‘Mayor Nobody’ favorite in Park Ridge election

Marty Maloney, the acting mayor of northwest suburban Park Ridge, is over-worked, underpaid, unappreciated, unknown and, according to his April 4 opponent, Lucas Fuksa, is inept, devious, disingenuous, non-transparent and unaccountable. That’s a huge mouthful of negativity.

The conundrum facing Fuksa is simple: How do you convince voters to throw out an "acting" incumbent nobody knows, in an election where nobody cares? Maloney is "Mayor Nobody," which makes attacking him dicey: It either makes him better known, or negatively defines him. Fuksa is doing neither.

Park Ridge is economically booming. There is new development — restaurants with bars, a 52,000-square foot healthclub, condos, food stores, a pizza joint, and a Mariano’s has replaced the shuttered Dominick’s. Until recently, the city rolled-up the sidewalks at 8 p.m., but new drinking establishments are making Park Ridge "Edison Park North," allowing middle-aged denizens to booze and carouse until 11 p.m. or midnight, boosting the city’s 2 percent sales tax revenues. But property taxes increase 8 to 10 percent annually, water fees are exploding because the city still buys water from Chicago, flooding is still a problem, and home values are still flat. "They declined 2 percent in 2016," said Fuksa.

Nobody seems to credit or blame Maloney. "People don’t know he’s the mayor," said Fuksa, a 39-year old attorney. But then he said Maloney can’t take credit, since he’s only been acting mayor since 2015. That’s a less-than-compelling argument.

In smaller suburbs like upscale Park Ridge, population 37,480, it is somewhat prestigious to serve in municipal office, especially if the job is not 24/7 and largely ceremonial. In Park Ridge, it is onerous. How many people, even if civic-minded do-gooders, are going to tolerate being an alderman, attending four Monday evening meetings every month, each lasting 2 to 4 hours, and earn a monthly stipend of $100? That computes to $6.25 to 12.50 per hour, barely minimum-wage levels.

That’s why the 7-member city council is a revolving door. After a couple of years of time-wasting bickering and squabbling, and suffering abuse from complaining constituents in a job where they have no power to control day-to-day city operations or ward services, they’re out the door. "I just didn’t need the aggravation," former alderman Thomas Carey said. Park Ridge is run by a city manager, which makes the aldermen and mayor superfluous on all but budgetary matters.

The mayor fares only marginally better: He makes $1,000 per month and the job is a steppingstone to nowhere. The only recent mayor who blasted up-and-out was the Marty Butler, who served from 1973 to 1991, was persuaded by then-state senator Bob Kustra to run for township Republican committeeman in 1990, won, and then appointed himself senator in 1991 when Kustra was elected lieutenant governor. Butler died in 1998.

Maloney, age 44, a sales executive, was elected alderman in 2011 from the southeast 7th Ward, around Cumberland and Higgins avenues. After Mayor Dave Schmidt, fondly known as "Mayor No," died in March 2015, Maloney’s fellow aldermen elected him acting mayor, but he still remains an alderman, so he gets his $100, not $1,000-a month. In a 2013 interview, Schmidt explained to me his governing philosophy: You don’t spend what you ain’t got, and you don’t waste what you’ve got. What a refreshing and novel idea.

At the meetings, twice a month of the council and twice a month of the committee-of-the-whole, "Mayor No" vetoed everything. Who needs Christmas decorations? Who needs city-paid events? "Taste of Park Ridge" produces sales tax revenue; other events requiring city services don’t. He was always over-ridden by the aldermen, who despised him. But being a tight-fisted tightwad clicked with the voters, who loved him. Since, according to Maloney, a third of the city’s budget comes from the property tax levy, and the city budget was $65 million in 2015, voters understood: They were still paying between $5,000 to 15,000 a year in property taxes on residences, but Schmidt was at least trying to minimize the pain.

"It’s a great place to live," said Maloney. It’s also an expensive place to live, and getting ever more expensive.

Park Ridge elections are non-partisan, with no party affiliation listed. Once a Republican bastion, the city’s changing demographics, augmented by an ongoing influx of younger families who want top-quality schools, has made the city decidedly independent and very liberal, especially on social issues. In the city’s 27 precincts, Clinton beat Trump 9,788-7,330 or 57.1 percent on Nov. 8. In 2014, Bruce Rauner barely lost. But geography also matters. In state legislative contests, which invariably pit a Park Ridge Republican against a Des Plaines Democrat, the homeboy always wins. Park board member Mel Thillens lost to state Representative Marty Moylan (D-55), of Des Plaines, in 2014 but still won Park Ridge. In 2016, Thillens ran against appointed state senator Laura Murphy (D-28), of Des Plaines, but won Park Ridge. In the nasty 2016 Michael McAuliffe-Merry Marwig House contest, the 22 precincts in north Park Ridge, around the country club, went 7,027-6,694 for Republican McAuliffe.

Both Maloney and Fuksa wisely refused to disclose their political affiliation, or for whom they voted for president. Maloney said he is an "independent. I’m criticized because I’m supposedly not Republican enough." He said he supported Thillens when he ran, but also former state Senator Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat. Both profess to be fiscal conservatives. Both are mum on making Park Ridge a "sanctuary city." Neither has the backing of the local political establishment — meaning Republican township committeeman Char Foss-Eggemann or Democratic committeeman Murphy. Had the Republicans backed Fuksa, he could have been a future star.

The longtime rap on Park Ridge is that the city is not business-friendly, unlike neighboring Rosemont, and that the city bureaucracy is prone to micro-management. Re-zoning is a nightmare. Mariano’s wanted to build a store on the southwest corner of Cumberland-Touhy, with roof parking and commercial buildings on Touhy and townhouses to the south. After 2 years of delays, they aborted the project and moved into the vacant Dominicks. A fast-food joint at Touhy-Greenwood, a former KFC, was denied free-standing signage. A Dunkin’ Donuts at Greenwood-Dempster, after 2 years, still has no signage, as the city has banned pole signs, and requires monument signs. Park Ridge, said Fuksa, "is not a good place to do business. I will change that." Likewise, every residential tree cut, fence installed, driveway repaved, and home addition or modification, requires an inspection and permit.

Fuksa recently sent out a citywide mailer claiming that the city’s property tax rate has increased by a total of 76.22 percent since 2011, but that is disingenuous. The tax rate is set by the assessor, based on the total taxable value of property in the jurisdiction and the need to fund county government, while the tax levy, the amount which the city wants to be collected from property taxes, is determined by the city’s budget. In actuality, Park Ridge’s tax levy, which increased by 22 percent in 2015, declined by 8 percent in 2016. The city budget, which was $70 million in fiscal 2016, declined to $66 million in 2017, and is projected to be $64 million in 2018. "This is all manipulation," said Fuksa, "to get Maloney re-elected."

Fuksa also noted that the Uptown tax increment financing district, which required the move of the water reservoir so as to build condominiums and commercial spaces, diminishes tax revenues by $20 to 25 million annually. According to Maloney, $22 million of the city budget — a third — comes from property tax revenue, both residential and commercial; another $9 million from "inter-governmental" sources; $9.7 million from a 1 percent sales tax and a 1 percent home-rule tax on every transaction. There are many "snowflake" taxes — generating about $500,000 annually — which are trickle-down shared fees, such as from motor fuel taxes. The balance of the budget, about $20 million, comes from "categorical" fees — water, licensing, permitting, granting and forfeitures.

To be sure, there are "blights:" Vacancies on the Devon Avenue corridor, along Busse Highway at the Village Green shopping center, in Uptown along Touhy Avenue west of the railroad tracks, but, said Maloney, "we are making progress." Maloney said that "Uptown" — the area along Prospect in the downtown section — "is not dying," with new bars and restaurants moving in. Fuksa criticizes the Uptown "parking problem," but Maloney retorts that it is a cause-and-effect situation: "There is more business (at the bars), so there are more cars." Said Fuksa: "There used to be six car dealerships" in Park Ridge, "which generated sales tax revenue. Now there’s just one." Maloney said that’s the norm for the business and that each vacancy has a new business.

If money talks, the fundraising of both candidates has been anemic: According to recent filings, Maloney had $150 on hand as of Jan. 1, and Fuksa $100.

In 2005, local insurance agent Howard Frimark beat Democratic-backed Mika Tinaglia 4,889-3,225 (60.1percent). Frimark’s major accomplishment was putting a referendum on the ballot to halve the council from 14 to 7, which won, thereby eliminating all the Democrats. In 2009, "Alderman No" Schmidt ran for mayor and won 4,073-3,313. After 4 years of tightwading, Schmidt beat Democratic-backed Larry Ryles 4,749-2,926 or 61.9 percent in 2013.

My prediction: In a low turnout of 6,800, Maloney will win 60-40.

E-mail Russ@russstewart.com or visit his website at www.russstewart.com.

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