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The Great Recession Squeezes Morton Grove's Budget Tighter

With little 'wiggle room,' village scrapes by on leaner services as its financial health gets more desperate.

Every year when the Morton Grove trustees get a copy of the budget, on top is a “transmittal letter” hitting the highlights and lowlights of the village’s financial position.

The increasingly desperate tone of those letters in recent years reads like transmissions from the captain of a ship in distress.

"As with other municipalities through the nation, Morton Grove has experienced serious revenue declines," the 2010 letter says, describing that year as a "cutback budget."

"The budgetary challenge of 2011 is to maintain essential service levels while minimizing property tax or other license or fee increases," this year's transmittal letter said.

As the housing bubble burst in late 2006 and the Great Recession set in, small cities all across the country were hit with the same perfect storm: 

  • stalled and local taxes on those transactions dried up.
  • Retail sales and the taxes they produce dropped precipitously.
  • Job cuts and cutbacks led to a reduction in the local share of state income taxes.

But Morton Grove was in a more vulnerable position than some of its neighbors when the recession hit, leading to unprecedented municipal layoffs in 2010 and significant ongoing cuts in public services.

Things have gotten so severe that in this year’s “precariously balanced” budget, in the words of Finance Director Ryan Horne, there is no money for fixing curbs or sidewalks.

There is so little “wiggle room” that if the massive snowstorm that hit the Chicagoland on Feb. 1 and 2 had not been declared a natural disaster (and therefore eligible for federal reimbursement), the cost of the extra rock salt and overtime to run the plows would have sent the budget into the red, Horne said.

Why Was it Worse in Morton Grove?

A combination of past governmental decisions, inherent traits and recent history left Morton Grove more vulnerable to the recession than some of its neighbors.

Just as revenues were beginning to drop off, Morton Grove was hit with rising police and fire pension obligations due in large measure to insufficient contributions in past years.

In 2011, pensions will consume nearly $4 million, or 17.3 percent of the village expenses. That compares with 12.7 percent of expenses in 2007.

Rising pension obligations -- mandated by Springfield to be fully funded -- were given as the sole reason for the first village levy increase in three years this year, of 3.5 percent. The same budget eliminated CPR classes, the senior bus and cut another two positions from the public works department.

When a frenzied housing market spiked real estate transfer taxes, where many cities saw a windfall, Morton Grove saw a life preserver. Still reeling from the village desperately needed those tax dollars and, therefore, felt their loss more acutely.

The village is smaller and more heavily residential than neighboring Glenview, Skokie and Niles, and with fewer commercial and industrial partners to help pay taxes, the local government was already running a lean operation, according to village officials and available data.

Morton Grove as the Most Efficient Northern Suburb

Morton Grove has the most efficient government of the 15 northern suburban communities, according to a Park Ridge survey released in January (which you can access in the media section of this article). Morton Grove was found to spend $1,190 per resident for village services. Glenview, Skokie and Niles spent $2,146, $2,137 and $1,630, respectively.

“We don’t have a lot of programs you would say are luxuries,” said Theresa Hoffman Liston, corporation counsel for the village. “So when we make cuts, they hurt.”

Among the most contentious decisions Mayor Dan Staackmann and the board's six trustees made was to close the Morton Grove Senior Center. After taking a lot of heat, the nonprofit North Shore Senior Center stepped in and agreed to take over operations.

The most significant staff cuts in Village Hall history took place in 2009 and 2010, in addition to several unfilled positions that had been left open to save money.

“Basically we’ve had a hiring freeze since 2001,” Staackmann said.

Among those let go were the village planner, who had been on staff more than 20 years, and whose duties are now done by Community Development Director John Said.

The village also had to fire a longtime secretary to community and economic development, six part-time crossing guards, police support staff, fire inspectors and code inspectors, a part-time nurse, a human resources manager, senior and family services coordinator and administrative assistant, and a civic center facilities manager.

That cut $1.2 million in salaries, according to the 2011 budget.

“It was gut wrenching,” said Liston, who, along with village administrator Joe Wade, went from office to office confirming people’s fears about their jobs.

Shifting Priorities 

Every cut has meant more work for someone still on staff and a shifting of priorities.

For example, in the building department, which has half the budget it did 10 years ago, one full-time and one part-time building code inspectors are trying to do the workload of two full-time and seven part-time inspectors.

Predictably, fewer code enforcement tickets are being written for overgrown lawns, peeling paint and other nuisances. In 2010, 103 tickets were written for code violations as compared with 249 in 2009.

Speaking more generally about cuts to village services, Staackmann had this to say: “There comes a time when you can only cut so much before property values begin to go down on your house.”

While the village tries to grow its way out of the hole by attracting new businesses, Public Works Director Andy DeMonte will continue to drive a snowplow.

His department’s budget is down 45 percent from its 2001 level.

“Nobody is just a truck driver or just a laborer [in Public Works],” DeMonte said. “One day we have a crew cutting down trees and the next day they are shoveling asphalt.”

“I even still plow snow,” he added. “We need the bodies.”

Tomorrow, check back for a look at the budget through a photographer's lens.

john king April 27, 2011 at 03:39 PM
Andy Demonte needs to be fired! How many more men do you need to plow 2" of snow?? Earn your money like everybody else!!
Red Sam Rackham April 27, 2011 at 04:17 PM
Be grateful you live in town where all streets are plowed ASAP after a blizzard. Otherwise move back to Chicago where you can dig out your own parking space and reserve it with lawn chairs or milk cases. (No Email Updates Please!)
Pat Craig April 27, 2011 at 04:39 PM
john; Have you ever operated a snow plow? it's not exactly easy, especially considering that car drivers expect a plow driver to be able to maneuver a multi-ton truck with a snow plow attached as easily as if it were a Prius. Also, perhaps you missed the part in the story where Mr. Demonte gets behind the wheel of a plow due to a shortage of manpower. Does the boss where you work come out of his office and work the production line/work in the repair shop or do the "grunt" jobs just like the "regular workers" do? Mr. Demonte does. You might want to rethink your call for Mr. Demonte's dismissal by getting some facts.
sherwin dubren April 27, 2011 at 05:43 PM
The budget deficit is driven very much by the Police and Fire pension funds. For years, the Action Party defered payments to the point where it was getting out of hand. The Caucus Party was forced to raise property taxes 28 percent to fix this problem. They took the heat for doing so and in the following elections were voted out of office. The current Mayor Staackmann was politically smart in not voting for that 28 percent increase and letting others take the fall. He continued in the tradition of keeping the property taxes low knowing it was not a popular thing to do. Now we are getting back in the same boat as we fall further behind in our pension funding. Will Action Party correct this with a property tax increase or some other new tax that will disguise the burden or will they let it ride for another party to fix and earn the blame?
David Lewis April 27, 2011 at 07:04 PM
Mr. King, As a property owner and nearly ten-year resident of Morton Grove I can tell you that my experience with Andy DeMonte has been consistently positive. On several occasions my neighbors and I have required contact with Mr. DeMonte regarding issues on our street and have found him to be readily accessible and genuinely interested in our concerns. Mr. DeMonte's Public Works department has one of the finest track records in the area and their winter snowplowing efforts are the envy of the surrounding suburbs. Having formerly lived in Chicago and Evanston I can personally attest to this fact. Mr. DeMonte is a consummate professional and the Village is fortunate to have him as our Public Works director.
David Lewis April 27, 2011 at 08:12 PM
Mr. Dubren, Are you aware that the April elections are over? The police and fire pension funds are a problem that is not unique to Morton Grove. In fact, according to an article in today's Niles Journal newspaper the Village of Niles layed off four employees earlier this month and are considering additional staff cuts in order to close a $217,000 general fund budget gap. Municipalities all across the State are struggling with identical budget issues. To suggest that the Action Party is solely responsible for this issue is unfounded and unfortunate.
Debi Scholtes April 27, 2011 at 08:55 PM
Patrick My boss ALWAYS came out of her office to help when we were short handed. As a matter of fact, she was EXPECTED to do that. Knowing how things were run & how they worked...MADE her the boss. That was a requirement...to be the boss. Oh,but then again...she wasn't a "city worker".... I HAVE to put my OWN pension money into an account. Now we have to LAY OFF current workers to afford the ones that are DONE working? I pay into my OWN account out of MY paycheck...because I'm not a city worker. Those days are done....The business of running a city or Village is going to have to come down to the principals of running an every day business. And that ...is that!
Pat Craig April 27, 2011 at 10:39 PM
Debi I don't disagree with you in general, but there are certain particulars that require understanding and observation. In most small business, (I used to own one before the "Great Recession/Depression), the boss expects to come out of the office, (if indeed they HAVE an office) and pitch in. The point I was making is that in most larger concerns, (and a municipality can be considered as a larger concern than a small business), the supervisory personnel, (especially at the divisional level), have fairly specialized duties and don;t work the line. Andy DeMotte has come up through the ranks and served Morton Grove for many years. The public works department is a model of efficiency and snow removal in Morton Grove is the envy of the northern suburbs. The bottom line here is that we have an ongoing Recession (Depression) and, as citizens will need to decide AND LET OUR ELECTED OFFICIALS KNOW, exactly how we are most comfortable handling the problem. Just as in your personal budget, faced with rising costs you either increase income or cut back on outlay. In the case of the village, it means raising taxes or fees or cutting services. The choices are painful. I agree that public employee pensions are out of hand and there needs to be action taken... the question is what action.
Audrey H April 28, 2011 at 09:44 PM
You know that old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results? Sherwin, you have become a broken record of insanity- saying the same incorrect things over and over, yet you expect results to somehow be different and someone might actually believe you. Haven't you realized yet that there are a lot of reasonable, well informed people in Morton Grove who are very willing to correct your misstatements and post accurate information to correct all your untrue statements? Please stop the insanity, and stop posting your lies.
sherwin dubren April 28, 2011 at 11:32 PM
Audrey, You are entitled to your opinions as I am to express mine. Who is to say you are sane? I am occasionally incorrect about certain facts, but that does not mean everything I post is wrong. Unfortunately, there are too many Action supporters being critical of my posts and the others just have to be woken up. Please let me express my opinions as is my right to do so. What I see is a stream of lies coming from the Action people. They only won the last election by a small margin. Evidently, there are many residents who do not agree with the current administration. Do you want to shut them up, as well. Quit trying to censure people by branding their opinions as insanity and lies. Maybe you would be happier in Libiya or Syria where people are not allowed to express contrary ideas to the ruling majority. If y0u think you can squelch me with your insulting remarks, forget it.
Debi Scholtes April 29, 2011 at 01:31 AM
When considering what action needs to be taken...I submit that pensions of a handful of people can be cut back,upsetting less than 100 people instead of raising taxes over & over for over 24,000 people. A VERY unpopular stance but desperate measures are warranted in desperate times.
Pat Craig April 29, 2011 at 02:06 PM
Whose pensions do you suggest we cut, police? Fire? Just sergeants? Just Deputy Chiefs? How do you suggest we pay for the legal bills incurred by the lawsuits sure to follow? Property tax increases? Special fees for police or fire service? Bake sales? Desperate measures could include privitization of police and/or fire service on a fee-for-service basis; unincorporation of the Village, (which would void all labor contracts currently binding the village); the merging of Morton Grove with an adjoining municipality creating an economy of scale. The bottom line here is that there are no easy answers, there are no non-painful answers and, in the final analysis, there may not any longer be a viable answer.
john king April 30, 2011 at 02:12 AM
Bake Sales sound good
john king April 30, 2011 at 02:00 PM
Patrick, i do own a snow plow company for your information...its funny to see village trucks drive by after the streets have been plowed and salted and they come by again to plow the streets and push the salt that was just put down the sewer. The village of MG over does it. If I plowed my accounts on a 2" 2 or 4 times on the same snow fall I would fired!! I put my time in my accounts. Maybe I should put my videos on you tube of village workers plowing nothing but water and the plows are sparking. Or maybe a video i have of a public works worker plowing out his own drive way with a Village truck and im sure on village over time!!! That is wasteful for a tax payer and a business tax payer. PAtrick do you know what its like to own a business in Town or do you work for some one?? Do you snow plow or is that "tough job" of shoveling your side walk your self?? As for you Mr. Lewis, I've been a resident for over 30 years...so stop saying your a 10 year resident...pat yourself on the back...i'm sure you don't own a business too jerk.
David Lewis April 30, 2011 at 04:07 PM
I will suggest to you the same thing I have suggested to other residents...if you are unhappy with Village services you should get involved and join a commission or a committee to make changes. You can attend a Village Hall meeting and present your concerns to the Board during the "Residents Comments". Or, run for political office. Complaining on this web site's comments board won't accomplish anything.
Sue Smith April 30, 2011 at 06:39 PM
I have attended many village meetings, little is accomplished by those endeavors either. I do think that this forum at least gets the message out that other residents feel the resentment that government workers feel entitled. In a small business( which I have been in for over 30 years), if I need to increase income I must go out and earn it, unlike the village, they just raise our taxes. If I want a retirement account I must put 100% in, not just 10% and then tax the good people of MG for 90%. And if I cannot hire someone to answer phones or clear the snow, I do it myself. Part of the frustration with the village is we see waste and we have to pay for it, how about all the money wasted on the sale idea of Golf school three taxing bodies in MG and not one of them thought to have their 3 lawyers 1st check if the state would even allow the sale because of the state grant. The money wasted was again not out of the village officials pockets, but out of the pockets of the good people of MG. This could go on forever, but officials need to understand where some of this frustration comes from. All residents need to make their village accountable....afterall it is OUR money they are spending not just theirs.
sherwin dubren April 30, 2011 at 06:53 PM
I would like to chime in on the snow plowing in MG. I cannot fault Andy Di Monte and crew for any lack of enthusiasm to clean the snow off our streets. However, I think they are not being cost effective in re-plowing streets that have only a small accumulation of snow. Another cost saving measure would be to not plow the side streets all the way to the curb. Since MG does not enforce no parking on the street before a storm, there are always cars parked on the streets. This precludes using the outer lanes for driving anyways. Another benefit is that there would be less salt thrown on the parkway trees and grass. If cars get plowed in as a result, it is their fault by not moving them onto many available driveways. I see this all over my neighborhood where people actually move their cars off the driveways onto the streets. They do this as to not getting barricaded in their driveways by the dumped snow of the plows. If the village really wants to make life easier for residents, they will go around with the smaller trucks and push the snow away from the fronts of our driveways. My four stroke snow blower had a hell of time getting through the barricade left by the plows.
sherwin dubren April 30, 2011 at 07:01 PM
Like Sue, I think that Patch is a valuable resource to add to the information about resident concerns about how business is conducted in MG. It is more of an exchange of views between residents than a village meeting or committee meeting. Village board meetings limit speakers to 4 minutes and are a bit intimidating when you have to sign in before you can talk. As I stated in an earlier post, committees are strictly advisory to the village board, so their is no guarantee that your opinions will be heard or acted upon. In fact, on a committee, you have to have the agreement of all members before your views are passed on plus the agreement of the committee head to allow it. There is too much burocracy involved, whereas Patch guarantees that your unedited opinions can be seen in public. As far as running for office, I tried it with two others and found it was difficult to overcome the entrenched power of the two existing major parties, Action and Caucus. That being said, I still think with right core group of people, a new party could succeed. Any takers out there?

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