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Fire chief will continue to wear hats in Chicago Ridge and Oak Lawn By Dermot Connolly George Sheets has been fire chief of both Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge for nearly two years now, and the arrangement has worked out so well that all talk of giving up one

  • Written by By Dermot Connolly

Fire chief will continue to wear hats in Chicago Ridge and Oak Lawn

By Dermot Connolly

George Sheets has been fire chief of both Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge for nearly two years now, and the arrangement has worked out so well that all talk of giving up one of the positions has gone by the wayside.

“This was a concept that had never been done before is done now,” said Sheets, who became Oak Lawn fire chief in 2009, and added Chicago Ridge in July 2014, following discussions between Mayors Sandra Bury of Oak Lawn and Chuck Tokar in Chicago Ridge. His salary is shared by the villages, saving Chicago Ridge about $65,000 annually

“Some people doubted it would work. But it has been a success story,” said Sheets during a wide-ranging interview on Monday, when he discussed the improvements made to the Chicago Ridge department while cutting costs as well.

Last summer he considered going back to Oak Lawn full-time, after he oversaw the opening of the second Chicago Ridge fire station on Lombard Avenue, and the successful implementation of the part-time firefighter program. But now, he said, with the encouragement of Tokar and the village trustees, he has decided to there is no need to change what isn’t broken.

“We’ve been able to increase personnel by 50 percent, while saving the village $350,000 over the past year in the operating budget,” he said. He said the refurbished Lombard Street station is staffed 12 hours a day by both part-time and full-time firefighters, with everyone going through the same training,

“I’m pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished here,” said Sheets.

‘It has worked out better than people thought. We’ve got labor-management harmony too,” he said.

He said putting out monthly reports and keeping everyone informed has worked well too.

“We’re always looking at safety and how can we reduce our costs and be more efficient,” he said.

“I’m not a micromanager. I expect excellence, but I let them do their jobs, and my door is always open for suggestions,” said the chief. This style has led to improved morale, according to many in the department.

There are now 21 full-time firefighter/paramedics, including three lieutenants, and 13 part-timers on staff. The village also has about a dozen paid on-call firefighters.

“It has been a great learning experience. We all work together and all these guys have been very helpful,” said Alec Kowalczyk, a part-time firefighter from Palos Heights, who hopes to become full-time eventually.

The success of the fire department’s advancements actually earned the village of Chicago Ridge the James Baird Leadership Award for 2015 from the Illinois Public Employer Labor Relations Association.

“The central theme of 2015 was transformational change,” said Sheets. He said that with the opening of the new fire station, a second ambulance was put in service, reducing response times by nearly two minutes. By consolidating three outdated apparatus and buying the $650,000 five-unit quint apparatus last year, he said the village actually saved more than $2 million in replacement costs.

“Any time you implement change, there is going to be concerns, But (with Sheets) there is no personal agenda and no political agenda,” said firefighter/paramedic Victor Kiman, explaining the friendly relationship between management and labor.

“Years ago, it was contentious. It seems to be really improved. The communication channels back and forth are always open. That helped a lot,” said Lt. Bob Eggert.

Hickory Hills Council donates funds to assist ill 6-year-old boy

  • Written by By Sharon L. Filkins

Based on action taken at the Hickory Hills Council meeting last Thursday, the city could be described as the “city with a heart.”

Two residents came to the council seeking solutions to problems such as neglected properties blighting a neighborhood and an apartment filled with second-hand smoke, causing the tenant health problems. In both cases, after listening to lengthy descriptions of the problems, Mayor Michael Howley sympathized with their complaints, offered possible solutions and stated that he was sorry for what they were going through.

But it was a third request to help a little boy with special needs that truly touched the hearts of the mayor and the council.

Howley’s voice choked with emotion as he read an email received from Hickory Hills resident Kelly Sindowski, mother of Harrison, a 6-year old suffering from epilepsy and recently diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome (LGS), a condition leaving him unable to speak or walk.

In her letter, she explained that the Epilepsy Foundation was conducting a 5K run on Saturday in Chicago at Montrose Harbor and that one of the runners was a young man named Michael (we don’t know his last name, she said), who was running for her son, Harrison. She was asking the council if it would consider a sponsorship for the runner.

“We have never met Michael, but he reached out to us last year and informed us that he has been running for Harrison in events across the country in an organization called “Who I Run 4.” It is an organization of young volunteers who select names of people they will represent in the runs and it is done without any personal compensation,” Sindowski said. “More information on Michael, or the organization, is available at Irun4Michael and www.whoirun4.com.

“It is the first time he will be in Chicago and we are very anxious to meet him and introduce him to Harrison. We want to thank him for all he is doing,” Sindowski said.

An emotional Howley recalled meeting Harrison at a number of city events.

“The Sindowski family attends our community events and Harrison is the greatest little guy. I talked with him some time ago and he was so excited to be there,” said Howley, his voice breaking.

The council unanimously approved a donation of $200 for the Epilepsy Foundation 5K run.

In other action, a budget for the Fiscal Year 2016-17 was approved and will be submitted to the village attorney for preparation of an ordinance.

Also approved was a salary increase for non-union employees and a list of appointments to the city’s committees and commissions for 2016.

The council adjourned to executive session to discuss contract updates for Police and Public Works.

Ald. Tom McAvoy (3rd Ward) was absent due to illness.

Evergreen Park police recover weapon used in several murders

  • Written by By Sharon L. Filkins

Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton opened the Monday board meeting with a special recognition of the village’s police department and commendations for five individual officers for exemplary service.

“We have recently been flooded with commendations for our police department and while it is not possible time-wise to enumerate all of them, there is often one that deserves our attention and these five young men were part of it,” said Sexton.

Police Chief Michael Saunders introduced Evergreen Park Officers David Sass, Kent Borden, Thomas Ostrowski, Thomas Lehnhardt and Sgt. Anthony Signorelli. Also recognized was Oak Lawn Police Officer Scott Peterson, who participated in the case.

Saunders related that during the midnight shift in April, Sass was on patrol and noticed a car driving in the opposite direction with unusually bright lights. Saunders said Sass’ instinct kicked in and felt that something didn’t seem right. Sass then turned around and went back to pull the car over.

The driver of the suspect car refused to stop and sped off. Sass called for back-up. After a short pursuit, the driver of the car stopped and the occupants jumped out and ran off. Two men were quickly apprehended. In checking out the car, a loaded weapon was found in the front passenger seat. It turns out that the weapon was found to be the one used in a murder the week before in Harvey. Later investigations indicated the weapon had been used in a number of other murders in Chicago.

“This is an example of doing our job,” said Saunders. “Our officers do the job because they are dedicated to their work. We have been fortunate in Evergreen Park that we do not have drive-by shootings and drug violence. We are doing our job, but we also have a lot of support from our residents.”

“Our residents can sleep comfortably at night because these officers are on the street. We owe you a lot,” said Sexton. “You have our back and we have yours. Thank you for all you do.”

Trustee Mary Keane also thanked the officers. Her voice breaking with emotion, she said, “Thank you for all the sacrifices you make to keep our families safe here in our village.”

In other matters, the board approved a request from Mike McGrath, owner of Porter Cullens, at 3541 W. 99th St., to increase his hours of operation to allow for serving breakfast on Saturday and Sundays, beginning at 8:30 a.m., and to increase the hours on Thursdays from 11 a.m. to midnight. McGrath’s third request to add outdoor bistro tables was tabled for further discussion.

Approved with a vote of 5-1 was a payment of $14,455 to H & R Johnson for work completed at the Barn in the Village’s park area. The payment was designated as a payment for the company working in severe winter weather.

Trustee Mark Phelan cast the opposing vote, stating he didn’t think it was necessary.

“I worked in construction for 30 years and I have never heard of being paid for working in inclement weather,” Phelan said. “This is ridiculous.”

Sexton pointed out that the total cost of the project had come in at $100,000 less than the original bid from the company.

Also approved was a request to send out a proposal for sanitary sewer linings.

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.