Anyone who has sat through a North Riverside Village Board budget workshop can tell you that the annual ritual is something of an exercise in déjà vu.
Elected officials are always under the gun to hammer something out, because they have waited until the last moment to finalize a budget document before the state’s deadline to do so, and there’s always a large projected budget deficit to close.
For many years running there’s also been an annual call by the village’s finance director – now its acting village administrator – for elected officials to find a solution for the budget’s financial albatross: its ever-increasing police and fire pension obligation.
And, elected officials have just not wanted to face up to the fact that there’s only one solution to that problem – they’re going to have to ask voters to OK a tax to fund some or all of that annual obligation.
Part of it is that they don’t believe voters will approve such a referendum, especially voters on the west end of the village who just voted themselves a hefty tax hike to pay for a major renovation of Komarek School.
But, a good part of it is politics.
One of the reasons North Riverside is in its never-ending cycle of pension scrambling is that for a generation, elected officials lulled voters into a false sense of security, keeping their property taxes artificially low by using sales tax revenues to subsidize village services and by deciding, when finances got tight or when the economy crashes, to forego pension funding in order to close budget deficits.
It was good politics. Voters enjoyed not paying for water, garbage pickup and vehicle stickers. They loved the low, low property taxes (which remain incredibly low, comparatively speaking).
When elected officials began facing the reality that the village couldn’t possibly keep subsidizing services as they had in the past, those fees began being passed along to residents — for water, garbage, vehicle stickers, sewer infrastructure. Even property taxes rose slightly.
While those were appropriate financial decision, they didn’t make for an awesome message, politically.
It opened the door for criticism of the longstanding VIP Party majority’s handling of finances in decades past, while bemoaning an increased burden on residents and suggesting there’s another way to avoid residents having to pay for the municipal services they receive.
While we may think that’s a fool’s errand, promises of easing residents’ financial burden has undeniable appeal, and small gestures – things are tough, let’s just cancel that $180 sewer infrastructure fee this year – are attractive to voters.
But, they don’t address and can’t address the underlying reality that if you want excellent municipal services, if your town of 6,500 residents wants police and fire departments staffed at levels for a town twice that size, you have to pay for it.
And you have to pay for the pensions those employees are entitled to collect. There is no easy fix, and it won’t come by cutting fees and taxes for residents, unless you’re planning to make large cuts to personnel. You don’t nickel and dime your way to $3.5 million a year.
Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t being straight with you.