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Over the holidays we published a story about three police officers from Riverdale who may have violated federal regulations after they travelled on commercial flights with their handguns, even though they were off duty.

The officers obtained paperwork showing they had been approved to fly armed, yet village officials told us that the police department did not actually authorize the trips. To read the full report, which also appeared in the Sun-Times, click here.

Aside from these incidents with the cops, there’s been a lot of other commotion in recent weeks in Riverdale, which is a small south suburb made up of mostly low-income African American residents.

A parking lot issue has stirred up friction between the park district and the village, while threats of a lawsuit have emerged from a handful of former police department employees over alleged payment issues.

But first, in what has likely garnered the most attention in town, comes a matter involving a small school district in Riverdale and the mayor’s attempts to shut it down.

Mayor Lawrence Jackson has ramped up efforts to dissolve General George S. Patton School District 133, which has one school in Riverdale with about 300 students, after the district announced last month that it planned to hike its tax levy by 40 percent from $1.96 million to $2.73 million. The tax levy is the part of the property tax process in which government bodies state how much money they need, or want, to operate.

School officials said the levy is only an estimate and that it was designed to capture new revenue that may be available as a result of an expiring Tax Increment Financing fund, which was created years ago to set aside tax money to boost development in the area.

“One of the premises of the levy is that you don’t want to leave funds that you are entitled to on the table,” said District 133 Supt. Carol Kunst, noting that in 2006 the district under-levied and, as a result, has lost out on $3.9 million of would-be revenue since then.

At the end of the day, property owners will only see marginal increases on their tax bills, Kunst said.

But Jackson argues that there doesn’t have to be an increase at all.

“It’s time we get serious about these government bodies taxing people out of their homes and out of their businesses,” Jackson said. “What they’re doing is affecting everybody. We’re all reaching into the same bucket for money.”

Residents, he said, would be better off if the district, which has seen a big drop in enrollment and has been struggling financially to keep its doors open, would shut down altogether and its kids were moved to Dolton-Riverdale School District 148, which has 10 schools and 2,800 students from Dolton and Riverdale.

“Now you don’t have the residents paying for two superintendents’ salaries, two business managers’ salaries, two accounting firms, two law firms,” he said. “The expenditures will go down tremendously.”

Kunst said relocating children is not a good idea. “Not to mention taking them away from the staff who has dedicated years and years of service to the children,” she said.

For the reorganization to happen, a petition must be filed by either the school board or a majority of voters, and then the decision is up to either the regional board of school trustees or voters.

District 148 Supt. Jayne Purcell said she’s open to discussing the idea with community leaders to see if it’s in the best interest of the children.

While the Better Government Association is not taking a position on this streamlining proposal in Riverdale, we do support the concept of “smart streamlining” – reducing the size of government while improving services and finances for communities and taxpayers.

Although we’re not saying this is going on in Riverdale, one thing we’ve noticed in places where streamlining is discussed: There’s often resistance, sometimes based on self-interest rather than the public interest.

Parking Lot Squabble

Either way, District 133 isn’t the only Riverdale agency the mayor wants to consolidate. Jackson has also told us that residents would be better served if the Riverdale Park District dissolved and became part of village government.

A “do not enter” sign now divides two adjacent parking lots, one owned by the Riverdale Park District and the other by the Village of Riverdale. The agencies had a 10-year parking lot agreement that recently expired and will not be renewed. / Photo by Katie Drews/BGA

His comments first appeared in a BGA story from last summer about how park district officials were spending thousands of dollars on hotel and travel costs in order to attend park and recreation conferences in Chicago and across the country. To read that story, click here.

Now, Jackson believes the park district board has acted in retaliation for his remarks by not renewing a parking lot contract the park district had with the village for 10 years.

The lot, located near the Metra Ivanhoe train station, is owned by the park district and, up until recently, had been leased to the village, which operated the lot and split the revenue with the park district.

Park officials said the contract expired in August and that the village took too long to respond when they asked about it. They said their decision had nothing to do with politics.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but we don’t operate like that,” said Park Board President Brenda Britt-Cox, adding that the village still owes the park district money from the old lease arrangement.

The park district lot is located right next to another parking lot that is owned by the village. Now there is a physical barrier between the two – presenting some confusion, at least initially, for commuters.

Park District, Continued

In other park district news, commissioners voted at a board meeting last month to move forward with potentially reducing the size of the board, which currently has seven members, by putting it to a referendum.

Britt-Cox said a smaller board would reduce the costs of conferences because less people would be attending, apparently referencing our story on the park district’s spending.

But our story had also raised questions about whether the park district was providing enough activities and programs for children in Riverdale. And after the article ran, we were contacted by a woman who encountered some trouble trying to do just that.

Monet Wilson, director of programming at Tomorrow’s Youth Foundation, a group based in Calumet City that runs athletic and academic programs for kids, said she was trying to organize a new youth football and cheerleading team in Riverdale but met resistance by the park board.

She was asked to submit a proposal, and then ultimately lost the bid to another team that was willing to offer the district more concession stand revenue, according to documents Wilson shared with us.

“I shouldn’t have to pay for these kids to play,” Wilson said. “I was told to put in writing what we were willing to give to the park board.”

Turns out the winning team, the South City Jaguars, is headed by the park board president’s husband, and it’s the same team that, according to Wilson, had to cancel its season last year due to low enrollment.

“You want to have what’s best for the children,” Wilson said. “Something doesn’t sit right. . . . It seems like there had been an unfair advantage.”

Britt-Cox said she keeps her personal life separate from the park district and that the park district has worked with the Jaguars for many years.

“We would always feel that if we pass a vote, it’s in the best interest of the community,” Britt-Cox said.

Deontray Cox agreed there was no favoritism. He said the Jaguars were in Riverdale long before his wife was board president and that this year his team offered the same concessions to the district as every year.

“I just want to be able to mentor and coach these young people, that’s it,” he said. “I don’t want to get involved in politics. Riverdale is too small to have all this kind of politics.”

Police Pay

Another issue confronting the mayor involves police.

Three former police lieutenants in Riverdale agreed to retire last summer in exchange for buyouts, but now they say the village still owes them money.

An attorney representing the retirees recently sent a letter to the mayor saying they were prepared to file a lawsuit for breach of contract, as well as age and race discrimination, if the missing payments are not made. According to the letter, the village has not paid them for unused sick and vacation days, as well as other pay.

Jackson said there’s a dispute over how much the officers have accumulated in sick and vacation time, so a third party is looking into it. Jackson also plans to do a village-wide audit of time sheets, saying there has been “years of systemic time abuse.”

With all the controversy in Riverdale – which has roughly 13,000 residents with about 23 percent living in poverty – public officials owe it to the taxpayers to get their acts together and make serving the community their top priority.

This blog post was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews, who can be reached at kdrews@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9027.