During the 2009 and 2010 budget cycles, the village has been on a mission to be as fiscally responsible as possible and provide its services in as lean a way as possible.
That has meant making difficult choices (elimination of the entire Counseling and Social Service department; elimination of police officers; elimination of the DARE Substance Abuse Prevention Program; elimination of Heritage Fest, the Ice Sculpture Festival and the bike race; along with many other reductions including the elimination of donations to local arts and not-for-profit organizations) to stay focused on providing those basic and critical village services (police, fire, public works and infrastructure) all residents require. We are doing this during an increasingly difficult economy where almost all residents have felt the negative effects.
The Village of Downers Grove has four primary revenue sources; State of Illinois income tax redistribution, sales tax, utility taxes and property tax. Each of the first three are declining—sales tax receipts are anticipated to be at levels not seen since 1996.
Beyond some of the program and operational scope changes highlighted above, we are continuing to reduce staff levels as well; for example, in 1996 our village employed almost 400 people and the proposed 2011 budget includes 329. Yet, even with an 18 percent reduction in staff levels, our total property tax collections (the only revenue stream which is predictable and sustainable), will cover less than half the cost of police and fire service.
The budget challenges at all levels of government are causing difficulties in the lives of many of our residents. They are faced with daily challenges that will not go away just because public funding does. And at the same time, the burden of taxation is taking its toll on our residents as well.
At the Oct. 5 village council meeting, I presented the following idea under New Business. A majority of my colleagues have been supportive of the considering the concept and several share my optimism for the potential.
Historically, our Human Services Commission and Community Grants Commission have served us admirably. Here are the duty descriptions for these two Commissions as they appear today:
Community Grants Commission: To provide, on a discretionary basis, under the sole discretion of the Downers Grove Village Council, monetary grants to not-for-profit organizations to promote, conduct or sponsor community oriented activities that contribute to the quality of life for Village residents. The Mayor, subject to confirmation by the Village Council, appoints the seven members on this Board, who serve three-year terms and one student member who serves a one-year term.
Human Service Commission: To evaluate matters of social concern in the Village including issues related to youth, senior citizens, families, minorities and other social groups, and make recommendations to the Village Council concerning such issues. The Mayor, subject to confirmation by the Village Council, appoints the seven members on this Board, who serve three year terms.
But the work they have done in the past has been largely eliminated as a function of our community's inability to finance its core obligations. Over the last year or so, we have seen our community change (evolve perhaps?) to adapt to these new conditions, with some significant success.
The economy at large and the world around us are suggesting there's a "new normal" out there. I don't know that any of us know what that will look like, but the effects on government resources and the tolerance folks have for taxes is pretty clear; they're diminished and strained for any foreseeable future.
It is my contention that the very existence of these two groups, even with our recent changes, provides an opportunity for our village going forward and that the missions of these two groups, if "merged or adjusted" a bit, could be redefined in such a way as to fill a vital role in:
"promoting and encouraging communication and coordination of resources including, monetary grants to not-for-profit organizations to promote, conduct or sponsor community oriented activities that contribute to the quality of life for village residents touching on issues related to youth, senior citizens, families, minorities and those in need ."
If we reflect on village council discussions over the last year and observations from our community there is evidence of a community with a big heart—and an opposition to increased taxation. My hope is to capitalize on that big heart, leverage the authority of the village and build an organization which is supported by the volunteerism and community spirit so prominent in Downers Grove while remaining sensitive to the load that increased taxation, an almost continuous certainty for core services alone, places on our residents.
Some of the ideas that I've considered include:
- Community Volunteer Network
- Not-for-profit Resources Network Sharing
- Public and Private Grant Application and Pursuit
- Community Human Services Portal Through the VoDG Website
- Multi-Network/Format Communication (VoDG, D58, D99) For Resource Awareness
- Fund Solicitation Through Existing VoDG Communication Vehicles
- Community Wide Service Events
- Serve as a Clearing House/Coordination of Social Services
There are examples of these activities going on, to some extent, all around us. Rain barrels and recycling extravaganzas have produced volunteer armies, many churches have senior well-being checks and youth programs, several organizations have food pantries or conduct events to collect food stores, many of our residents assist the PADS program, Walk-in-Ministry or the like, and when local families have been struck by catastrophe, our community at large has rallied to help.
The list of ideas is by no means meant to be complete or exclusive. This is a concept which is very much still evolving. But I do believe we can provide real help to our residents without magnifying the all too real financial difficulties of our village government or increasing the property tax burden on our residents to pay for non-core services. Or, as one resident recently put it, "we should be working to encourage those who can donate to do so, not taking from those who can't afford it."
I have discussed some of these ideas with the three folks I am recommending for appointment to the Human Services Commission whose names are to be considered at our Nov. 2 council meeting. After the full Human Service Commission is constituted, I'll meet with them and together we'll ask the question, "how can we leverage the brand, existing infrastructure, existing communications methods and authority of the VoDG to help our residents ? Can we become a Community Services Coordinator/Clearing House of sorts ?"
I have high hopes for the long term future potential of HSC contributions to the VoDG and I am looking forward to working with our commission volunteers to make a positive impact on the live of our residents.
Bob Barnett, Downers Grove Village Commissioner