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Rep. Flowers rips Rauner over flap with Madigan

  • Written by By Joe Boyle

Gov. Rauner fired off yet another round of complaints at House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-22nd), blaming him for the budget stalemate that is now in its 10th month.

However, one local legislator is tired of hearing the governor targeting Madigan as the main culprit behind the budget impasse.

“The governor's voice is lurking in the newspapers and on TV,” said state Rep. Mary Flowers (D-31st), whose district includes Oak Lawn. “He complains about the Democrats and the Speaker instead of negotiating.

“If the governor keeps moving the goal posts, we can't get anything done,” added Flowers. “The governor is trying to destroy education. How are we supposed to get along? How are we supposed to work together? This is not a dictatorship.”

Legislators went back to work last week where some bills were initiated. During the recess, Rauner said that Madigan has not contacted him or attempted to offer any proposals to end the budget stalemate. Following Rauner’s criticisms of Madigan, Senate Democrats introduced a school funding bill on April 6 that would redistribute funds from wealthier districts to poorer communities. The measure would take place over four years.

Rauner has not ruled against the most recent measure that was introduced by state Sen Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill). The governor said that the state’s current funding relies too much on local property taxes to fund schools. He said that state money should be provided evenly for lower-income districts and rural areas.

Manar’s plan is supposed to cost about $600 million. During the first year, $400 million will be provided to make sure that school districts don’t lose money. Manar’s bill would offer $200 million for the state to pay Chicago teacher pensions.

The bill is actually an amendment to Senate Bill 231. The language is based on a bipartisan report two years ago. While Rauner has not ruled against Manar’s bill, the $3.8 billion funding bill passed by Senate Democrats last month has not persuaded the governor. Republicans were also not in agreement. Democrats used their majority to pass the bill by a 39-18 margin. The vote had already cleared the House.

The proposal would allow for about $1.9 billion to colleges and universities that have not received funding since this budget lockdown started. Before the vote, Republicans called the bill irrelevant because it provides no funding to be put in the bill.

State Senate Republicans are calling on Democrats to support the governor’s proposal to fund elementary and secondary education. Senate Leader Christine Radogno (R-41st) said Rauner’s proposed increase of $55 million will meet the recommended per-student spending of just over $6,000 annually. The unveiled $1.3 billion budget spending plan introduced on April 7 would provide services and other programs to those who have struggled during this budget deadlock, according to Radogno.

But Radogno said the reforms would affect the retirement funds for teachers at local high school districts and public universities. Rauner’s plan would cease salary hikes for school officials who are near retirement. Pension costs of employees making more than $180,000 to a local school district would be deferred. Radogno said that the extra cost would have to be picked up by the universities.

Radogno discussed the budget impasse during a speech recently to the City Club of Chicago. A budget without the governor’s agenda, a budget passed only by Democrats, or no budget at all is not acceptable, according to Radogno. But she added that Democrats have to get on board.

“The only out for Illinois is option four, and that is real engagement from the Democrats, even though that means the status quo is going to change,” Radogno said.

While some Democratic and Republican legislators have been talking, Flowers said that the governor’s insistence on all aspects of this “turnaround agenda” bring negotiations to a halt.

“If we ever do get together, Rauner is going to protect his friends,” said Flowers. “Until everybody truly has some skin in the game, nothing is going to happen.”

Flowers said instead the governor, with the assistance of Democrats and Republicans, should be providing more jobs and coming up with innovative ways to provide health care for residents of all ages. The local legislator said it is time for the governor to get serious in negotiations.

“The vast majority of my political life I have worked for Republican governors,” said Flowers, who was elected in 1984 and began serving in 1985. “This governor has no institutional history. He is going by sound bites. Let’s move forward, governor. I’m going to stay the course. When the governor wants to talk to us, we will listen.”

Local Catholic pastors come to terms with lower enrollments, less priests

  • Written by By Joe Boyle

Archbishop Blase Cupich has raised concerns among Catholics about the future of local parishes in the Chicago Archdiocese due to lower enrollments and fewer priests.

But several southwest suburban pastors said that they don't foresee any church closings. However, changes are imminent, the pastors said.

“We had three meetings (with the archbishop),” said the Rev. Lawrence Malcom, pastor of St. Gerald Parish, 9310 S. 55th Court, Oak Lawn. “By 2030 there will only be 260 priests for the archdiocese. We have 370 parishes in the archdiocese. So, in the future, the archdiocese is talking about closing some schools while merging others.”

Malcom does not believe changes will be occurring soon to parishes in Oak Lawn, for instance. He said there is a list of 70 parishes in the archdiocese in which school enrollments are low. Schools with an enrollment of under 200, or under 225 if they offer kindergarten, will be considered for future closings if those numbers do not substantially improve.

The St. Gerald pastor is pleased with the numbers at his parish. School enrollment at St. Gerald is currently at 385.

“It has been steady,” said Malcom. “What's going on here now is that we are having more baptisms. We are having more baptisms than funerals. This is the oldest section of Oak Lawn, so I think a lot of families are coming here because homes are more affordable.”

The Rev. James Hyland, pastor of Most Holy Redeemer Parish, 9525 S. Lawndale Ave., Evergreen Park, said that he has also spoken to the archbishop. The parish has to address some issues in the future, he said.

“Do we have financial challenges facing us? Well, yes,” said Hyland. “Enrollment figures are down a bit.”

Hyland does not believe any churches in the area are in danger of closing. But Hyland, who has been at Holy Redeemer the past seven years, said that some parishes in the future may share resources.

“What you might see is more consolidation of programs,” said Hyland. “You could see an area RICA program, for example. Perhaps a regional St. Vincent de Paul Society office could occur. I think you will see more sharing of resources. The parishes may work together more. Some schools in some areas may consolidate.

“But I think the biggest challenge is lower enrollments,” added Hyland. “That is something we have to work on.”

Susan Burritt, spokesperson for the archdiocese, said some changes will occur.

“Some churches will close,” said Burritt. “But that does not mean there will be sweeping changes at all parishes. It may be totally different for some areas of churches.”

Cupich is coming to the grips with sexual abuse claims and the physical state of older buildings, especially in Chicago. Many church pews are far from filled each week. Collections have dipped somewhat from 2014 when they had $215.9 million in 2014. The figures for annual collections for 2015 were $214.4 million, according to a recent archdiocese report.

The Rev. Michael Furlan, pastor of St. Germaine Parish, 9711 S. Kolin Ave., Oak Lawn, said that parish volunteers have been a tremendous asset. He said that there are two priests at St. Germaine and at the four other Oak Lawn parishes. Furlan said many of the priests are older.

“How long can we sustain having two priests at one parish? Some changes will have to take place,” said Furlan. “These are things that can be done with a little collaboration.”

Burritt said that finances are just one of the difficulties. The dwindling number of priests has to be addressed, she said. Furlan agrees but said some realignment could help soften the blow.

Furlan suggests that some priests could say a Mass at another parish. He added that close attention would have to be made to weekly schedules so there are no conflicts.

“Just looking at our parish, we have some of the same volunteers who are very dedicated,” said Furlan. “But we don’t want to burn them out. Maybe we can help by having parishioners from other churches help out here and we can assist others on occasion.”

Burritt said that nearly 250 parishes may need to be reconfigured in the next 14 years, she said.

“It’s more than just finances,” said Burritt. “The dwindling number of priests means that changes will have to take place.”

Images detail life along 95th Street in Oak Lawn over past century

  • Written by By Joe Boyle

Rick Sorley recalled some special memories as he viewed the opening of “Hitting The Road: An Historic Trip Down 95th Street” photo exhibit Saturday at the Oak Lawn Library.

Sorley looked over the photos at the exhibit on the library's second floor accompanied by his son, Rick III.

“I grew up in Oak Lawn and there are a lot of memories here,” said Sorley. “I was telling my son about the Branding Iron Restaurant. My dad proposed to my mom there.”

The photo exhibit features photos from Oak Lawn's past along 95th Street dating back to when the community was called Black Oak. Photos include the original Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church from 1891. Other photos feature the first Oak Lawn Village Hall from 1918; the Harnew Service Station, 5250 W. 95th St., from about 1930; Behrend's Hardware Store at the northwest corner of 95th and Raymond Avenue in about 1912; Premo's Ice Cream from 1987; and the Branding Iron, 4200 W. 95th St., from 1960. The Branding Iron, once a popular restaurant in Oak Lawn, closed in 1988.

Included in the display is the entrance of Kiddyland at 95th Street and Pulaski in 1950; the Coral Theater near 95th and Cicero in 1984, shortly before it was demolished; and Christ Community Hospital, which opened in 1961.

The project took about 16 months to complete, said Kevin Korst, local history coordinator at the Oak Lawn Library.

“We had a lot of help and so many of them contributed so many photos,” said Korst, who has written one book on Oak Lawn's history and another on the 1967 tornado that ravaged the village. “It took about three weeks to actually put it together.”

Over 100 photos can be viewed at the exhibit, which includes a video. One older image included a photo of Wilhelm and Wilhelmina Brandt posing near their tavern 5137 W. 95th St. Wilhelm operated a blacksmith shop. The Brandts were members of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Korst said an interesting period in Oak Lawn history was the development of the annual Round-Up Day Parades down 95th Street that began in 1949. The first parade was a modest affair that included a few bicycles, a couple of cars and about six merchants on horseback. The parade was part of a three-day event that was held in September that grew dramatically in the 1950s.

The event and parade eventually drew vast media coverage at the time, including live broadcasts by WGN-TV.

“Jack Brickhouse was the master of ceremonies one year,” said Korst. “The parade was about six miles long and I believe even went into parts of Evergreen Park. This event drew thousands of people from everywhere every year.”

The two-hour parade at its height featured over 500 horses, floats, marching units, horses and buggies, covered wagons, high school bands and a drum and bugle corps. The first parade was allegedly a result of the Oak Lawn Chamber of Commerce delving into the village's past in which it was once referred to as “Horse Thieves Hollow.”

The Round-Up Days derived from those stories that Korst said was more legend then fact. The first parades were held in conjunction with National Safety Day. Since there were several riding stables just west of the village, it was decided that riders and their horses from these stables were to participate in the parade. The event became a source of community pride with local businesses contributing to the event.

In 1953, one published report referred to the Crippled Creek Gold Mine, in which residents would try their luck “panning” for gold. Spectators would dig for “nuggets” that contained a prize or merchandise donated by members of the Oak Lawn shopping district.

The parade became a victim of its own success, said Korst. A Golden Jubilee parade was held in 1959 to mark the village's 50th year. The Round-Up Day events went on hiatus but the parade was discontinued in 1960.

“It was just becoming too complicated,” said Korst. “It was amazing how many people would show up for the parade. It just got too expensive and too big. Just imagine that at this time a community of 10 to 15,000 people held a parade that drew as many as 10,000 people. We have had many parades since, of course. The Round-Up Days just ran its course.”

Korst said the exhibit will be up for a year. It will be replaced by an exhibit focusing on the 50th anniversary of the Oak Lawn tornado. Another display will be set up for the 1967 blizzard that also occurred in 1967.

“We are going through interviews, written and audio, and hundreds of photos,” said Korst. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Palos Hills unanimously approves Greenest Region initiative

  • Written by By Michael Gilbert

The Palos Hills City Council did, in fact, convene on St. Patrick’s Day, but it was the meeting on April 7 that carried a green theme.

City officials voted unanimously to pass a resolution endorsing the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus’ Greenest Region Compact 2, an initiative by the organization to offer the Chicago region’s 273 municipalities a number of cost-effective sustainability measures. The goal of the two-page document is to enhance health and safety through the reduction of energy consumption and fossil fuels, air pollution and hazardous wastes. The Greenest Region Compact 2 also stresses the importance of water conservation.

Palos Hills was one of the first municipalities to adopt the original Metropolitan Mayors Caucus’ Greenest Region Compact back in 2007, and Mayor Gerald Bennett said the updated document includes more green measures that have been successfully implemented by the Caucus and its member communities.

“We should be very proud,” Bennett told the council. “There are many things listed (in the Greenest Region Compact 2) that we have done over the years.”

One green step Palos Hills has already taken is retrofitting the light fixtures in all city-owned buildings with LED lights. The bulbs are not only energy efficient but also save the city money compared to using standard incandescent bulbs, Bennett said.

He also noted Palos Hills has long been designated as a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation. Maintaining “maximum tree coverage” is one of the goals of the Greenest Region Compact as trees combat climate change, provide oxygen, conserve energy and save water.

A recent green initiative Palos Hills undertook was retrofitting the street lights of all city-owned side streets with LED bulbs, Bennett said. Grant money from ComEd paid for the project, he noted.

Palos Hills is also working with the Southwest Conference of Mayors and a third party to convert eight street lights not owned by the city along Southwest Highway with new LED bulbs and a “smart box,” a device fitted with a wireless network that can monitor security and track traffic volume. Electronic street signs could also be added to the light poles to display paid advertisements and important city information.

“It’s a project we’ve been working on for a while and we’re excited about it,” Bennett said of the smart boxes. “It would basically make the city wireless.”

The project would be completed at no cost to the city, he said. The third party company would pay for the project and retain a portion of the money made from the advertisements on the electronic street signs.

The free rain barrel program – another green undertaking – is off to a strong start with 22 residents requesting the 55-gallon barrels since the middle of March, Alderman Mark Brachman told the council.

The program, which is in conjunction with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, allows each residence to obtain a free rain barrel in an effort to reduce basement backups, sewer overflow and flooding. Those interested in a rain barrel must first fill out an application at City Hall, 10335 S. Roberts Road, and then the MWRD will deliver the barrel at a later date.

In other news, Bennett said representatives of the Baha Auto Group Inc. have begun the improvements to the 31,000-square foot building at 110th Street and Southwest Highway with the hopes of opening the new dealership “as soon as possible” – though an official opening date has not been set.

Musa Muza, the general manager of Baha Auto Group, previously told the council that although the building, which formerly housed Hames Buick, has not had a tenant in more than a decade remains in good shape. The parking lot, however, needs work and the site needs landscaping, he said.

The dealership is to sell “high end” used cars with a minimum price of around $10,000, Muza told the council.

Oak Lawn Board reverses decision on towing company

  • Written by By Dermot Connolly

The contract reprieve that Jack’s Towing Co. received from the Oak Lawn Village Board last month did not last long at all.

For more than 15 years, Jack’s, which operates from a village-owned site at 4500 Southwest Highway, has been the company used by the police department and the village whenever vehicles need to be removed from local roads.

Village Manager Larry Deetjen pointed out at the March 22 meeting that the unusually long 15-year contract awarded to Jack’s Towing in 2000 had run out last October. But his request for board approval to give the next contract to TechniCraft in Justice and Walsh’s Towing, based in Chicago Ridge, was rejected by the board, who voted 3-3, with Mayor Sandra Bury breaking the tie.

At that time, Trustee Tim Desmond (1st) joined Alex Olejniczak (2nd) and Bob Streit (3rd) in voting against the change, with Bury siding with them to break the tie. But on Tuesday, he asked that the board reconsider Deetjen’s request, and this time, with his vote to approve the new agreement, it passed, much to the disappointment of Jack’s owner and drivers in the audience. Jack’s only towing contract was with the village, so it is expected to go out of business.

Desmond said he asked for the issue to be put back on the agenda because questions remained after the last meeting. Furthermore, he noted that since that last meeting, Jack’s Towing had changed ownership, when Mike Queenan had sold it to his brother, Ron.

He also suggested that the board shouldn’t even have been asked to vote on the matter, since the taxpayer “neither pays nor gets paid for” the towing company used mainly by the police department. Trustees Bud Stalker (5th) and Michael Carberry (6th) agreed with him on that point, saying the decision probably should be left to the village administrator and the police department.

Although by all accounts Jack’s Towing had no complaints against it, Desmond questions why the company was given such a long contract in the first place.

“Fifteen years ago, the village board voted to allow a private company use of village property to operate a towing and village storage facility. They paid no rent or utilities over this 15-year period, which likely saved them more than $1 million, which could have gone to the taxpayers.”

Deetjen said the site where Jack’s is located is the gateway to the village, and the board had agreed that the land should be put up for sale.

He said the owner of Jack’s had been warned that the land could be sold.

“It is within eyesight of a half-billion dollars of investment in this village,” said Deetjen, referring to Advocate Christ Medical Center at 4440 W. 95th St., and suggesting that the Jack’s Towing site has increased in value.

Both Olejniczak and Streit questioned whether the village really lost $1 million in the deal made 15 years ago.

“Has the site been sold yet?,” asked Olejniczak, asserting that it is not as valuable as Deetjen maintains. In any case, he said that Jack’s Towing is being unfairly penalized now for that agreement.

After the meeting, Ed Forsythe, a longtime driver for Jack’s, said that reconsidering the previous decision was a shock and unfair to the company and its employees.

“It’s very unethical,” he said. “I gave up a job offer with another company because I thought the decision was made. Now I am unemployed again.”