Without a doubt, the North Riverside Village Board could use a bit of shakeup. Board members have served extended terms – some several decades. It comes off as more of a club than a government entity.
Information is hard to come by. The village’s website should be a repository for all sorts of public information – from meeting agendas and minutes (there’s a link, but no info), to listing dates and times for committee meetings, to materials regarding proposals being considered at the board table. However, almost nothing, save for financial audits (the most recent is two years old), can be found there.
So why are we endorsing three incumbents – Gary Wittbrodt, James Votava and Randy Czajka – over three independent challengers? Because we don’t believe the challengers, retired police officer Rocco DeSantis and business owners H. Bob Demopoulos and George Georgopoulous, will provide the solutions to this problem. None of them (just two of the three participated in our endorsement interviews) in our endorsement process, either in interviews or on their written profiles, mentioned the village’s lack of transparency as an issue.
They did talk about overpaid administrators, the lack of new businesses in recent years and increasing taxes and fees being passed along to both homeowners and businesses. Apart from cutting those salaries, getting more businesses and lowering taxes and fees on residents, there wasn’t much meat to their positions.
Demopoulos’ main money-saver was getting rid of contract paramedics and replacing them with full-time staffers. He says the move will save $500,000 per year. Sounds, attractive, but specifics on how that plan would work are in short supply.
A lot of what the board has been doing in the past two years, to our mind, is reflecting reality – finally. For too long, the village board, which has been dominated by the VIP Party, has created contented voters by subsidizing their lives in town. The village’s portion of the property tax levy hasn’t been raised in two decades. For years, the village paid large portions of residents’ water and garbage bills. They didn’t charge for vehicle stickers.
When the economy was hot and sales taxes from the mall were flowing like water residents got to hop on the local gravy train. But things like utilities and waste hauling have real costs attached to them and the village has found it can’t simply count on sales taxes to pay the bills.
In the meantime, the village has made some painful cuts. Village hall has lost employees (some of them highly paid) through attrition and has cut back services. Non-union employees have had salaries frozen. The village has also not contributed a dime to its pension obligations in the past three years.
Most candidates have said that new businesses and sales taxes are they way out of the financial difficulties. Just Wittbrodt has admitted it may be time to discuss ending the village’s tradition of freezing its property tax levy annually. We believe more frank discussion like that is essential for the village in coming years.
Votava has said this will be his final term in office. Czajka said it’s probably his last term as well. In four years we expect this board to look very different from the one that’s in office right now. But that will take alternative candidates with realistic proposals and a better familiarity with what the job of governing is actually like.