The River Forest village board on Monday forwarded several recommendations from a citizens’ financial advisory committee to village staff for further study, but not without some heated differences of opinion and occasional rancor.

The citizens’ committee was created in September to assess all means of addressing projected annual budget shortfalls averaging $1.5 million over the next three fiscal years. The board was looking for consensus on a five page preliminary report from Trustee Jim Winikates, who doubled as finance committee chair. But with President John Rigas and Trustee Mike Gibbs absent, the board settled on a narrow 3-2 approval.

Trustees Steve Hoke and Steve Dudek insisted more budget cutting should be thoroughly explored prior to any decisions on fee and tax hikes. Hoke brought up last week’s overwhelming voter rejection of an $8 million park district bond issue referendum, saying, “I’d like to see the (citizens’ advisory) committee meet in the wake of the failed referendum.”

“I think we should be focused on cutting expenses, not raising revenue,” said Hoke. “My answer on all the revenue stuff is, until I see a final report, I’m not supporting any revenue increases.”

Dudek called tax hikes “the easy way out,” and suggested residents are fed up, saying, “People are angry, extremely angry, about what their taxes are.”

Winikates and Trustees Catherine Adduci and Susan Conti all countered that nothing in either a draft or final report from the citizens’ committee would preclude the village board from making its own decisions and researching other approaches to the budget crisis. Revenue hikes such as vehicle sticker fees, Adduci said, could be rescinded in the event of the passage of a future proposed sales tax increase.

She challenged Hoke and Dudek to be specific.

“We can be prepared to cut services. The question is, what services do you want to cut,” Adduci said.

“If cut, cut, cut is your motive, then come up with a list of what you’re willing to live without,” said Winikates.

Concerns over contents of final report

Tensions were evident between Hoke and Winikates over the issue of the advisory committee’s structure and the release of its findings.

Hoke criticized what he called the “ad hoc” nature of the release of the committee’s findings. When Winikates pointedly noted that Hoke had voted for creation of the finance advisory committee, Hoke said that while he voted to create the committee, he had also publicly expressed serious misgivings about having three trustees sit on it and a trustee chair it and write the report. He accused Winikates of attempting to shut out full citizen input.

“I just want the end product to be their product,” Hoke told Winikates. “You seem to not want to hear from them. All of the reports we get are from you.”

Winikates countered that the committee would be meeting prior to the release of the final report.

“It is what it is,” Adduci said of the committee structure. Saying she was “the last person who wants to raise taxes to balance our budget,” Adduci said of Winikates report, “That’s not the end of the ideas.”

Two advisory committee members, Rex Burdett and Daniel Lauber, spoke to the board. Their comments reflected the divide on both the committee and the board.

Burdett said that while he “had no problem” with the recommendations that Winikates was forwarding, there were gaps.

“They’re the tip of the iceberg of what we discussed,” he said. Among the suggestions discussed by the committee but not yet discussed by the village board, he said, were alternative models for fire protection, use of part-time and auxiliary police officers, and continued monitoring of the 911 call system for additional savings.

Burdett also suggested the village lobby the state legislature to simply add “reducing unfunded public sector pension liabilities” to the allowable use of additional sales tax revenues gained by non-home rule municipalities by voter referendum.

“Politically I would think that legislators would have a difficulty not supporting legislation which benefits public safety workers.”

Lauber agreed the committee had discussed a wide array of possible solutions, but called Monday night’s discussion “an embarrassment.” He told trustees the village was facing “a doomsday situation.”

“Even with the revenue cuts we recommended and the enhanced revenue, we’re still half way to closing the gap,” he said. “Unless there’s increased taxes, you’ll have serious reductions to staffing in this village.”

CONTACT: bdwyer@wjinc.com

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