During the summer of 2014, North Riverside trustees faced a tough decision when they decided to pass a budget that had a $669,000 hole in its general operating fund. But when that fiscal year ended on April 30, the general fund deficit stood at just about $30,000.
What saved the village from sliding headlong into a financial tailspin?
Within the span of just two years, the percentage of revenue generated by fines for North Riverside’s general operating fund has skyrocketed, principally as the result of red-light cameras.
During the 2012-13 fiscal year North Riverside reported collecting $388,668 in fines. By the following year, in 2013-14, that number had jumped 70 percent to $662,210.
But that was nothing compared to what the village received in fines during 2014-15 — a whopping $2.3 million, most of that from two new red-light cameras at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road.
Although the number is still unofficial, though likely only to rise if it’s amended, the village collected about $1.7 million in red-light violations in 2014-15. That represents a full year of revenue from one of the Harlem/Cermak cameras but only four months of revenue from the second camera.
The windfall boosted fines from representing just 3 percent of North Riverside’s total operating revenues in 2012-13 to 14.4 percent in 2014-15. Red-light violation revenues are now the third-largest source of revenue for the village of North Riverside, trailing only state-shared sales taxes and the village’s non-home rule sales tax revenue.
Not only did that revenue bail out the village financially during the last fiscal year, it’s likely to keep doing so in the future.
Red-light revenues soar
According to information received in April by the Landmark in response to a Freedom of Information request, North Riverside had issued 16,182 red-light tickets between Jan. 1 and April 29.
If tickets are issued at the same rate for the entire fiscal year, the village could expect to seek collection on about 40,400 violations. With North Riverside receiving roughly 60 percent of each $100 ticket, the village could collect $2.4 million from those two cameras alone.
But by autumn of 2015, North Riverside will also have a third red-light camera operational, at Cermak Road and 17th Avenue. While that intersection is not nearly as busy as Harlem and Cermak, it is expected to generate hundreds of thousands more.
Police Chief Lane Niemann estimated that the red-light camera at Cermak and 17th Avenue will catch about 100 violations per week. That would equate to about $300,000 in revenue on top of the Harlem/Cermak take.
And although the Illinois House overwhelmingly passed a bill last month that sought to outlaw red-light cameras in small towns like North Riverside, that bill is presently buried in an Illinois Senate subcommittee and is not expected to make the Senate floor for a vote.
“Whatever revenue we can get that’s not from residents is best,” said Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. “Red-light camera [tickets] are 95-percent non-residents.”
Had that revenue not existed during the village board’s 2015-16 budget workshops last week, said Hermanek, “Those discussions would have been a lot different.”
But red-light camera revenue is only part of the story. The North Riverside Police Department over the past couple of years also has intensified enforcement in other areas.
Compared to 2013-14, according to the village’s proposed budget, the police department in 2014-15 increased the amount of revenue it collected from parking tickets by 40 percent ($30,000) and the amount it received from what are known as “compliance” tickets by 72 percent ($56,430).
In addition, the village saw a modest increase (about $15,000) in revenue it collects from administrative towing fees.
Part of the uptick in those revenues is due, according to Niemann, to the department in the past two years hiring a number of patrol officers. Newer officers tend to make more traffic stops and write compliance tickets for things such as equipment violations and expired vehicle registration.
The department has also increased its participation in the Illinois Department of Transportation’s traffic grant program from two enforcement periods per year to five. Many of those traffic stops result in compliance tickets being issued.
Meanwhile, the uptick in parking enforcement can be traced to an expansion of the police department’s public service aide, or PSA, program.
In 2012, the department hired its first two PSAs, one of them a retired North Riverside police officer, to write parking tickets, vehicle sticker violation tickets, man school crossings and attend to vehicle maintenance issues, freeing up sworn officers to concentrate on other tasks.
The police department now employs 10 part-time PSAs and a part-time PSA coordinator, retired Deputy Chief Tom Tauer. The PSAs replaced the department’s community service officers, who have been reassigned to the village’s recreation department and renamed site supervisors. There are seven part-time site supervisors employed by the village.
Ambulance program expansion?
Hermanek is also contemplating expanding the village ambulance service, but only if his plan to privatize the fire department is successful.
Right now the village operates one ambulance on a 24/7 basis, holding a second one in reserve for when the main ambulance needs repairs. But Hermanek said if the village is allowed to privatize the fire department completely and utilize the firefighter paramedics supplied by Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI), the village could operate two full-time ambulances.
That could allow the village to respond to more mutual aid calls or contract with neighboring communities to pick up more ambulance calls, which would enable North Riverside to collect more revenue from ambulance calls and help offset its own expenses related to PSI.
“I’m doing everything I can to balance the budget,” Hermanek said.