As is normal, and righteous, the Oak Park village board’s annual budget approval meeting was filled with congratulations. The congratulations were in order. The 2014 Budget is the clearest, most cogent budget developed in a decade.

The technical budget improvement in the last two years is a major success. From a fiscal responsibility standpoint, the results are less than a success — particularly when you consider the risk the village faces by putting all its eggs in the revenue-improvement, economic-development basket. 

Economic development has been the village’s path to lower taxes for three decades, and the results have been dismal. The energy displayed in pursuing development in 2013 has been encouraging, but it does not provide a guarantee of a significant revenue boost in 2014 or 2015. Expense reductions were discussed throughout the budget process, but expense reductions did not appear in the final budget.

 I do not suggest that reductions should have been made in the Police or Fire departments. Their combined 2014 budget was up only 2% compared to 2011 and well below inflation. The Department of Public Works’ 2014 budget was up 19% versus 2011, but that was expected after severe cuts throughout the recession. 

We also have very large infrastructure needs. The budgets that should have received more extensive scrutiny were Health, Community and Economical Development, Law, Communications, and Human Resources. The 2014 combined budget for the five departments increased from $2.7 million to $9.2 million or 41% higher than 2011. The five departments now account for 18% of the General Fund. The increases deserved some explaining. 

While there are probably many reasons that the board demurred on expense reductions, it cannot be ignored that Oak Park has 38% more full-time employees (police and fire not included) than Wheaton, a village comparable in population. I hope I am wrong, but the hesitant approach on rightsizing staffing could make the village’s economic condition worse in the future.

John Murtagh

Oak Park

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