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Oak Lawn guarantees police and fire pension funding

  • Written by By Dermot Connolly

The Oak Lawn Village Board has adopted a formal funding policy for the police and fire pension funds, guaranteeing that a set amount of money, increasing annually, will be budgeted for the pension funds over the next 10 years.

Finance director Brian Hanigan, who drew up the policy with his management team, detailed the situation regarding the pension funds at the April 26 board meeting, He and village actuary Todd Schroeder explained why they felt a formal funding policy was needed to meet the village’s long-term obligations, and the six trustees approved the plan at Tuesday’s meeting without much discussion.

Schroeder credited the board with increasing pension funding from $1.4 million in 2011, to the $6 million budgeted for 2016. This represents a 350 percent increase for the police pension and 461 percent for the fire department.

However, Hanigan said that as of Dec. 31, 2015, the pensions were still underfunded, at 54 percent for police and 56 percent for fire.

At the current funding level, Hanigan said Oak Lawn households are each paying   $275 annually toward the pensions. But he said complying with the anticipated state law that both pensions be funded at a 90 percent level by 2040 would require an additional $200 per household per year over the next 25 years.

The formal funding policy adopted Tuesday calls for the funding to be increased by $1 million each year ($500,000 per fund) until reaching $26 million in 2026. Funding would level off thereafter.

He said the pension costs could take 22 or 23 percent of the general fund. But the finance director suggested that much of that additional cost could come from the tax levy, without tax increases, if the village board is conservative with its spending elsewhere.

“We’re trying to keep the tax levy constant during this period,” said Schroeder at the April meeting. “Adopting a standard payment schedule will pay down the village debt overall, but not doing so could cost $126 million to our balance sheet.”

“Cash flow out is going to be constant. So the cash flow in is an important consideration,” said Schroeder.

“There needs to be a committed effort to pay down the debt,” said Hanigan. He warned that failing to adopt a formal funding policy so would also endanger the village’s current A+ bond rating.

Although Mayor Sandra Bury said on Tuesday that the bond rating would be threatened if the policy had not been adopted, she and several trustees said the village’s contractual agreement to fund the pensions for the first responders was most important.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Bury after the meeting. “These first responders who risk their lives every day deserve to know their pensions are secure.”

Earlier in the meeting, before the pension issue came up, Fire Chief George Sheets presented several dozen police and firefighters with certificates of commendation for their roles in saving the lives of two people in the village in recent months.

One of those they helped was Tony Calderone, the owner of Palermo’s restaurant, who suffered a major heart attack while at the restaurant at 4845 W. 95th St.

Sheets noted that the person who initially called 911 thought he was choking, and praised the 911 operator who recognized what was happening and upgraded the call.

Sheets said Calderone was found “not breathing and pulseless,” but regained consciousness when a defibrillator was applied before being taken to Christ Hospital.

Calderone was back at work a few weeks later and was at the meeting to thank the first responders himself.

“I have always had respect for you guys. But I have a newfound appreciation for what you do,” said Calderone. “Now every time I hear an ambulance on 95th Street, which is a lot, I make a sign of the cross.”

“Thank you for saving pizza in Oak Lawn,” added Trustee Terry Vorderer (4th), injecting some levity into the conversation.

The other person the first responders were honored for saving was Tyler Bishop, an Oak Lawn High School student who suffered a seizure while at school. He was there too, in a wheelchair, but making progress toward a full recovery. The high school staff who provided CPR and used a defibrillator were also honored.

“This funding policy is a good attempt at making sure these men and women have the pensions they deserve. It is finally put on paper,” said Vorderer.

“We’ve seen here what these men and women do every day. We made this contractual agreement with these folks. This is an attempt to make sure we fund police and fire pensions properly,” said Trustee Bud Stalker (5th). “I agree with what we did, but we also have to make sure we cut expenses in administration and other areas where we can. We don’t want to have to raise residents’ tax bills.”

“So we have a lot more work to do, and we will continue to do it,” added Stalker.

Palos Hills tightens rules on chicken coops

  • Written by By Michael Gilbert

Palos Hills is on the verge of adding a bit more meat to its chicken ordinance.

City officials voted 8-0 on May 5 to direct City Attorney George Pappas to draft an amendment to the city’s chicken ordinance imposing rules and regulations for chicken coops and runs. Ald. Ricky Moore (4th Ward) and Dawn Nowak (5th Ward) were absent.

Palos Hills officials could vote on the amendments as soon as the May 19 council meeting, but delaying the vote until next month is also possible, Ald. Joan Knox (1st Ward) said.

If the amendments are approved, no chicken shall be permitted to roam at large and instead must be kept in a coop or run. The coop and run must also be located in the rear of the yard at least 25 feet from the property line and at least 25 feet from another house. In addition, the coup shall provide a minimum of four square feet of floor area per chicken and the run provide a minimum of eight square feet of floor area per chicken.

Knox credited new animal control ordinance officer Beverly Williams with strengthening up the chicken ordinance.

“Our new (animal control) ordinance officer came on board in January and said there are a couple places she is lacking direction as far as chicken coop size and setback from yards and side yards,” Knox said when asked the impetus for the likely additions to the ordinance. “She brought that to our attention and said we can tighten it up and she brought some information to us that was really good.”

According to the proposed amendments, the coop must be built to provide ventilation, shade, protection from precipitation and cold weather and be secure from predators, wild birds and rodents. Furthermore, the coop and run must be kept clean and dry at all times and manure and uneaten food be removed regularly.

Palos Hills is also asking all residents who house chickens to fill out a registration form with city. Unlike the $5 license fee for each dog, cat, horse and ferret, there is no charge for keeping chickens, according to Ald. AJ Pasek (3rd Ward).

Last year the city amended its chicken ordinance to limit the number of chickens one could keep to four – the city previously did not have a restriction – and also prohibit any resident from owning a rooster. Pasek said the city has no intention of changing that part of the ordinance in the near future. The city grandfathered those residents with more than four chickens but made it clear they were not allowed to replace a deceased chicken if they had more than four.

“I know a person in town who has six (chickens) and I already talked to her and told her that when one dies you can’t replace it,” Pasek said. “We don’t have too many people in town with more than the limit (of four).”

Those found to have more than four chickens without the grandfather clause are subject to a fine of $80 per day, Williams said.

In other news, the council presented retiring Water and Sewer division Chief Joe Slisz with a plaque to commemorate his 43 years with the city.

Slize’s final day with the city was May 5.

“Joe, we are going to miss you,” Ald. Pauline Stratton (2nd Ward) said. “(You are) a dedicated employee and very knowledgeable. Best wishes to a long and happy retirement.”

Ald. Marty Kleefisch (1st Ward) praised Slisz for the work he did, especially in unfavorable conditions.

“When my wife and I are driving out of the city sometimes we see our public works crews doing all types of different jobs and quite often in very bad weather,” Kleefisch said. “But you did it to keep us up and running and we need to say ‘thank you.’”

Slize had worked for Palos Hills since May 4, 1973.

“I had a great bunch of guys and people in administration above and under me,” Slisz said. “They will all be very much missed.”

Also at the meeting, Pasek told the council and a handful of residents in attendance that the popular hot dog-eating contest will return to the city’s annual Friendship Festival.

The contest, which was a big success in its inaugural year in 2015, is slated to be held at approximately 7 p.m. on Sunday, July 10.

Pasek also said he hopes to add two pie-eating contests – one for youngsters and one for adults – to this year’s fest lineup.

The details of all three contests are still being finalized and Pasek said he hopes to have information on registration within the next month.

Walking tour to explore Oak Lawn’s history

  • Written by By Kelly White

When is the last time you walked around the Oak Lawn community and really took in all it has to offer?

Oak Lawn residents can go on a Historic Walking Tour of Oak Lawn on weekends during the month of May through the Oak Lawn Public Library, 9427 S. Raymond Ave. Kevin Korst, the Local History Coordinator at the library, is responsible for researching, developing and organizing the walking tour.

The scheduled tours will be offered from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Saturdays, May 14 and 21, and 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sundays, May 15 and 22, through the heart of Oak Lawn. Participants will be walking on uneven sidewalks and crossing several busy intersections and are encouraged to dress comfortably, wearing walking shoes. Each tour will begin promptly at 10 a.m. from the Village Green, just north of the library.

“This is the first time we are organizing a tour of this nature,” Korst said. “This tour will offer residents an opportunity to explore Oak Lawn’s history and see what remains of its early structures and buildings.”

The tour will focus on the area of Oak Lawn that surrounds the library and Village Municipal Center. The route stretches from approximately 52nd Avenue to East Shore Drive and Oak Street to 96th Street. It is 1.6 miles in length and will take around 90 minutes to complete.

Highlights of the tour will include some of the older homes, schools, churches and businesses that neighbor the library and Village Municipal Center.

“There is a common misconception that few if any older structures are left in Oak Lawn,” Korst said. “By taking people through the heart of the community and focusing on historic homes, churches, businesses and schools we hope to dispel that idea.”

There will be a number of structures featured, some still standing and others gone. These include the Keyhole House, 5400 W. 96th St., built in 1893, an example of an early home in the village; the O’Brien House, 9400 S. 53rd Court, built in 1893, an example of an early home in the village; former First Congregational Church, 9424 S. 54th Ave., built in 1892, the oldest remaining church structure in Oak Lawn; and the Johnson-Phelps VFW Hall, 9514 S. 52nd Ave., built in 1951, which was used as a temporary morgue after the 1967 Tornado.

“It is also important to discuss the people and events connected with these structures, as well as describe what buildings no longer exist, such as the former Cook Avenue School, and how dramatically Oak Lawn has changed since its founding in 1909,” Korst said.

Korst’s love for history developed at a young age.

“Since grade school history has always been my favorite area of study,” Korst said. “I followed that passion into college and graduate school and have worked at several different museums as well as the Oak Lawn Public Library. I was hired as the Local History Coordinator in early 2008 and quickly became fascinated with Oak Lawn’s history. Many aspects of the community interest me including its agricultural past, population explosion following World War II, the Round-Up Days celebration of the 1950s, 1967 Tornado and its redevelopment that began in the late 1980s.”

Phone registration is underway. More information can be obtained by calling (708) 422-4990 or visit www.olpl.org.

Rush joins President Obama on trip to Cuba

  • Written by By Dermot Connolly

Cong. Bobby Rush (D-1st) was among the congressional contingent who accompanied President Obama on his historic trip to Cuba in March.

The three-day trip was possible after the two countries began the process in 2014 of normalizing the relationship that was severed following the 1959 communist revolution led by Fidel Castro.

Obama is the first sitting president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge

“Since my most recent official visit to Cuba in April 2009, I have seen the vibrancy of the Cuban people and, by lifting this embargo, the United States will be in a better position to ensure their human rights are protected,” said Rush in a statement.

For that 2009 trip, Rush joined six other members of the Congressional Black Caucus on a mission to seek expanded trade opportunities for American businesses. Rush was a cosponsor of H. R. 874, “The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2009,” that would end the ban on travel by Americans to Cuba.

Rush was one of three U.S. officials to meet with former Cuban President Fidel Castro and current President Raúl Castro.

About two dozen congressmen, including five Republicans, accompanied Obama on the trip in March. Others including retired New York Yankee baseball player Derek Jeter also made the trip, in which Obama met with Raul Castro. The two leaders and their families also watched a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I applaud President Obama for his decision to begin the process of restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba. This process has been a long time coming and I look forward to its successful completion,” said Rush.

The congressman said he has introduced legislation several times to normalize relations with Cuba.

“I look forward to working with the president and my colleagues to ensure that whatever legislative changes are necessary can be accomplished,” said Rush.

“I would also like to note the significance of the State Department review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. It has long been my belief that this designation should be removed and I applaud the president helping bring this to fruition,” he continued.

“Ensuring the maintenance of human rights in Cuba, as in the rest of the world, is of the utmost importance to me and, as I said before, the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will not only simplify the maintenance of these standards on a bilateral basis but will allow us to work with our international partners to expand them.

“Once again, I congratulate President Obama and the American and Cuban peoples on the blossoming of a new, stronger, relationship.”

Celebrating Alan B. Shepard’s launch into space 55 years ago

  • Written by By Kelly White

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. He flew on a Mercury spacecraft with just enough room for one person. He named his capsule Freedom 7.

Honoring the 55th anniversary of this memorial event, Shepard High School Junior Reserve Officer's Training Corps (JROTC) and art club students worked together to create a mural depicting Shepard’s historic flight. The high school is named in honor of the astronaut.

“Shepard’s first flight only lasted 15 minutes, but it put on display the traits that made him a legend. As he trained for his flight, he saw countless rockets blow up on the launch pad,” said Major Daniel Johnson, of Shepard’s JROTC. “There was no guarantee that he would safely return from this mission, but he set aside any fears he had, and bravely stepped into the capsule that day. He put his confidence in the team of professionals who held his life in their hands, and they delivered as promised.”

“Working on this project as a group has brought us together and built lasting memories and friendships forever,” said Worth resident Emily Seman, an art club member.

The two organizations have been working on the mural, which stands 80 feet high and 12 feet long, for a year and a half. The mural’s unveiling was held at the high school, 13049 S Ridgeland Ave., Palos Heights, last Thursday afternoon, the anniversary of Shepard’s flight.

The huge mural has consumed a lot of time and effort, but the students have learned a great deal about collaborative efforts,” said Brenda Rentfro, Shepard’s art club sponsor. “This is the most important part of art club. Since creating art is often a solitary activity, it is vital for young artists to understand how to support and learn from each other.”

There are 25 students making up Shepard’s art club and 125 JROTC students. The JROTC aided in the design process and supplied painting materials.

“This has been a long process, but it has been very rewarding,” said Johnson. “I've received many positive comments from staff and students who appreciate the work of art. It really has taken away the sterile, institutional feel of this part of the school.”

JROTC is a military regulated high school program whose purpose is to educate high school students in leadership roles while making them aware of the benefits of citizenship. The mission of JROTC is to motivate young people to become better American citizens.

“From the JROTC standpoint, I enjoy being able to point out specific planes as we talk about them in the classroom,” Johnson said.

“The mural looks really cool,” said JROTC member Andrew Kuntz, of Palos Heights. “I like how you can see aviation throughout the history.”

The mural is a depiction of the history of aviation, beginning with the Wright Flyer (December 1903) up to the F-22 Raptor (current top of the line fighter plane). The mural also includes Eugene Bullard, the first African American pilot from World War I; Bessie Coleman, a legendary Chicago aviatrix and the first African American woman to fly a plane; and Major Richard Bong’s P-38 Lightning from World War II. Bong was the Ace of Aces in WWII, with 40 confirmed Japanese airplanes shot down.

The red-tailed P-51s of the Tuskegee Airmen, escorting a B-17 during World War II; the F-86, a legend during the Korean War; Shepard’s rocket and capsule; A U-2 aircraft that played a pivotal role in averting the Cuban Missile Crisis and is still in use today; and the B-52 Bomber, from Vietnam to present day, still a mainstayof the Air Force are included in the mural.

As the two organizations were putting the mural together they realized that from their standpoint (112 years after the Wright Brothers), Shepard's first space flight would fall right in the middle of that timeline. After this realization, students then, in the center of the mural, depicted the Redstone Rocket going up and Shepard's capsule returning to Earth. The rest of the planes depict various eras and famous pilots or aircraft from history, according to Rentfro.

Located outside of the JROTC classrooms, in a common hallway in the high school, Rentfro said strategic design was very important when deciding how to paint.

“What makes this particular mural unique is that it is physically huge,” she said. “It is also in an athletic area, where various equipment will bump and scrape the wall sometimes. We tried to make the lower half complex enough to make any damage hard to notice.”

The art club was supplied with paint, critiques, and moral support by the JROTC staff and students, Rentfro said.

“All of the unavoidable frustrations were made smaller by their interest in the project,” Rentfro said. “It is rare for non-artists to understand the amount of time and effort we put into our work. A formal dedication is an honor as large as the project itself.”

“Working on the mural allowed me to expand my art experience, make great friends, and have memories to look back on,” said Crestwood resident Lily Fisher, an art club member. “It also gave me the chance to leave a part of me for the school.”