Meet Park Forest’s Finance Meister: Director Mark Pries

Mark Pries, Finance Director, Deputy Village Manager
Deputy Village Manager and Finance Director Mark Pries. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- It hasn’t happened in more than a quarter-century. Park Forest is poised to pass its first tax levy reduction in 26 years. The 0.3% tax levy decrease might not seem like much, but it is a tax decrease. It’s not a tax increase. The recommendation for the tax decrease comes from Deputy Village Manager and Finance Director Mark Pries, now in his second year in his current position. Director Pries was Assistand Finance Director for the Village of Park Forest from 1995 to 2002.

Mr. Pries was finance director in Bradley, Illinois, in Kankakee County, for seven-and-a-half years. Prior to that, he was finance director in Oswego, Illinois. His professional journey went from Park Forest to Oswego, then to Bradley, and back to Park Forest.

What is his philosophy when it comes to steering the financial ship in Park Forest? Here, he reflects on his first budget session as well as some of the challenges the Village faces.

The first few questions are represented in bold. Later, we just go back to the dialogue from our July interview.

How was that first budget session after his 15-plus-year hiatus from Park Forest?

Mark: Actually, I thought it went very well in terms of cooperation received from staff, internally when we were working on- between the numbers, as well as the discussion of meeting board goals. I was very happy, I was very happy with it, you know, having worked here before, it’s kind of like getting back on a bicycle that you hadn’t ridden in about 15 years.

Were there any major changes that he recommended?

Mark: From my standpoint, no. I think it was more about being cognizant of how the changing impacts of the taxpayers are and you know, I’ve been in this industry for almost 25 years and I’ve seen it go from taxpayers being very willing to pay a higher property tax for certain services and certain infrastructure, to having- now we’re at a point where there’s not a lot of willingness for anything. Even if you say all the roads will get paved and all the sewers will get redone, some people don’t even want to have to pay for that and I think it’s being mindful of that. It’s just, we’re always good stewards of the money but I think sometimes it gets the magnifying glass on and keeping that focus gets bigger.

How much money is there for secondary roads, repaving or scraping down?

Mark: Our general fund- the village has had a practice for several years. We keep about three to $350,000. I should say $300,000 to $350,000 in our general fund for, if you want to call it secondary work. The primary work comes out of our motor fuel tax fund and this year, I think that the largest piece- let me double check because since I’ve only been here a year, sometimes I think it’s going to be one thing but then it’s something else. We’ve got Illinois Street being resurfaced, Indianwood Boulevard. So those are the two large ones. On Indianwood, it’s [between] Sauk Trail and Monee Road and on Illinois [Street] it’s [between] Western Avenue and Orchard. So those are the two big projects for this year. Then, as far as, like I said, the secondary paving, patching work; that has at least like I said, $300,000 to $350,000 and may even have more, depending on how the June 30, 2018 year finished up. If there’s any money we could carry over and use, we’ll carry that money over and use it.

What about that burger place?

Mark: Yes, there’s a Steak n’ Shake that’s being proposed [along Route 30], that’s still in the planning stages. I believe the owner that’s there, he’s something of a methodical- I shouldn’t say owner but the person coming in with the proposal. He has other Steak n’ Shakes that he owns and he’s being somewhat methodical about his approach with the possibilities that he’s got, but, yes, and my understanding was that it was in the works even before I got here.

Will this be new construction?

Mark: Yes, there’s nothing out there that would be a retrofit, so to speak.

The million dollar question: How much more retail would Park Forest need to really offset some of the 10,000, $12,000 tax bills that some people are getting?

Mark: It would need to be pretty significant. When you look at what would be, let’s say a 1% reduction to our levy, that’s in the neighborhood of about $125,000 to $130,000. So that would be 1% of sales. So let’s just go with $125,000; that would have to be a $12.5 million a year business.

It’s a pretty substantial business at that point.

So it would- from a retail standpoint, to make that offset, you’re looking at a significant amount of sales tax dollars needing to come in.

One of the things that I think- you know, people probably aren’t happy about and we don’t know what the full effect is, there’s a Supreme Court ruling about online sales and that it’s going to come to pass that there will not be any tax free online sales. So the village will receive monies from that but it’s too soon to tell what impact that’s going to have on us. 

It looks like at this point in time, the state’s going to use an existing mechanism, which is our local use tax method and they’re going to run this new Internet sales tax, I guess if you want to call it, through our local use tax. Again, it’s way too early to tell what it’s going to mean for us but if – you know, a lot of what’s talked about is that the majority of sales happen now online, as opposed to the brick and mortar stores. So we’re cautiously optimistic at this point in time that this could have a good impact on the Village.

Mark Pries, Tom Mick
Finance Director Mark Pries (left) and Village Manager Tom Mick discuss the past and future of the PFHD. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

More on online sales.

Mark: They don’t want to share it because it’s not- if it’s a sales tax and it’s going to be under- it’s basically following the retail occupation sales tax statute within the state. It’s meant to be distributed to the local municipalities. It’s not meant to just be a state amount and especially if they’re charging- and again, this is speculation at this point, the base rate in the state is six and a quarter percent. I know in Cook County, we’re different because we have the RTA portion of the sales tax. So that’s a little bit different but if it’s the six and a quarter percent, 1% of that six and a quarter is municipal sales tax. So, again, I know I keep saying it, but too early to tell, there’s going to be a lot of hashing out that has to happen with this but we should definitely see an uptake in our local use tax, from that. 

eNews Park Forest: That would be probably the first time in many years.

Mark: I don’t think it’s going to be an immediate bullet but as I look at it, if the village- in the budget document itself it shows the history of property tax rate increases. If we can go from around 3%, and if we can go lower that would be a good thing. So- but I do understand, I see it, I see the tax bills and I do understand that. So, from my standpoint, that’s just a greater urgency or a greater responsibility on what we do and it’s unfortunate- I was here before when we lost a lot of sales tax dollars when the mall really lost it all and when all the car dealers left to go out to the Matteson Auto Mall. 

So it was a bad time. It was a bad time and we’re not the only ones who suffered from that. Olympia Fields suffered from it, Chicago Heights suffered from it. It’s an unfortunate predicament that our neighbors are seeing as well but I think when you look at where things were and especially from my standpoint, from where it was when I left here in 2002 and I’m born and raised in Chicago Heights. I lived in Chicago Heights until 2002 and coming back, I’m still seeing my family here but then now being here every day during the workweek, Park Forest has managed itself, I believe, much better than what our neighbors have.

I think we’ve been able to take advantage of free monies, whether its grant monies or whatnot, to make improvements across the Village, as well as keep those core values of what the Village wants and what the Village treasures. I think to keep those things alive. I mean, just the fact that we still have such a strong respect for the arts; that to me is fantastic because that’s something that you’re seeing in the last 10 years, art programs across the country are slowly dying or have died. That’s unfortunate and the fact that this community still appreciates that, I think is fantastic.

eNews Park Forest: So we still have a decent fund balance reserve.

Mark: Yes.

eNews Park Forest: We were able to pass a balanced budget. We are not borrowing for operations.

Mark: Correct.

eNews Park Forest: Is there any new debt in ’18, ’19?

Mark: No. As a matter of fact, the water main extension south on Western Avenue, going down to Continental Midland, we could’ve borrowed from it. The Illinois IEPA has a low interest loan program, which would have been, I believe, just below 3% for us to borrow that, which is very attractive money. However, with the main extension program kind of coming together somewhat quickly, we could not get on the state’s 2018 loan list for the IEPA. So basically, the sewer fund and the general fund will be lending money to the water fund to get this done and those two funds will then be reimbursed by the water fund, to pay back whatever is borrowed from them.

So we’re using our own money on this project and this is about a $2,000,000 project. So that’s a pretty sizable project to be able to say that we paid for it on our own.

Also, I mean to talk about water rates too, water rates are not going up this year. This is the first year I honestly don’t know in how long that water rates haven’t increased. So the amount that’s being paid for water and sewer for the next 12 months is the same as the prior 12 months. So to that end, on a person’s water bill, your water and sewer won’t change if they’re using the same amount of water. You can’t say the same for Thorn Creek or for garbage but those are set by contract. So those are things that are out of our control with it but from the Village standpoint, we’re holding steady for the year.

eNews Park Forest: How much of an increase was given to departments?

Mark: From a budget standpoint?

eNews Park Forest: Budget standpoint.

Mark: Everything outside of salaries, insurance benefits and capital improvements, they’re given 2%. That’s been a trend that I think probably for about four or five years. That’s been about there.

eNews Park Forest: Alright. So we’re making it and we do have some new businesses. I guess talking people into shopping locally is a forever kind of thing here.

Mark: Yes, it is and it’s a very true statement though. I mean the more you shop local; that means the current businesses do better; that means that it then gets on the radar of other developers that says, “Hey, you know what? It sure looks like there’s businesses that are thriving in this community.”  So it’s something that- you know, maybe as the mayor said before, maybe it’ll cost you a little bit more but if you can afford to do it, that’s helping the community out and it’s also- you know, maybe it doesn’t pay an immediate dividend right now but maybe it does in a year, three years, five years down the road that should do that.

There’s an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child and you kind of almost put that same philosophy into your own village; that it takes everyone to come together to keep your village going. You know, you can’t always just look for the cheapest priced item because you’re- I mean, not every- you know, no one can- there is no Village that could provide the cheapest price for everything that you’re looking for but I think if you live in a community and you support it, you’re going to see dividends coming back to you from it.

eNews Park Forest: That’s probably a good place to stop by. Thank you. Thanks for your time.

Mark: No problem.

Related: Park Forest’s Financial Whiz Mary Dankowski Set To Retire