If there’s anyone looking for nominations for a word that might best describe 2016, perhaps “whiplash” would fit the bill.
A rocky journey from start to end, 2016 saw a national presidential election right out of Barnum and Bailey, a parade of towering figures — from Prince to David Bowie to Muhammad Ali – shaking off this mortal coil, political upheaval both at home and abroad and, incredibly, the first Chicago Cubs World Series championship in more than a century.
The reverberations were felt everywhere and are still being felt. But closer to home there was plenty of other important news, probably imperceptible to those elsewhere, that residents of Brookfield, North Riverside and Riverside experienced.
For a year in which there were no elections to choose local town presidents or trustees, voters sure made an impact in their respective villages during 2016.
Why, because 2016 was the Year of the Referendum, with votes on a host of important issues in North Riverside and Brookfield – with news of more referenda on the way in the future.
In March, voters in Brookfield passed a referendum for an unprecedented $22 million bond issue to fund a road improvement program that will reconstruct or resurface about one-third of the residential streets in the village over the next decade.
The funding will allow the village to shift money previously used to do small resurfacing projects toward maintaining the newly improved streets so they don’t deteriorate so quickly.
The referendum, the financial impact of which will be no easy pill for many Brookfield homeowners to swallow, passed convincingly, with nearly 60 percent of those casting ballots in the March primary voting themselves a tax hike to pay the 15 years of debt service on the bonds
Up in North Riverside during the March primary election, however, voters were in a different mood.
With a 20-year bond issue that was used to build the North Riverside Public Library about to be paid off, officials sought a tax increase to fund ongoing capital improvements to the aging building.
The tax increase actually wouldn’t be an “increase” officials argued, since it would be simply replacing the debt service levy taxpayers had been shouldering for two decades.
But voters opted by a 56 to 44 percent margin to decrease the tax burden related to the North Riverside Public Library District, leaving the library board wishing it had campaigned a little harder for the question and wondering how to fund future capital improvements.
Then in November, Brookfield voters again were asked to dig into their wallets, this time by the Brookfield Public Library Board of Trustees. The library board sought $10.3 million to fund construction of a library it has been planning for a decade. With the impact to voters less than half what the village sought for its road referendum and with a vigorous public information campaign, officials believed they had a shot.
But warning signs were there as well. The plan got hammered on social media and a grassroots “Vote No” campaign pushed back as well.
When the votes came in, the referendum failed by a narrow margin – 52.7 to 47.3 percent. But the library board has time to have another go, maybe more than one, before their planned development approval expires.
On the village’s southwest side, homeowners voted along with the rest of LaGrange-Brookfield School District 102 to narrowly (50.6 to 49.4 percent) increase taxes to avoid program cuts and increased class sizes.
With the successful street referendum earlier in the year, homeowners in southwest Brookfield can expect to see tax bills increasing $600 or more annually in coming years.
And, brace yourselves, homeowners in the Proviso Township portion of Brookfield have a referendum of their own to look forward to in 2017, when Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 comes calling for a bond issue to expand Brook Park and S.E. Gross schools.
Parking lot lawsuit resolved
As taxpayers wrestled with the prospect of raising their own taxes to fund roads, schools and libraries, they were frustrated and angry they were at the same time paying legal bills for a fight between Riverside-Brookfield High School and the village of Brookfield over … a parking lot.
In 2014-15, RBHS sought to convince neighbors and the village that it needed a 91-space parking lot to help solve the parking problem that just about everyone who ever has visited the school has experienced.
But the high school’s residential neighbors howled, and in May 2015, the village denied the request with almost no comment from the public officials casting the deciding votes.
By May 2016, the lawsuit had dragged on for a year. Behind the scenes there had been some progress, but by late summer/early fall both sides appeared to have run into a wall over just a handful of parking spaces.
With an expensive trial looming, however, negotiations resumed and on Dec. 13, the high school board OK’d a settlement agreement passed the day before by the Brookfield Village Board.
The high school gets a 50-space lot to go along with the 103 spaces on Rockefeller Avenue – which it will lease from the village for $1 a year for the next 20 years – ending a battle that taxpayers just hated funding.
A terrible crime, a murder solved
The year got off to a violent, tragic start. On Jan. 27, a 33-year-old Brookfield resident, Michael Smith, was shot dead in front of his home – an apparent execution. The reason?
It was allegedly because Smith was going to testify against another man in a criminal case connected to a night club altercation where Smith had been employed to provide security.
The murder, carried out in broad daylight on a quiet residential street, was a shock to neighbors. Smith was married with a young son. Police kept a tight lid on funeral arrangements and access to where it was held, because Smith’s killer was on the loose and family members were afraid.
For months, police kept quiet about their investigation, which came to involve the help of suburban crime task forces, Chicago police and the FBI. But in November, police announced that the men responsible for Smith’s death — two who allegedly plotted it and one who reportedly carried out the execution – had been arrested.
Comfort K. Robinson, of Broadview; DeJuyon Johnican, of Cicero; and Jermaine Douglas, of Chicago, were all charged with first-degree murder and now await trial while being held without bond at Cook County Jail.
Back in business
Five years ago, business in Riverside, North Riverside and Brookfield wasn’t exactly booming. Still trying to pull out of the recession that socked the nation, the villages were struggling to hang on to the businesses they had much less roll out the welcome mat for new ones.
That began to change a couple of years ago, first in North Riverside with the arrival of Costco and some new life being breathed into the North Riverside Park Mall. And in 2016, the recovery began to be felt on main street in Riverside and Brookfield, which both sought to concentrate on economic development efforts.
In 2015, Brookfield Village manager Keith Sbiral reorganized the building department, adding a specific economic development component to it. The year 2016 was the first full year under the new arrangement and things are changing.
New zoning for the village’s commercial areas seeks to make Brookfield more attractive to developers, one of whom has pitched a mixed-use development near the Congress Park train station.
The village board created a TIF district for the Eight Corners area and business activity increased on Grand Boulevard with the opening of the Brookfield Ale House and the sale of the derelict former Helping Hand Thrift Store building.
Riverside spent $2 million (most of it via grants) to completely make over the downtown business district, tweaked its zoning code and embarked on creating a new marketing plan to heighten Riverside’s “brand.”
As the downtown face-lift was completed, two new restaurants opened in the downtown area and a brewery/pub got the OK to begin construction on Burlington near Harlem Avenue. A second microbrewery/brew pub idea was nudged out of a potential deal on Quincy Street.
And on Harlem Avenue there’s new life being breathed into long-underutilized commercial properties near Longcommon Road.
First Avenue path a done deal
In 2014, back before the state of Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Bruce Rauner ground the state’s ability to fund itself to a complete halt, it looked to be smooth sailing for a bike path that would finally connect Riverside-Brookfield High School with the village of North Riverside.
But the funding promised for phase two of the path, connecting 31st Street and 26th Street along the west side of First Avenue, dried up in 2015 and the path was back in limbo.
In February, the Cook County Forest Preserve District Board stepped up and agreed to fund that segment of the path and by late summer it was on its way to becoming a reality.
Although the route changed – it initially was going to cut west from First Avenue on 31st Street to Golfview and then north to reconnect with First Avenue – and wound up traveling down First Avenue the entire way, the path was largely complete as 2016 drew to a close, a real triumph of intergovernmental cooperation to plan and fund something beneficial not just to local residents but anyone who wants a safe pedestrian/bike route along a very busy stretch of state highway.
A tale of two boards
Since 2013, there had been a revolving door to superintendent’s office in Riverside School District 96. From May 2013 to July 2016 there have been four changes at the top.
The last came July 1, when Martha Ryan-Toye started as superintendent, following a year that saw the district led by a two-man interim team that had been unceremoniously bounced – though they might have said rescued – from Lyons-Brookfield District 103.
And while there will be a contested election for four seats on the school board in 2017, the internal crisis in District 96 appears to have passed.
In District 103, the battle for the board of education is still being waged. After being captured by a politically connected slate of candidates in 2015, the District 103 board could see another shift in majority next year.
In the meantime, 2016 was a time for the present majority to consolidate its power. By the end of 2016, the district is staffed by an entirely new and politically dependent administration, though there’s been at least one bit of court intrigue still unresolved, regarding the suspension and impending termination of the district’s business manager.
While relative calm may have returned to District 96, the same can’t be said for their neighbors in southeast Brookfield.