Oak Park village presidential candidates went toe-to-toe answering tough policy questions during a virtual forum March 4 hosted by Wednesday Journal and the Business and Civic Council. More than 4,500 Oak Parkers tuned in live or watched later to gauge the stances of candidates Cate Readling and Vicki Scaman on such issues as equity, budgeting, pandemic recovery and policing.
Both women agreed on a handful of areas including a need for greater government transparency and the belief that the official designation of Oak Park’s top elected official is village president, not mayor. Readling and Scaman also committed to keeping the village’s share of the property tax levy to a maximum of a three percent annual increase but diverged on how to tackle the village’s financial situation and budgeting.
“This last budget was passed by dipping into our rainy-day fund, or general fund,” said Scaman. “That’s just not going to be sustainable.”
If elected, Scaman plans to work across local government partners to identify shared goals and thoughtfully prioritize expenditures.
Readling said she would take on a “very holistic” approach to reviewing the village’s budget as village president.
“We have to look at every department and every service – for example, our very precious leaf collection,” said Readling. “I’ve heard the village manager actually say at the board table, like, ‘Don’t bring that up because people get upset.’”
Readling said the village board and the community have to be willing to have those conversations, while looking at “regressive” fines and fees that currently subsidize the budget.
“I want us to look at every single thing,” said Readling, including leaf collection.
She called the leaf collection system a “great example” of something beloved but not understood by the community.
“Oftentimes, [leaf piles] are not compostable even, because it’s so contaminated. It causes a safety hazard, it inhibits parking, and it cost $350,000,” Readling said.
The village of Oak Park paid around $212,000 for eight weeks of leaf pick up in 2019. In 2020, the number of pick-up weeks was reduced to six, saving the village $28,198, according to the public works department.
Scaman said during the forum that she plans to identify state and federal funding initiatives and grants to alleviate the financial burden. While serving as chair of the village’s liquor control review board, Scaman said she found two $500,000 grants – one from the Illinois Department of Human Services and the other from the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration. Those grants, according to Scaman, funded the township’s underage drinking and drug use prevention services entirely.
“We need to continue to look for those kinds of opportunities, we need to garner our relationships with our state and federal representatives,” said Scaman. “And we strengthen that opportunity when we work across our borders to work with other communities.”
Scaman said she has developed relationships with neighboring communities through her work as chair of the North and Northwest Cook County Clerks Association.
“It’s the responsibility of staff to solicit grants,” Readling responded. “I think that they do a fairly good job of it. And I’m sure they’ll continue to do so.”
While Readling said she thought having staff pursue grants as a means to reduce spending was an “excellent idea,” she believes Oak Park will have the most success in collaborating with the state and county, so the village is included in their respective budgets.
“The county is not broke; the state is not broke,” she said.
Readling also mentioned Illinois’ defeated graduated income tax amendment, stating it was something that will have to be looked at again.
“That would have mitigated a lot of expenses for municipalities, but especially as it relates to schools,” said Readling.
To reduce inefficiencies in spending and transparency, Scaman pointed to the implementation of certain software that would allow for an open portal, which she said she proposed in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 village budget cycle. The software, according to Scaman, cost $20,000.
“That would have been less expensive than what we currently use today by hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said.
If elected, Readling plans to propose that the village approach budgeting by looking at revenue sources and expenditures versus by fund, while implementing participatory budgeting.
To hear the candidates discuss equity, policing, small business recovery and other important issues, footage from the forum is available for viewing on Wednesday Journal’s website, its Facebook page and its YouTube channel.
Wednesday Journal will be hosting a forum March 17 for River Forest presidential candidates Cathy Adduci and Patty Henek.
Journal won’t be endorsing candidates
During the March 4 Oak Park presidential forum, Dan Haley, editor and publisher of Growing Community Media, reminded viewers that for the first time in its 41-year history that the Journal would not be offering candidate endorsements.
Recently reformed as a non-profit entity, Growing Community Media publications are not allowed to endorse candidates under restrictions set by the Internal Revenue Service.
The forum, which was held virtually due to the pandemic, has now been viewed 4,500 times via Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube and on the Journal’s website at OakPark.com.