Since the village first started looking at merging the village and the township, there have been a number of emails rocketing around town, as well as comments to Wednesday Journal, that claim the real reason the village is pursuing the matter is because I “wanted to get my hands on the building.”
The “building” is the River Forest Civic Center, currently leased to the River Forest Community Center. I do not deny that I continue to believe the River Forest Park District and the Community Center should be merged. That, however, is not my reason for supporting the merger of the village and the township. I support that initiative because I firmly believe it will result in a reduction in tax dollars now paid to the township without any reduction in the services the township currently provides.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think that the Community Center and the park district should be merged because I think River Forest taxpayers are getting a bad deal from the current arrangement.
It is important to realize the origins of the Community Center: It came about because members of the park board at that time were resistant to offering any recreational activities. Now, however, the park district offers a robust variety of programs for youth, adults and seniors. The one thing that inhibits the park district from offering even more programming for residents is the lack of space.
While the Community Center claims it receives no taxpayer support, that claim simply does not withstand scrutiny. First and foremost, the center pays a dramatically discounted rent for the publicly-owned space it occupies in the Civic Center. For most of its existence, it paid $10 per year to rent most of the building. It was only recently that its rent was increased to $44,000 a year but even that figure is somewhat deceptive since only $4,000 of that is free cash to the township. The other $40,000 is obligated to maintain the building. But even the $44,000/year lease for approximately 36,000 square feet is significantly under fair rental value, judging by the fact that Community Center subleases only 2,500 square feet of the building to Opportunity Knocks and charges it more than $30,000/year for that relatively small space.
Moreover, since 2000, the township has been paying the salary of the Community Center’s executive director. From 2000 to 2007, the township’s budget expressly reflected the fact that it was paying for the executive director out of its tax levy. Then in 2007 (coincidently around the time the park district first proposed merging with the Community Center) the township created the before-unneeded position of building manager and hired the Community Center’s executive director for the position while permitting him to continue to serve as executive director of the Community Center.
I am resigned to the fact that merging the township and village will not result in a merger of the park district and the community center. The Community Center signed what I assume is a valid binding lease in 2011 that runs until 2023. According to the terms of the lease, there is no provision that permits an early termination and despite arguments I have seen and heard, there is nothing in the lease that permits a buyout of the lease by the lessor. I am pretty sure that when 2023 rolls around, I will no longer be in any position to fulfill my supposed desire to “get the building.”
Finally, even assuming I had that unattainable sinister goal, I am just one vote on the current village board. When the idea of merging the township and village was first brought to the village board, there was unanimity among the trustees that this was something worthwhile pursuing. While it is true that one village board member has now changed his mind, when the issue was first proposed, he considered merger “a no-brainer.”
I also must ask what would cause the other village board members to follow me in my supposed, quixotic, 7-year effort to “get the building.” While I think I am a compelling arguer, my wife repeatedly reminds me I am not. No matter how compelling my argument, however, I doubt I could singlehandedly convince the other members of the board, all of whom are smart and experienced, that we should pursue the merger just so the park district can get more space. More importantly, I have never even mentioned that subject to any member of the village board.
Although often intertwined in the minds of River Foresters, the township and the Community Center are separate entities and the abolition of the township should have no impact on the center.
My support for merging the township with the village has nothing to do with the Community Center. Simply put, I support merging the township and village because it is the fiscally responsible thing to do.