Monday, December 14, 2009

Oak lawn Trustee Tom Phelan blasts criticism of his actions

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My column this week in the Southwest News-Herald addresses the troubling pattern that has replaced honorable politics in Oak Lawn and the role of Oak Lawn Trustee Tom Phelan in trying to undermine Mayor Dave Heilmann. This is Phelan's side of the story, that he wrote and distributed Monday in response to a story that ran Sunday in the Southtown/Star newspapers. (Click Here to read the Southtown Story).
-- Ray Hanania

NOTE:  If you are not an Oak Lawn resident you might want to skip to the next item.
I have heard from a few people over the last couple of months who have asked “what is going on with the Village?”   Most of the questions pertain to happenings at our Village Board meetings, which are televised.  Other times, like today, people contact me about things they’ve read in the newspaper.  As an elected official in the Village (Trustee in the 6th District) I generally reply to each request with a detailed explanation.  But given the especially malicious story that appeared in the local paper yesterday, I wanted to take a moment to address the “global” question of “What’s going on” before addressing the allegations in the newspaper story itself.

Like every other government body in America, our Village has fallen on difficult economic times.  Our sales and income tax revenues are off by several million dollars, due in large part to our heavy reliance upon car dealerships for our retail tax dollars.  On top of that, our operating expenses continue to rise every year, mostly due to employment agreements and contracts that pay our employees excellent salaries and provide outstanding health and retirement (pension) benefits. 

Despite this, our Village Board has not raised taxes for the last 4 budget years in a row (2006-2009).  We were able to do this through a disciplined focus on eliminating waste and unnecessary spending wherever we could.  Just last June, or mid-year 2009, we were looking at a projected budget shortfall of almost $3 million for the full-year 2009.  Some people on our board and staff thought we should just raise taxes.  Others - like me - believed we could find other ways, like cost-cutting, employee concessions, debt refinancing, and other moves.  I am proud to say that those who favored cost-cutting won out, and as a result we did not raise taxes to close that $3 million gap for 2009.

And just a few short months later, in October, we were told that we were again looking at a big budget deficit for 2010, in this case almost $2 million.  And again, some people on our board and staff thought we should just raise taxes.  Others - like me - believed we could again find other ways, just as we did over the summer.  I am again proud to report that those of us who favored not raising taxes for 2010 will likely prevail.

If you add that up, that was a potential $5 million in NEW taxes for the people of Oak Lawn, just in the last 6 months.  That’s what some board members felt was the proper course of action.  After all, some rationalized, every one else is raising taxes, so no one could really complain if we “were forced” to do so, too.  The problem with this logic is that I am not just a Trustee, but also a taxpayer in Oak Lawn.  So while it may be easier or politically more expedient to just raise taxes, like you, I don’t want to pay one more dollar in taxes than I have to.  And I don’t want my friends, extended family, neighbors, or in fact anyone in Oak Lawn to pay them either. 

Because of this, and because elected officials can have different opinions about these types of matters, differences and divisions frequently occur between board members.  The hope is always that these differences and divisions get left at the board table after votes are cast.  Unfortunately in the case of Oak Lawn, that hasn’t been the case lately.  Last July our board decided to change lawyers, and this caused a fracture among board members that, putting it mildly, is difficult to comprehend. 

Those of us who supported the change did so because legal fees and massive amounts of litigation were crippling our village, both financially and in terms of employee relations.  For example, in 2005 we paid about $500,000 in legal fees.  We changed to new attorneys in late 2005, and between 2006 and 2008 we paid close to $4 million in legal fees.  In 2008 alone we paid about $1.6 million.  And these are just the fees paid to lawyers – we probably paid another $1.5 million in judgments for suits that these lawyers lost.

Because of this, our board has voted to pursue legal action against our previous attorneys on several fronts, including improper billing, legal malpractice, and other legal remedies.  Since that decision the “fracture” on our board intensified, likely due to the close personal relationship that our Mayor has with these attorneys.  And since that time there has been a constant stream of allegations, mostly made via calls to newspapers, that “politics” were behind nearly every decision that board members made, regardless of how silly or mundane.  Schedule meetings on dates that aren’t convenient for someone?  It must be political! Suggest that we cut costs in departments that are clearly overstaffed or inefficient?  It must be political!

Over the weekend a local paper ran a story alleging “politics” was behind the suggestion – the mere suggestion - that our Village look at changing the Mayor’s secretary from a full-time position to a part-time position.  What the story didn’t talk about – despite my telling the reporter who called and emailed me for comment – was the dozen or so other suggestions on staffing that I and several other board members made during our budget process.  These suggestions ran the gamut from job elimination, outsourcing, changing jobs from FT to PT, but also included new hires, promotions, and even some raises.  And that's because these board members are making suggestions that focus on the management of our Village’s operations, not on individual people, personalities, or politics.

On the specific issue in the story, the possibility that the mayor’s secretary be made a part-time position, here are some of the points that were made in support of that idea: 
1.    The mayor’s position is part-time, yet he has a full-time secretary.
2.    Our Village Manager and Clerk are full-time, but they have to share a secretary
3.    Our 6 Trustees are generally served by the Manager’s/Clerk’s secretary.
4.    So we have one part-time elected official served by his own full-time secretary, but two full-time employees and 6 Trustees served by one full-time secretary.
And in an effort to keep the budget from being increased, the idea was to hire another part-time secretary, and make the Mayor’s secretary part-time.  So instead of 2 full-time secretaries, there would be one full-time and 2 part-time secretaries.  This would allow for better scheduling and coverage, several of us believed, and not result in a drop-off in support to the Mayor.  In fact, we researched several communities that have Oak Lawn’s form of government (Strong Manager) and no one has the kind of set-up that we currently have.  And somehow that’s “political”.

There was also an allegation in the news story that “Tom Phelan was leading the charge” to make the mayor’s secretary part-time.  This statement is blatantly false.  As Finance Director I compiled a list of questions, suggestions, and issues that several board members had about the budget and provided it to the Village Manager to review and provide feedback.  Obviously that document was meant for internal review and analysis, but someone decided to give it to a newspaper reporter.  And that reporter focused on one line-item out of almost 60 suggestions and questions.  And that one suggestion pertained to changing one job from full-time to part-time, which again, somehow was “political.”  The truth is, the people making this issue “political” are the ones alleging that it’s political. 

Also in the story, Village Manager Larry Deetjen was quoted as saying “I didn’t ask for extra help”. 
A person understandably asked why board members were suggesting that the mayor’s secretary position be changed to part-time if the Manager wasn’t asking for “extra” help.  The truth is none of the board members who made suggestions were suggesting “extra” help.  The suggestion was to change the current structure to make it more workable. 

In a letter sent to the Mayor and entire board - before the newspaper story this weekend - Village Manager Larry Deetjen stated “the structure of the workplace staffing in the Mayor, Manager and Clerk’s office is problematic.”  He also stated that “changes could be made to improve our service delivery.”  Several board members responded to this by suggesting that 2 full-time secretaries get converted to 1 full-time and 2 part-time secretaries.  This isn’t “extra” help; it’s the same amount of help, but at about a $20,000 savings because the part-time positions don’t include benefits.  And somehow that’s “political”.

The fact that a newspaper would devote an entire story to the possibility of one staff person going from full-time to part-time is an insult to all the other Oak Lawn employees whose jobs will be affected, including those whose jobs will be eliminated or outsourced.  It’s also an insult to the millions of people who are unemployed in this country, the millions every day who are fearful of losing their jobs, the countless people losing their homes, and all the people who are struggling to simply hang on and scrape by.

I wish I had a magic wand that could make $5 million in potential tax increases disappear without negatively affecting even one person.  I also wish that everyone in this world who wanted to work could get a job, and that their job paid them more than enough to live comfortably and provide for their families.  Unfortunately, I have to deal with real-world events and issues, as do all of you. 

My approach to these real-world problems is to constantly look at ways to be more efficient.  
Thankfully a majority of Oak Lawn board members share my view; otherwise we’d be at least $5 million poorer as taxpayers in the last 6 months alone.  This in addition to the fact that in 2005 Oak Lawn had 50 more employees than we have now.  Many of them retired, some were offered incentives to leave, and still other positions were eliminated.  That’s 50 fewer people that you and I - as taxpayers – have to pay the salaries, benefits and pension obligations for, which account for 75% of our operating budget. 

In the end, I understand and actually share the frustration that many Oak Lawn residents probably have as far as what’s been happening on our Village Board.   Whatever problems or “politics” that exist between board members, I believe that these should never stand in the way of making the right decisions for the taxpayers.  Unless, of course, board members purposely inject politics into the mix, which has been happening frequently lately, including in the newspaper story yesterday.

I also believe we are at a critical point in our country as far as government spending, waste and bureaucracy goes.  And if more people don’t stand up and do something about it – and do it quickly – the consequences for many people will be very grim.  That responsibility has never been more important than it is now, with the economy struggling and people scrambling to stay afloat.

Thank you for taking the time to read this information, which I’m hoping provides some counter-weight to what often times become “whisper campaigns” of slander and negativity.  It’s difficult enough to make judgments and decisions on matters like these without baseless allegations that it’s being done for political reasons.  Finding $5 million in savings and cost reductions certainly wasn’t the easy thing to do, and it certainly wasn’t political - it was just simply the right thing to do. 

Tom Phelan

(Published in his community email newsletter Monday Dec. 14, 2009)

1 comment:

Golfer 1029 said...

If part time employees do not receive benefits, why are the Trustees offered health insurance? Are they not part time?