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The Matteson fire and police departments could face layoffs because of the south suburb’s financial worries. Patrick Rehkamp/Better Government Association

Big cuts to follow big spending in Matteson

SHARE Big cuts to follow big spending in Matteson
SHARE Big cuts to follow big spending in Matteson

Facing a budget deficit next year of nearly $8 million, the village of Matteson is considering sharp cuts in its public safety work force, with possible layoffs of 13 police officers and eight firefighters — about 40 percent of the police department and a third of the fire department.

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Officials in the south suburb say they’re trying to get their finances in order after years of declining tax revenues. But Matteson leaders haven’t been so diligent in recent years regarding village finances. Consider:

• In January — around the same time officials floated the possibility of the public-safety cuts — the village hired John Dancy, Village Trustee Bridget Dancy’s husband, for a $43,900-a-year public works job. Bridget Dancy, who makes $158,500 a year working for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, says she had “absolutely nothing” to do with her husband getting the job. And she said, “if there’s going to be layoffs it’s going to be across the board.”

Two other Matteson trustees — Sam Brown and Paula Farr — also have family members on the village payroll. Brown, who has a job with the Cook County Board of Review making $62,375 a year, has a son making $36,235 working for the Matteson recreation department. Farr’s husband and son work in the public works department, where they make $62,910 and $50,997.

• In June, Matteson officials leased a 2014 Chevrolet Traverse sport-utility vehicle for Village President Andre Ashmore, despite the tough financial straits and even though his job is part-time and there is a full-time administrator overseeing the suburban government’s day-to-day operations. The vehicle is projected to cost taxpayers more than $21,000 over the span of its 39-month lease, records show.

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Matteson Village President Andre Ashmore

Ashmore — who recently left his $110,000-a-year state government job with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity — say other village employees can use his vehicle “any time there’s an emergency.”

• In 2010, shortly after Matteson laid off about 20 employees, the elected village board voted to give itself raises. Pay for village trustees went up from $8,000 a year to $15,000, while the village president’s salary nearly doubled, rising from $15,500 a year to $30,000. At the time, Ashmore argued there hadn’t been a raise in years and the elected officials’ pay amounts to just a pittance considering the number of hours they put in, saying, “It doesn’t add up to minimum wage.”

Still, the salaries appear high compared with other suburbs. In Park Forest, for example, the mayor gets $7,550, and board members get $5,100. In Oak Park, village board members get roughly $7,200 a year, and the village president gets about $10,800. In River Forest, the village president and board members don’t receive any compensation.

Matteson — a predominantly black, largely middle-class community, population about 19,000, located on the border of Cook and Will counties — is in talks with the unions representing police and fire department employees about salary concessions. Village officials say they also might make other cuts.

A key factor in Matteson’s financial troubles is the looming tab for bond payments starting in 2017 for a community center that voters twice rejected in advisory referendums. Village officials built it anyway, going into debt on the $25 million facility that opened in 2010.

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Building the Matteson Community Center required the south suburb to borrow money through a $25 million bond issue. Patrick Rehkamp/Better Government Association

Village officials say the community center is making money, that it keeps kids off the streets and boosts tax revenues by bringing people in from outside Matteson for events such as basketball tournaments.

Scott Gilliam, a Matteson firefighter who’s president of the fire union, sees it as a prime reason there’s talk of layoffs.

“They’re just foolish with the money,” Gilliam says. “The community center is the reason for them jeopardizing public safety. They mortgaged the safety of the community for a community center.”

This was written by the Better Government Association’s Patrick Rehkamp.

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