A week before voting to approve North Riverside’s appropriations ordinance for the 2023-24 fiscal year, village trustees agreed to restart a languishing strategic planning effort, which will include a comprehensive rewrite of the village zoning code, and to explore ways to sustainably raise revenue to cover police and fire pension obligations.

Those were the legislative priorities communicated to village management staff during a special meeting of the village board’s administrative committee on July 10. Staff will begin the process of preparing requests for proposals for the strategic planning/zoning rewrite immediately after passage of the appropriations ordinance on July 17.

Discussions on how best to approach the issue of finding a sustainable revenue stream for pension obligations will play out over the course of several meetings in the coming months.

“The village’s operational costs far exceed our ability to raise revenues on an annual basis,” Village Administrator Sue Scarpiniti told trustees at the committee meeting. “The crux of that comes from the large costs we have with police and fire pension costs, as those costs amount to approximately $4 million out of the village’s operating fund.”

The village doesn’t not have a revenue stream to cover those costs. While red-light camera violation revenues have been used in recent years to fund some of that cost, that revenue comes to about $1.5 million annually and is in jeopardy of disappearing.

Scarpiniti told trustees that the Illinois Department of Transportation is likely to seek bids for the reconstruction of the Harlem Avenue/Cermak Road intersection this fall, with construction starting next spring.

If that timetable holds, red-light cameras will be removed from that intersection for at least several months, if not longer, eliminating that revenue stream.

“When that revenue dries up, we are going to be out of balance by that amount of our pension costs on an annual basis,” Scarpiniti said. “We can’t even begin to discuss adding on new staff until we can identify a way in which we can pay for that.”

The village’s preliminary 2023-24 budget includes hiring at least two police officers and a deputy fire chief. When the village shifted away from contract paramedics last year in favor of a department of full-time union firefighter/paramedics, the village hired six new firefighters.

Except for the deputy fire chief, all of those union police and fire positions come with long-term pension obligations.

Mayor Joseph Mengoni indicated there was time for trustees to be educated on options for funding pensions, but Scarpiniti cautioned that such considerations could not be put off indefinitely.

“It kind of goes beyond education, because you have a very tight time frame in which you’re going to need to start making decisions,” Scarpiniti said. “It’s not just about educating you on different tools, because, unfortunately, a lot of the suggestions or available tools that are available to the village board are not very popular things.”

One unpopular tool that’s been raised previously is going to voters with a referendum asking for a property tax levy to specifically fund police and fire pensions. To get such a question on the ballot takes time.

As important, if not more so, than solving the pension question is getting a strategic planning effort and zoning rewrite back on track.

The village had hired consultant Robert Kallien to spearhead that effort back in 2019. While he made some progress by streamlining the planning approval process by combining the Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, revising the code regarding planned developments and overhauling the sign code, the COVID-19 pandemic and some resistance by elected officials stymied progress.

On June 10, the village board gave Scarpiniti the green light to restart the process entirely, to seek proposals from planning firms to lead a new strategic plan process and, separately, to seek a consultant to help North Riverside rewrite its outdated zoning code, which Village Attorney Peter Pacione termed “horrendous.”

“You need a comprehensive plan and you need a complete overhaul of your zoning code, because it’s very outdated and it doesn’t cover a lot of stuff it should. … It’s kind of a hodgepodge.”