Park Forest’s Financial Whiz Mary Dankowski Set To Retire

Mary Dankowski, financial whiz
Director of Finance/Assistant Village Manager Mary Dankowski, behind her well-cluttered, yet organized, desk. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Park Forest‘s financial whiz is set to retire. She has been with the Village for 22 years, and come July 14, 2017, Director of Finance/Deputy Village Manager Mary Dankowski will no longer show up for work.

But she will be far from gone.

Under her tutelage, Park Forest has embraced a conservative approach to budgeting. Her projections are cautious, but realistic.

And Park Forest has won the Distinguished Budget Award from the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) for 21 years, after she completed her first budget with staff and the Village Board. Park Forest has also won the Certificate of Achievement for Financial Reporting, also from the GFOA, for 19 years.

There was a time when the plaques from these awards lined the back wall of the Board Room. Now, however, there are too many to post on that wall. Each year’s notice is noted on two smaller plaques.

And Dankowski is not quite finished. On Tuesday, May 2, she began the last of her budget review sessions with the Village Board, this after introducing the budget for the next fiscal year to the public the evening before at the board meeting.

As someone who has worked with Mary Dankowski as a board member, I came to admire her tenacity and depth in the world of finance. As each budget was presented, Mary had page numbers memorized — or so it appeared to me. She knew tables, charts, and the narrative of each department fluently. As each department presented their proposed budget, Mary embraced changes and suggestions from board members. But she was also quick to explain the limits of Park Forest’s tax base, so often a burden to residents.

As a homeowner in Park Forest, she understands. And she has no plans to move after retirement.

“You’ve been in strategic planning and in budget review with me,” she says in our interview, “and I love my job. I love a lot of it. I love making a difference in the community and feeling like managing the finances well improves the quality of life for the residents in some ways.

“So, having an impact, I think I’m going to miss a little bit. But I’m planning to still stay very active in the community.”

Dankowski is President-elect for the Park Forest Rotary, remains treasurer for the Tall Grass Arts Association, and she is fundraising chair for the League of Women Voters of the Park Forest Area.

“I’ll stay doing all of those things,” she says. She also asked Mayor Ostenburg if she could remain as the appointed member of the Firefighters Pension Board.

She credits the pension boards, both police and fire, with the strength of those funds.

“Both police and fire [boards] take their jobs very seriously and really operate in what’s in the best interest of the funds, which is what’s in the best interest of the Village,” she says.

Any differences between finances today compared to when she started?

“There’s quite a few funny stories when I came,” she says. “One was that the fire chief says that they had ordered a fire engine and it was coming and I need to be prepared to pay the bill. And there were no funds for the fire engine.”

She added, “They had begun construction on city hall, this Village Hall. And there were no funds to finish the project.”

“There were some challenges of just identifying where I could pull together resources to just carry on with a couple projects that were under way,” she says.

Mary Dankowski, Hildy Kingma, Roderick Ysaguirre, Pete Green
Mary Dankowski, prepared for the start of another Village Board meeting, with other staff members. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Starting her tenure with the Village of Park Forest in 1995, Dankowski says one of her biggest challenges happened at that time, when the Village bought the DownTown.

“I was here with the whole decision to purchase the DownTown.” The price? “$100,000 plus back taxes,” she says. So she was on board to begin the redevelopment of the former Park Forest Plaza.

“I feel really good about that success story,” she says. “We have a viable, little DownTown. Of course, we have some vacancies, but we have a lot of tenants. We have over 50 tenants in the DownTown.” This includes the upstairs spaces.

“One of our newest tenancy has been O.A.I., the MakerLab, is moving their lab from upstairs to downstairs to the former food co-op space, expanding their presence in the DownTown. That’s pretty exciting,” she says.

The SouthWorks MakerLab, currently located at 210 Forest Boulevard, will keep their second floor space for their offices, but the lab itself will move downstairs.

With one more phase to go, the Village will have replaced all of the second floor windows in the DownTown with energy efficient windows, a project Dankowski oversaw.

“We do things in phases,” she says, “so that we can do it in an affordable manner. We avoid borrowing as much as we can. We save up for stuff. There’s a lot of practices we have in place now that I feel good about turning over to somebody else.”

She chuckles when asked if there were separate funds in the budget when she began. There were funds, she says, but no fund balances.

“The structure was in place. There was a working capital fund I eliminated because it would have been one of those funds that you borrow money into to do projects and I just believe, if you don’t have the money, you don’t spend it.”

There were years during her tenure when the Village had to cut capital spending, especially during the Great Recession, she says. However, Park Forest has not had to eliminate programs, we didn’t have to eliminate staff, but we have had to shift dollars. That’s where we look at core versus non-core services.”

Is Park Forest a good place to do business today?

“Well, taxes are an issue,” she admitted. “What has hurt the Village, more than our tax increases — because the last year’s increase, the Village’s increase combined with the Library, was 2.2%. So, we’re not increasing the levy extraordinarily. Our levy increases over the last 10 years or better have been under 4%. In 1999, we were at 2.9%, and our increases have been modest. When we’ve had a little bit higher, it’s to fund specific programs, like getting involved with SouthCom, or establishing an Economic Development department.”

“That hasn’t hurt us as much as the depressed value of housing,” she continued. “What happens is, when the value of the Village declines, then the property tax rate goes up, because it’s taxed based on a percent based on equalized assessed value [EAV]. So, as equalized assessed value declines, property tax rates go up. That particularly hurts incoming businesses because they’re paying a rate at their new construction value, so their value is high, and our rates are high.”

What would improve it? The economy continuing to turn around and for property to increase in value, she says.

“We see it happening in the sale of property,” she continued. “Homes are going for higher prices. We’ve got more interest in some of our commercial properties. As that turns around, that will improve the property tax perception.”

As the EAV of the Village goes back up, the property tax rates go down. Dankowski says this is happening “incrementally.”

During this part of the interview, Mary began going through the many papers that surround her, quickly discovering the most recent Village Audit. As always, she seems to instinctively know on which page the tables and charts she seeks can be found. In this case, she arrives at a graph that shows the EAV of the Village of Park Forest through recent years.

“From 2006 to current, you see the rate. So, we’re up to $36, and that’s in [School] District 163 where, when our value [EAV] was higher, it was at $16.”

What would she like to see happen moving forward?

“Like every resident, I’d like to see more economic development,” she says. “I think our team is working on that. I think our team here at the Village has laid the groundwork for growth with all the demolition of blighted structures, whether it was Norwood, or in the DownTown with Marshall Fields, and the other bigger boxes before that, the old Zee One on Rt. 30 — that’s all gotten property in a state that makes it more marketable.”

She says another positive move, being overseen by Director Hildy Kingma in Economic Development, is the demolition of abandoned and blighted homes. These demolitions improve residential neighborhoods.

“That’s really laying the groundwork for growth and future increase in value,” she says.

She would also like to see the budget process remain in place after she leaves her position.

“I think it’s such a good process,” she says. “I know Tom’s a big supporter, the Village Manager [Tom Mick] is a big supporter. He’ll make sure that stays in place.”

“The budget is a year-long process!” she says, laughing. The budget is a living document, a guide for spending.

But the Village stays on budget, and much of this is due to the discipline Dankowski has asserted over Village finances. Other towns in the South Suburbs have mere spreadsheets posted on their websites purporting to be budgets.

Not Park Forest, however.

“We have 530 pages,” Director Dankowski says, referring to the current budget. She laughs, “Everything you want to know about the Village and its finances.”

As one who worked on many budgets with Mary Dankowski through the years, it appeared to me that she had every draft budget memorized, down to the page, as each budget was presented.

Does she have it memorized?

“I know where it is! I know where it is!” she says.

She gives more credit to Manager Tom Mick, “In some ways, Tom remembers without referring to stuff. He’s excellent at remembering numbers and things like that. But I know where to find it, so I do, when questions get asked, I know where [the information] is.”

“I kind of take pride in listening to the Board, and listening to the public, to know what information they want” she says. This way, she makes sure information is included in the financial update or in the budget itself. “The information that people are asking for is here.”

Director Dankowski’s official last day on the job is July 14. She is currently going through the lengthy budget process, her last, with the Village Board.

“I’ll be here through the budget adoption. That’s my target,” she says. “July’s a good time to turn over the reigns to somebody new. Then, they’ll be able to get into the next year’s process.”

Immediately after her retirement, she plans to vacation a bit.

But then it’s back.

Back home.

Back to volunteering.

Back to Park Forest.

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