To say that the village of North Riverside is in a period of transition would be putting the situation mildly.
While many municipalities look with envy at the village’s huge commercial engine – and all of the sales tax revenue that comes with it – its low property taxes and cozy, familial vibe, they might not see what local residents and officials see.
The retail sales engine is coughing, and while it still accounts for the vast majority of the village’s operating revenues, it’s increasingly seen as unreliable, too volatile.
And, the services the village provides aren’t cheap. Though a village of just 6,000, the commercial district and the buildings that come with it means it has a police department and fire department more suitable to a town twice that size.
The operating costs of such public safety departments are high enough without adding in the ever-increasing obligations for police and fire pensions – a situation aggravated by a now-abandoned policy of underfunding those obligations.
North Riverside can be a surprisingly volatile town politically, as well. Longtime residents used to the old days when sales taxes subsidized trash pickup and water service are sometimes resentful of the new reality. When someone comes along and promises a return to the days of super services and low resident costs, it’s attractive.
Add in a reputation for North Riverside government policy benefiting a long-established political power structure and favored vendors and you have a recipe for some discontent. The past two elections have shown that voters may be ready for change in local government.
Now, there’s change at the highest levels of the administration.
Guy Belmonte, who has been a part of the local political power structure as an elected trustee and later as village administrator, is leaving the post he’s held for the past 19 years.
We wish him the best in his retirement, but we also note that this is a critical juncture for the village. Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. has turned to Finance Director Sue Scarpiniti to fill the role as administrator, at least until the April 2021 election, when his term is up.
With the village code preventing him from searching for a long-term replacement, he could not have picked a better person for the job.
More than that, though. Scarpiniti is not only the most qualified person in North Riverside government to move into the role, she’s been the most qualified for some time.
Because she has been employed by a village government controlled by the VIP Party since 1999, Scarpiniti may be seen by some as part of that power structure. But, Scarpiniti has a clear independent streak and has not been afraid to point out to elected officials – repeatedly – that the present policies need to change.
This has been especially the case with respect to the village’s avoidance of confronting its pension obligations. She has time and again urged elected officials to think more strategically about pensions and how they are funded.
North Riverside finds itself in a pivotal moment, one in which an entrenched, old-school political organization realizes that it needs to change the way it approaches governance.
Now they need to hear their new administrator and move the village fully into the 21st century.