Highland Park, News

Highland Park Budget Notes: Compensation tweak, fee increases, capital-spending plan and staffing bump

Highland Park has officially approved its city budget for the fiscal year 2023, and while the budget itself was unanimously approved, some City Council members shared concerns about aspects within it.

Council member Michelle Holleman noted during the meeting that in the proposed compensation plan for city employees, two grade levels for nonexempt employees — 3 and 4 — would receive a minimum salary of $13.38 and $14.67 per hour, respectively.

She was concerned that, with Illinois set to implement a statewide minimum wage of $15 per hour by 2025, potential employees in these grades would be underpaid.

Addressing those concerns, city Human Resources Manager Emily Taub explained that the compensation policy is set by an analysis involving 10 competencies for each type of position, and Taub also clarified that Highland Park does not currently have any employees that are within those classifications.

“We have no one in those ranges, and they’re on there to allow for possibilities,” she said. “But at this point, we have no positions recommended to be filled in those ranges either.”

Additionally, Taub said that, while Illinois does not currently have a $15 minimum wage, when that does become the law, city staff will be aware of it and adjust salaries accordingly.

Following board discussion, the council members agreed to amend the compensation plan so that all employees hired by the City would make at least $15 per hour. The amended plan passed unanimously.

A new fee structure for 2023 and the remainder of 2022 also passed through the council, but Holleman and council member Annette Lidawer voted against the resolution.

The fee changes include increases for water bills (plus 34 cents per 100 cubic feet) and ambulance usage service, in addition to new business fees related to outdoor dining — $75 to apply for a permit and $150 for a permit that includes on-street parking.

Previously, no fee was required for outdoor dining applications.

The other major fee increase is in regard to affordable housing, a topic discussed during an October council meeting. The fee a developer that does not meet affordable-housing requirement must pay will increase to $185,400. Previously, the fee was $125,000.

Lidawer said that was the reason for her no vote, “because I don’t agree with raising it.”

The 2023 budget includes an operating revenue of $88.14 million, which is 2 percent higher than the previous year and about $16 million above operating expenditures ($72.17 million), according to a budget summary prepared by City Manager Ghida Neukirch.

Total expenditures ($113.46 million), however, include $29.15 million in capital improvements and are expected to outpace total revenue ($102.18 million) by more than $11 million. The difference is set to be closed by “strategic draw-downs” from the city’s coffers, city documents say. The general fund is expected to drop to approximately $34 million at the end of 2023.

The City added just under $3 million in personnel costs in 2022, and those costs are estimated to increase $2.2 million, or 5.4 percent, in 2023 and include 12-plus new employees. A significant portion of those costs go to the City’s new resiliency division in the city manager’s office. The new outfit has four employees (a supervisor, victim liaison, and two part-time staffers) and is tasked with victim-related operations stemming from the mass shooting on July 4. Three full-time police offers will also be added, documents show.

Between 2020-2021, the City reduced its workforce by more than 25 full-time people in response to funding challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the $29 million in capital improvements, $7 million is set to go to streets, bridges and lights; $5.7 million to the sewer system; $4.8 million to the fire station and other facilities; and $4.6 to the water system.

Mayor Nancy Rotering read a prepared statement in which she praised the work of the city staff in getting a balanced budget ready.

“It is often said a budget reflects the priorities of an organization,” she said. “We as a city continue to prioritize public safety, fiscal stability, infrastructure investment, community vibrancy, and this budget reflects those priorities.”

Council members also heard from city finance director Julie Logan, who presented the preliminary 2022 tax levy.

She said the combined city and library levy is 5 percent higher than the 2021 combined tax extension.

Highland Park residents with an average home value of $500,000 should expect to see a property tax increase of $71 per year, Logan said.

The levy is expected to be voted on at the next city council meeting on Dec. 12.

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Peter Kaspari

Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.

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