Every year around this time, elected officials in North Riverside spend hours and hours trying to make the village’s budget look like something other than a boat taking on far too much water.
The task is such that it results in a kind of paralysis, where they look for every small-ticket item that’s possible to tweak, finding $1,000 here and $5,000 there to somehow make all of the numbers balance.
It’s often a hopeless task. Back in the early 2000s, the solution was to throw up their hands and simply not fund their police and fire pensions, until the state of Illinois threatened to force them to use their sales tax revenues to do so. Now a good chunk of that pension obligation is funded through red-light camera fines. The clock is ticking on that $1.6 million or so in revenue and will disappear, possibly forever, starting next spring.
So far this spring, elected officials have spent about eight hours tinkering with their budget. On June 20, they’ll tinker some more. Whether or not they’ll look to enact policies with long-lasting impact is unknown, but the road they’ve been kicking the can down is about to dead end.
Are elected officials up for facing that challenge? Again, we don’t know, but we’d like to suggest one fundamental change in the way the budgeting process works in North Riverside.
Right now, the village board’s budget workshops are conducted within the Administrative Committee of the board, which is chaired by a trustee. This isn’t meant as a slight to Trustee Terri Sarro, who has the unfortunate task of herding cats as she tries to get the board to agree on direction they can provide to village staff.
What these workshops need is a change of format. They need to be conducted as special meetings of the full board or as a committee of the whole, chaired by the mayor. Right now, the mayor is somewhat of a spectator instead of providing the leadership and direction that trustees clearly need.
The mayor needs to be providing the overall policy leadership instead of trustees repeatedly looking to Village Administrator Sue Scarpiniti to feed them solutions they really don’t want to confront.
Because Scarpiniti has repeatedly, over a period of many years, warned many different village boards that they need to confront what is a structural problem with the village’s budget – there are not enough stable revenue streams available to fund what residents have come to expect in the way of services.
She has suggested a referendum to create a tax levy to fund pensions. She has recommended the village board extend its property tax levy every year. Elected officials treat the referendum idea as if it were radioactive and routinely brush off calls to increase the paltry property tax levy.
A day of reckoning is coming, and it’s time to begin confronting it.