By Nona Tepper
A candidate for River Forest trustee is currently in litigation with the village — which is part of the reason he was inspired to run.
Gregg Kuenster said the case with the village is ongoing and related to the zoning of his home, which is located on the 500 block of Park Avenue.
"It's about money and rights, it's about civil rights, it's about building rights, and it's about money, and so we're trying to negotiate that," Kuenster said of the case.
In March 2017, a fire at Kuenster's home resulted in the death of Elpidio Flores, 50, who was living in the property's basement. The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office ruled the death accidental, saying Flores died of smoke inhalation. Kuenster was reportedly on vacation at the time of the fire.
After rebuilding the home, Kuenster said the village zoning code requires him to operate it as a single-family dwelling. But he said he wants to convert it into a two-flat. River Forest declined to give him relief, he said, forcing it to remain a single-family home. The village has since filed a lawsuit that attempts to fine Kuenster every day his property is out of compliance with zoning. The village declined to comment on the lawsuit.
"Part of the reason I'm running is when we rebuilt the building, we asked to have the building rebuilt as a two-flat because it would make this building more efficient if we had two units instead of one unit. It'd be more affordable," he said.
Kuenster also said he was inspired to run — it was his "main impetus" — after learning a resident successfully lobbied the village to relax its ordinance regarding fire sprinkler regulations.
"[He] had an issue with the fire alarm, I paid for it, $40,000 out of my pocket, so that is what it is. That's part of it," Kuenster said.
Kuenster is a longtime area resident, who attended grade school at St. Edmund Parish in Oak Park, then went on to attend Fenwick High School for two years and Oak Park and River Forest High School for two years. He said he graduated from the University of Illinois Chicago with a degree in business administration and then went on to become a certified public accountant through the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
In March 2014, Kuenster received a felony charge for aggravated criminal sexual abuse, after a teenage employee alleged he asked her to straddle and massage him in River Forest, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. "I don't have any comment [on that]," he said. "Obviously nothing happened or I couldn't run for office." The Cook County State's Attorney's Office did not respond to interview requests. Kuenster pleaded guilty in January 2018 to one charge of misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to two years of conditional discharge, according to the Chicago Tribune.
He said he is now retired after a career working in "corporate finance for the last 25 years, dealing with the biggest companies, banks, airlines, billionaires." He believes his active CPA license will help the village operate more efficiently, comparing River Forest operations to that of the McDonald's Corporation.
"River Forest itself is a small business, it's in the few millions, and they're in financial trouble like all the towns," he said. "Because of that, there is probably at least, somewhere between a 4 and 9 percent tax increase baked into real estate taxes. That's my opinion. There are people who would disagree with me, but I am a CPA, I deal with it. I am a land owner and that's my projection."
He said he believes the village will have to contract some of its basic services like ambulances, policing, and inner office staff to balance its budget.
"It's going to be some hard decisions, there's going to be a lot of unhappy people, and I'm used to that," he said.
He also alleged the village is in negotiations with developers to build high-rise buildings in several parts of town — "They do these developments behind everybody's back," he said — and called for greater transparency on the village's part, saying River Forest should publish its contracts and tax increment financing (TIF) district revenue inflows and outflows in a more timely fashion.
Kuenster described himself as a political centrist who, when he was younger, worked as a precinct captain for the Oak Park Democratic Party. This is also not his first election — he said he ran for the Park District of Oak Park board in the 1980s and lost.
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