Solid financial footing, steady growth
By Anthony Caciopo
Regional News Editor
Palos Heights has a surplus of cash again this year in its general fund, which will allow the city to leverage large outside funding for development purposes.
“For those of you who have been around a while, you’re starting to get used to this,” Straz told approximately 70 people Tuesday at the annual State of the City luncheon sponsored by the Palos Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We’ve run a surplus annually in our general fund where our income has been in excess of our expenses, since 2002,” he said. “That’s not always been the case.”
Straz, who became mayor in 2001, said the surplus helps the city receive more dollars from outside sources.
“We don’t just put that money away, piggy-bank it,” he said. “The best and most effective way to make that money work is to take those fund balances we have, in the capital accounts especially, and match it up with grants.”
Straz said that in the last eight years, the city has received more than $5 million in grants and often has to match the grant money with a much smaller portion of the city’s money.
“What we’re able to do is take $20 from the capital budget and get $100 of capital improvements ($80 coming from a grant), a 4-1 match,” said the mayor.
The most recent grant the city is employing is an OSLAD Grant (Illinois Department of Natural Resources Open Space Land Acquisition and Development) to redevelop Palmer Park.
As detailed in the Feb. 7, 2019 edition of The Regional News, the Palmer Park work will include construction of pickleball courts, rehabbing the parking lot, installing new signage, making a practice field for soccer, installing a zip line, reworking the baseball field and installing a walking path that will go around the park, located between 73rd Avenue and 73rd Court, 123rd Street and 124th Street.
This particular grant of $400,000 requires 1-1 matching from the city, however.
“If we didn’t have an effective budget where we have a surplus every year, we would not have the money for these grants. That’s what we need to do.”
Straz had special praise for a grant that will be used to construct another parking lot for Lake Katherine, behind the Tiffany Square strip mall on College Drive, which is located just west of Harlem Avenue.
Eighty percent of the cost will come from funds controlled by the Southwest Conference of Mayors, but the good news didn’t stop there.
“We went to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and said ‘That’s on your property. How about you picking up the other 20 percent?’” said Straz.
The new parking lot will have an entrance/exit on Harlem Avenue.
“If you don’t have money available, you lose big bucks, can’t take advantage of grants,” he said.
But the mayor also explained that aging infrastructure in Palos Heights is another reason to be well-funded.
“The town is 60 years old,” he said. “The infrastructure needs to be replaced. We’re starting to see that pretty dramatically in some cases, water and sewer especially.”
Straz told The Regional later that day “We’ve got a five-year capital budget of where this money is going to be spent, for repairing sewer lines, water lines. It’s all laid out. That’s part of management, just making sure it’s all done ahead of time. I give credit to our staff.”
In his wide-ranging luncheon address, Straz stressed the importance of transparency of city government, the improved housing market and the attractions of Palos Heights that help give the city extra visibility.
“We emphasize food, art and entertainment, one of the few towns you can do all those things in,” he said. “We have our own pool, we have a rec center, we have a golf course, we have a hospital, we have a college and great schools.”
Scheduled to hit the market in Sept., 2019 is Palos Heights Senior Living, the complex that is inching its way upward and outward on College Drive, just east of Harlem Avenue.
The development, by Spectrum Retirement Communities, will have 178 units, of which 99 will be independent-living units, 55 assisted-living units and 24 memory care units.
A couple of weeks ago, Straz said he toured part of the property.
“Very impressive,” he said. “It’s going to be such a great facility for Palos Heights. It gives us the ability to turn over some of the housing stock we have here in town.”
Because of the Spectrum development, Straz said, seniors can sell their homes, perhaps to their children or grandchildren, and still stay in town if they wish at Palos Heights Senior Living.
He showed an image on the overhead media screen of a page from the Jan. 31, 2019 edition of Crain’s Chicago Business that included Palos Heights in a roundup of most improved housing markets.
“That’s because we have more homes, higher median price and shorter average time on the market,” Straz said.
The anticipated joining of Palos Health with Loyola Medicine adds to an already strong healthcare presence in town, the mayor said.
“There’s no doubt the healthcare industry is one of the strongest economic drivers we have, whether it be the hospital, therapists, rehab facilities, doctors’ offices and dentists’ offices”, he said.
And Straz gave shout-outs to many of the independent restaurants in town that have livened up the downtown area.
“We have all kinds of cuisine,” he said. “We have nightlife. I’ve been out here for 40-some years. I remember when you went downtown after 5 o’clock, there was nothing here.
“Retail has changed, merchandising has changed. There are no more men’s clothing stores. We had two of ‘em. Independent drug stores, they don’t exist anymore,” he said.
Coming soon to town will be an AT&T store on the site of the old Radio Shack at Harlem and College Drive, and Harmony, an Asian restaurant.
Straz also cited the opening of the Municipal Parking Lot, 12217 S. Harlem Ave., where events such as the Farmers Market, the Classic Car Event and the new Kris Kringle Market have a presence in their respective seasons.
“All these things bring people downtown to make it a vibrant area,” he said.
Sue Blattner, a resident of Palos Heights since 1954, stopped to talk to The Regional before departing at the end of the luncheon.
She said that “the friendliness of the people and the proximity of some nice stores” are two of the things she enjoys about the city.
Blattner also said she likes the Rec Center and the fact that the Cal-Sag recreation trail can bring people to dine in Palos Heights, a point also made by the mayor in his presentation.
“I feel positive about it,” she said about the state of the city. “I feel we’re heading in the right direction.”