November 26th, 2019 12:00 AM
During the lengthy 2020 Oak Park village government budgeting process, agencies clamor for further funding while taxpayers cry out for lower taxes. As the village board prepares to decide where to cut corners and how to contain spending increases to a promised three percent, two popular projects have edged their way into the discussion, with one potentially at risk of losing funding and the other possibly being elevated on the list of capital improvement priorities.
At a Nov.11 board meeting, Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb repeated that he didn't believe the village should manage the Oak Park Farmers' Market, suggesting a non-profit should take over.
"I also suggested that the village of Oak Park should not be running the farmers' market any more than the park district should be in the business of opening a community center," he said at the meeting.
The 45-year-old open-air farmers' market runs every Saturday May through October and falls under the purview of the village's department of public health. The market is a popular destination due to its selection of locally grown produce, the bluegrass band and freshly made doughnuts.
The net cost to the village government of running the market according to the 2020 budget proposal is $24,552. Total expenses of $54,000 are projected against revenue targets of $29,500.
"I can't think of a worse idea," said Trustee Simone Boutet. "I think this is front page news: 'Village board proposes defunding the farmers' market.'"
Boutet said the financial, staff and time commitment to run the market are relatively small, while the community impact of the market is great. She also noted that there weren't any non-profits available to take over management.
"I just don't understand the initiative of this at all, and I don't support defunding it," Boutet said.
"I don't know how this was so misunderstood and misrepresented that we're going to defund the farmers' market and just get rid of them," said Abu-Taleb. "Nobody said that. I'm not saying that. I won't say it and I don't think it, but if there's a more efficient way to run it through a non-profit organization, why not look at it?"
A decision has yet to be made, but public health director Michael Charley doesn't believe the market is at risk of losing its village funding.
"I think the board isn't interested in not funding the market," Charley said. "I think the farmers' market is an important part of the village and trustees are supporting it at this point."
James Robinson-Parran, a farmers' market commissioner, doesn't share Charley's confidence about the village's support, calling on the board to continue its funding at a Nov. 18 meeting.
"I know times are tough. I know you have to find the money somewhere," Robinson-Parran said. "I just want to come before you, at roughly 50 cents per resident, to implore you to look elsewhere."
When asked if his stance has changed, Charley wrote in a follow-up email to Wednesday Journal, "In general, staff feel that the board is done discussing the Farmers' Market organization for now."
A pared down version of the Greenways project also gained board traction at the Nov. 11 meeting. That support was reaffirmed at Monday's village budget hearing where specific funding sources were identified.
Trustee Susan Buchanan has voiced her support for the $200,000 effort to make Oak Park friendlier to pedestrians and bicyclists alike.
"I'm an avid bicyclist and I'm very well aware of the safety issues, so I'm really all for spending the money, especially around the high school where it's really chaotic and dangerous," said Buchanan.
Throughout the budget process, multiple residents pleaded with the board not to wait until the next budget cycle to implement the plan.
The Greenways project was put together in 2015 when the village enlisted Active Transportation Alliance, a non-profit organization, to help develop the plan. At that time, Burke was the non-profit's executive director.
"In Oak Park, we have some OK streets for biking and obviously even more for walking, but for the average person, riding a bike in a place like Oak Park, is very intimidating and that's mostly because of the car traffic," said Burke.
He also said in Oak Park "even walking can be intimidating sometimes" when pedestrians need to cross busy streets without traffic lights or stop signs.
"The Greenways plan helps us create this connected network of lower stress, lower traffic side streets to help create better places to walk and bike," said Burke.
As of Nov. 11, the Greenways plan bumped up from an "F", the lowest priority designation, to a "D" in the capital improvement plan of the 2020 recommended budget.
The board voted 4-3 on a motion to utilize plastic bag tax revenue to help fund the Greenways project in a Nov. 25 board meeting. The sustainability fund, the board decided, would cover the remaining cost, pending staff confirmation that there are no restrictions prohibiting its use in this purpose. Should restrictions ewxist, the board will have to look for alternative funding outlets.