By Mark Weyermuller -
People that follow me know that I attend a fair amount of political functions, community gatherings, and local government board meetings. Recently here in Wilmette we have turned back the tidal wave of lakefront spending. I believe this is happening because Illinois is in the midst of reform.
Like many communities on the North Shore, Wilmette taxpayers have been saddled with debt taken on to finance capital projects. Fueled by aggressive bond salesmen, low interest rates, and sketchy demands for more public ownership of the recreation industry, Wilmette taxpayers were approaching $1350 per household debt, for their Park District, alone. As a comparison, Chicago taxpayers carry approximately $790 per household Park District debt, or around 60% of the debt per capita with which Wilmette taxpayers are burdened.
A March 2015 referendum proposed spending $14.5 million of a new bond issues, and committed several more million in reserves on a Lakefront improvement plan. This was on top of recent spending of $2.5 Million on a Wilmette Golf Course redesign and a new $1.2 Million Paddle Tennis facility. By a quirky Wilmette law, capital spending under $3 Million does not require voter approval, thus the combined golf and tennis projects had limited voter input. However, the Lakefront Referendum passed the limit, and a spirited campaign developed to defeat the spending.
On the pro-Lakefront Plan referendum side, an odd coalition developed of 'environmental' proponents and free-spenders claiming that a concrete beach was somehow environmentally friendly, and that Wilmette should spend now, because of the difficulty of raising taxes in the future. All the incumbent Park District Board members took an enthusiastic tax and spend position, as well as a allocating head scratching $750,000 to develop a plan to spend the taxpayer's money, regardless of the outcome of the referendum voting.
Two new candidates for Park District Board came forward offering to reconsider any Lakefront plan, and to be very careful with the taxpayers money. Stephanie Foster, a former NCAA athlete and professional coach noted "I know how expensive it is to run a sports program and I am also a taxpayer. I want some value for anything we would invest in Wilmette Parks. This plan had some good ideas and some not so good ideas. I don't think we should stick taxpayers with longterm debt unless there is a very good reason."
Ryrie Pellaton, another new candidate, tirelessly worked to listen to the community before making his decision.
"I walked door to door, from Edens Plaza to the Metra Station to the L station and got a real feel for what the voters were looking," he said. "Aesthetics were important, and this plan did not look good. But even more important was stewardship. The general consensus was, no additional spending Did we really want to be have a high tax level without the consent of the taxpayers."
Wilmette voters overwhelmingly defeated the new spending plans, and made Foster and Pellaton the top votegetters on the Park District Board. The incumbent board President resigned, and the project was put back into study, rather than implementation. The results were unheard of in Wilmette, with an 8.5% drop in property tax levies in the Village, or a $730,000 reduction in overall taxes, or approximately $75 per household. Debt was retired, bills were paid, and lakefront recreation went on much the same way as it has for the last 60 years in Wilmette, albeit without air-conditioned Lifeguard houses.
In January 2016, a last gasp attempt was made to further develop the Lakefront, with a plan to acquire the privately leased Sheridan Shores Yacht Club. A determinedly rustic Yacht Club, Sheridan Shores had been serving the general public for more than 70 years, without requiring taxpayer money. The Board President made the assertion that this was an ideal time for the Park District to control more land (is there ever a bad time to build a bigger empire?) Another Board Member, who supported the referendum stated that 'since we reduced property taxes 8.5%., we can afford to takeover the Yacht Club'. Neither made their case very well as to why the Park District needed to have a monopoly on the recreation facilities in Wilmette, and the takeover proposal was voted down 5-2, saving taxpayers an estimated $5 Million.
Tallying this up, Wilmette taxpayers have been spared around $20 Million in spending over the last year. The amount of effort that has went into this has been disproportionate to narrow benefit that a few activist taxapayers could ever receive from the slight decrease in taxes. However, the out of control tax an spend environment has changed. New candidates have come forward. A local unit of government has shown itself to represent all the resident taxpayers of the community rather than being a captured vehicle for bond dealers and construction firms. It's a solid step in the right direction towards better government
There are good things happening here in Wilmette. I try to do my part, but there are many people often behind the scenes working to help the residents and the tax payers. Please join me at a local board meeting sometime, they can be fun.