Analysis, Commentary, Local, Park Forest

Park Forest Fire Department, Recreation and Parks, Have Their Budget Hearing

Tracy Natyshok and Bruce Ziegle
Assistant Fire Chief Tracy Natyshok (left) and Fire Chief Bruce Ziegle present their department’s FY2016-2017 budget. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Analysis, Commentary, Report
By Gary Kopycinski

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- The penultimate night of budget hearings featured reports by the Park Forest Fire Department and Recreation and Parks. The meeting was this past Tuesday, May 10. Arriving after the 6:00 p.m. start time, the discussion between the PFFD and mayor was captivating from the start.

Topic? Firefighter suicides.

That part of the presentation would move to paramedics and firefighters having to deal with people who weigh almost half-a-ton.

Yes, we have them in Park Forest. And, sometimes, they need an ambulance.

But the discussion, as I entered, began here.

“Instances of firefighter suicides are on the rise,” according to Park Forest Fire Department Chief Bruce Ziegle.

Because of some of the things they see.

Because of some of the things they experience.

Sobering words for village board members and staff, and for eNews Park Forest.

The fire department has brought in outside help to assess risk of current employees and paid on call.

A few years ago, during an erstwhile budget session when I was a trustee, I remember being struck by another serious topic: firefighter retirement. The issue shared with the board at that discussion? Then-Fire Chief Bob Wilcox told board members that, on average, a firefighter lives only five (5) years after retirement.

I distinctly remember where I was standing when Chief Wilcox shared that: on foot, on my way to get another cup of coffee. What he said stopped me in my tracks.

The discussion this past Tuesday then moved on to another burdensome concern.

“If we get a patient that weighs more than 700 lbs., we don’t have a way to move them,” Ziegle said. “Now, because of the complexity of our ambulances…” Park Forest can no longer accommodate these people.

The paramedics have had to transport people who weighed in excess of 850 lbs.

The fire department will be looking for grants for a Beriatric Transport Ambulance to be able to more effectively transport these people in the future.

“I remember when our cots could only accommodate 300 lbs.,” the fire chief said. Now, all cots can carry a person weighing up to 700 lbs.

Recouping payments for services is always an issue with Park Forest’s ambulance services, but collections seem to be getting better.

“Even with Obamacare, we get more people who actually pay…” for services, Ziegle said.

Regarding other equipment, the village is looking to other municipalities to share apparatus, currently in discussion with the Village of Flossmoor to share a pumper.

Fire departments in general are very good at sharing apparatus.

This particular sharing program with Flossmoor, over a ten year period, would save the Village of Park Forest about $1 million. Flossmoor too.

No questions from board members after that entire presentation – again. This is typical for the Fire Department. Budget is very concise. But, once again, the discussion was driven by the mayor while the rest of the board watched, listened, or served themselves more food.

Chief Ziegle demonstrated the Emergency Reporting System, new software used by the PFFD and SouthCom. The Frequentis system, previously used, would have taken much longer to create reports, Ziegle said. For example, within a few seconds, the chief generated a report of all fire and ambulance calls from January 1, 2016 to today, May 10, 2016.

According to the chief, the same report would have taken the Frequentis system four (4) hours to generate.

SouthCom did receive $150,000 settlement from Frequentis, which proved to be much less than effective and delivered much less than promised. eNews Park Forest attended a meeting some time ago between representatives from Frequentis and SouthCom. The meeting was held at the Olympia Fields Municipal Building.

The representatives made promises, promises, and then more promises. Their system, they said at the time, was custom built for SouthCom, so the villages involved should be patient.

The issues were never resolved nearly to the satisfaction of SouthCom or the Village of Park Forest. The $150,000 settlement from Frequentis would be used by SouthCom toward its own budget items.

The PFFD concluded its presentation at 6:49 p.m.

Robert Gunther and Kevin Adams
Director of Recreation & Parks Robert Gunther (left) and Recreation Manager Kevin Adams present their budget to the village board. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

On to Recreation and Parks

Park Forest does not have one community center, it has four, said Director of Recreation and Parks Robert Gunther. These include the Aqua Center, the Tennis & Health Club, Freedom Hall, and the recreation center at the Michelle Obama School of Technology and the Arts (former Forest Trail Middle School). The good news is, School District 163 wants nothing to do with the recreation center at the school any more, according to staff.

This is good news for Park Forest, and no doubt a relief for long-serving board members and staff.

This recreation center has a long history, of which members of the public should be aware.

Several years ago, again, when I was a sitting trustee, the 163 school board, and Superintendent Joyce Carmine, in particular, began making demands (there’s no other way to characterize it) that the village should give the recreation center in then-Forest Trail Middle School to the school district.

Doing so would have left Park Forest without a village recreation center.

The village actually owns that recreation center – physically owns the center. The demand on the part of SD 163 was inappropriate, in my opinion.

The village refused to hand over the property, of course.

SD 163 then began putting together a plan to add an addition, effectively walling-out the village from its own property. Now, SD 163 had every right to make such plans without consulting the village. School districts are their own units of government and do not have to pull permits or get plans approved by municipal authorities when they build on their own property.

Still, plans to essentially basically block the village from having access to its own facility was unsettling.

The public also needs to understand that this was, essentially, a shared facility. The village owned the facility, the half gym above and the cafeteria beneath. However, years ago, in an age gone by, it seems, without putting anything in writing, SD 163 and the village came to a friendly agreement that the school would be able to use the facility.

That friendly agreement came to a crashing halt under Joyce Carmine.

eNews Park Forest recalls some combative meetings between the Village of Park Forest and SD 163 – all off-camera – and, one meeting in particular that featured bizarre behavior by Superintendent Joyce Carmine where she almost walked out of a meeting at Park Forest Village Hall, demanding that staff members from Park Forest leave the room.

The Park Forest Board of Trustees hosted the meeting. Mayor Ostenburg and Village Manager Tom Mick invited all village personnel who worked with SD 163 and the recreation center to attend the meeting  to answer questions from SD 163 board members directly. Superintendent Carmine essentially suggested that the village was ganging up on her and the 163 board.

This was a public meeting. Anyone could have attended.

The discussion at the time was an attempt to negotiate an understanding of which entity is responsible for what at the recreation hall. Again, SD 163 wanted the entire facility at the time, when clearly the village owned the recreation center that SD 163 eventually built around when they remodeled.

So, all in all, SD 163 washing its hands of the recreation center is good news. However, with the current $20 million expansion of the school (wonder where most of your tax dollars are going?), access to the facility will be quite limited, according to staff at this past Tuesday’s meeting. Director Rob Gunther told the board there will be no handicapped accessible entrance.

Question from Trustee Graham: Will SD 163 be replacing the outdoor basketball courts they removed when remodeling began?

Recreation Manager Kevin Adams fielded this one, and said it doesn’t appear likely.

According to staff, the skate board park on Wilson Street is still in use. According to Kevin Adams, “It’s more popular now than it was in recent times.”

According to Director Gunther, entertainer Tom Dreesen will be returning for the next season at Freedom Hall. Cultural Arts Manager Charles Sabey maintains a good relationship with past entertainers at Freedom Hall, according to Gunther.

Gunther is also in charge of facilities. The Village Hall parking lot will be refinished and about $30,000 work in renovations will be done to the Police Department’s firing range (located at the PFPD).

Mayor Ostenburg pushed for more searching for grant funding for parking lots and such.

Children play in the wading pool at the Aqua Center
Children playing at the Aqua Center. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

On to the Aqua Center – and, yes, it’s staying open

The good news first: the Aqua Center is staying open, and likely will for quite some time.

Of daily passes sold, 79% were Park Forest residents. The Aqua Center also saw a jump in season passes sold.

“We know that the Aqua Center is subsidized,” said Kevin Adams. “By going to non-resident/resident rates, we’re hoping our residents will see, you’re helping subsidize the park…” and more residents will take advantage of the Aqua Center.

The plan is to increase revenue so the facility is not so dependent on tax subsidy. Staff would like to see the percentage of passes sold to Park Forest residents increase to 60% again. The last time memberships were at that level was 2006 (60.9%) and the year before that, 66.7%.

Last year there were 1,378 season passes sold, 49.0% of these were to Park Forest residents.

Village Manager Tom Mick said, “I would challenge anybody to go in 15 miles in any direction and you’re not going to find a better deal.” He also reflected that, every year since he’s been here, he’s been aware of rumors that “we’re going to close the Aqua Center,” even when the village was subsidizing the Aqua Center to the tune of $1 million or more.

He has also seen discussions surface and resurface on social media.

Long and short, Mick made it clear that the Aqua Center is an amenity that, it would appear, is here to stay. Considering some of the facilities that have closed in other areas, Park Forest has quite a lot to offer, according to Mick.

And according to eNews Park Forest.

We agree.

Park Forest Rain Garden
The rain garden at the park Forest Tennis & Health Club. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

On to the Tennis and Health Club

“It’s kind of been status quo,” Rob Gunther said. The facility is used by colleges and clubs. “There are clubs that are closing around us. It’s kind of up in the air right now where this thing is going to go.”

Since the building of the Tennis and Health Club, the building never had a permit for the whirl pools. This was an older facility and, apparently, it was never an issue before. The state has required that the whirl pools close. There has been a “ground swell” from users willing to donate money to open them back up, according to Gunther.

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed that, again, apparently were not issues before. There is no known cost at this point as to how much money would be required to open the whirl pools again.

On to Vehicle Services

Recreation & Parks wants to replace a truck and plow, plus get an attachment to aide in transplanting trees.

On Capital Projects, there is a Village Green Expansion on the book (pages 19-7-8) for continuing to rethink and rebuild the Village Green for $327,000. This would include a “Native Edibles” garden, a labyrinth, a walk that circles around the viewing area for the stage where vendors could set up, and more. This project would span a few years down the road. Recreation and Parks will do as much as it can afford every year.

There was some conversation between Village Manager Tom Mick, Mayor Ostenburg and a couple of board members on the Business After Hours concept.

The meeting adjourned at 7:54 p.m.

Gary Kopycinski is editor and publisher of eNews Park Forest. Follow him on Twitter at @GaryKopycinski and on Facebook at, or email him at [email protected]. He served as a village trustee in Park Forest from 2003-2006, and then again from 2007-2015. eNews Park Forest, Inc. is an independent media company and is not affiliated with the Village of Park Forest in any way.