launched the FOREcast intelligence gathering and sharing initiative.

5) River Forest crime rate drops 20-plus percent

Despite staff cuts and budget restraints, serious crime in River Forest has dropped 28 percent through the first 11 months of 2009. The development is particularly impressive after an 18 percent increase in crime in 2008. Officers speaking off the record credit Limon’s new tactics and strategies with fostering that drop, particularly in burglaries and thefts, the most common property crimes.
“Limon started pressing directed missions to address the problem,” said one officer, who asked that his name not be used.

6) Closing down the TIF in 2009, or 2010

For nearly six months this year, the biggest looming development on the new village board’s radar was the end of the village’s Lake Street tax increment financing district (TIF). In October, however, new information came to the board’s attention that, due to the rather arcane realities of real estate taxation, the TIF likely did not have to end until Dec.31, 2010.

The board eventually declared a surplus for 2009, rather than waiting until 2010 because it returns the maximum amount of dollars to the village and other village taxing bodies. Finance chair Jim Winikates noted that under that scenario the village will “still have approximately $5 million for economic development in 2010.”

That development, most likely, will be at….

7) Lake Lathrop undergoes environmental testing, development planning

One of the first issues the new village board addressed was the development of the south side of Lake Street between Lathrop and Ashland Avenues. That discussion was complicated starting last summer by word that significant chemical contamination originating from a drycleaner at 7615 Lake had spread over an area roughly the size of a football field, and was present adjacent to a village sewer line under Lake Street.

The Illinois and U.S. EPAs are involved, and the village has so far spent over $28,000 on an environmental consultant.

Meanwhile, the village board approved the hiring of a development consultant to draw up a “request for proposals” to be sent out to potential developers of the property. Just what parcels will be included in any development plan remains to be seen.

8) River Forest parks rec center referendum

In May park district commissioners announced their intention to look into purchasing the mostly vacated Oilily building at 103 Forest, for use as a recreational center. The move came after what the park district said was a 50 percent increase in demand for the district’s indoor programming, and a 2008 residents survey indicating a desire for a variety of indoor programming not now provided.

In August park district commissioners selected an architect to conduct a public input process on the design and use of the proposed center. The park board held three public input meetings in October and November. Late in the process, a number of residents raised concerns about the cost and location of the building, as well as its effects on green space.

In November, the park board formally approved placing an $8 million tax referendum on the Feb. 2 ballot.

9) A first in full-scale disaster drill

Several hundred firefighters, law enforcement officials, observers and volunteers braved increasingly intense heat Aug. 8 to take part in the first of its kind Operation DU Prep 2009 Full Scale Disaster Exercise.

The exercise, conducted under the auspices of the Cook County Urban Area Security Initiative and under the supervision of the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program, was the brainchild of Fire Chief Jim Eggert, with valuable input from new police chief Frank Limon. It assessed a variety of first-responder elements, including police, fire, emergency medical, hazardous material handling, special tactics, bomb location and disposal, local emergency dispatching and interagency communications.

Also assessed was Dominican’s University’s ability to communicate effectively with the public and the media.

Over a dozen municipalities participated in the, along with Cook County law enforcement teams, disaster response and public health workers, state police and emergency management crews, and federal disaster management officials. Several dozen U.S. Navy personnel bused in from the Great Lakes Training Command schools to augment 75 volunteers from the university and surrounding towns.

“This is the first time, to my knowledge, that Cook County and other agencies have banded together to do this type of exercise,” said Dan Coughlin, executive director of the Cook County Judicial Advisory Council, which helped get the $249,000 funding for the exercise.

While the officials report on how the five hour exercise went is confidential, it is now considered a template for conducting future emergency response exercises.

10) The flooding report

In June, the task force created to study issues related to the flooding in September 2008 released a 25-page report to the village board.

The eight-person group, chaired by resident Rick Gillis, had met repeatedly with engineers from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The group’s primary task was to develop a comprehensive understanding of what occurred during the historic flooding, and determine what needed to be done to avoid future problems.

Aspects of the report focused on the complex of sewers that impact the DesPlaines River and the role of earthen berms at strategic locations and state and federal restrictions on berms.

It was suggested in June that the report be referred to the village board’s public works committee or to a committee of the whole.

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