By Igor Studenkov
For the Bugle
When the Park Ridge Farmers Market was officially established in May 1, 2006, its status was clear – it was a public service established by the city and operated by city employees.
But since then, it gradually drifted from its original form. Two citizen volunteers currently run the farmers market, and while the market funds are held in a city account, the way those funds are handled no longer quite follows the city government rules and procedures.
During the Aug. 28 Finance and Budget Committee of the Whole meeting, aldermen were asked to decide whether they wanted to keep the Farmers Market a city service or turn it into a non-profit organization completely independent from the city. They ultimately decided on the former. The aldermen also want the volunteers running the market to be appointed by the mayor, have the market operate under Park Ridge Department of Community Preservation and Development and bring the budget process under the city oversight while trying to let the market have as much flexibility as possible.
Park Ridge City Manager Joe Gilmore explained that, according to the memo prepared by City Attorney Adam Simon, the ordinance that originally created the Farmers’ Market established that it is operated by the city, with the “Market Master” handling most of the operations, soliciting vendors, picking which ones get permits, revoking said permits if necessary and establishing and enforcing market guidelines. While the first Market Master was a city employee, the ordinance didn’t actually require it, nor did it explain how a Market Master gets chosen.
Gilmore said that, since the original Market Master retired, volunteers Karen Grunschel and Jay Crowley have been running co-running the market. The way they handle the funds doesn’t necessarily follow the city budgeting practices.
Grunschel told the aldermen that the market has been able to keep its expenses within the budget until 2016, when AT&T started charging it for the use of its parking lot. The city covered that expense. There was also the restroom issue. While, for the first few years, vendors were able to use one at the nearby cleaners business, Grunschel said that the building owner asked them to stop because “their sewer system is not the greatest.” The market wound up getting Porta Potties – something that the city paid for as well.
The market also tried to raise money to pay for the upgrades to its website. However, thanks to the efforts of Ald. Daniel Knight (5th) a few months before his death, American Eagle, a Des Plaines-based website developer, agreed to do it for free.
That aside, Grunschel said, the market can manage on its own.
“Hopefully, we will be able to sustain ourselves,” she said. “We expect to have more next year, because we didn’t fill all the spots on the street.”
Gilmore said that, before they proceeded any further, the aldermen should decide whether they want to keep the market a city service or turn it into a non-profit completely independent from the city. Ald. Marc Mazzuca (6th), who chairs the committee, asked Grunschel what she and Crowley would prefer.
“I think both Jay and I told Mr. Gilmore and city attorney when we met this summer that we would like to stay associated with the city,” she replied. “I mean, we have no objection to being part of the city and being part of the [budget] planning [process] and budgets and that sort of thing. I think its’ good arrangement. I just think, as Mr. Gilmore said, it needs to be redeveloped.”
Grunschel noted that one major benefit of the current arrangement was the market was on the city insurance.
Ald. John Moran (1st) wondered how much money the city was spending on the market. Gilmore replied that it spends $1,500 to cover AT&T parking lease, and “less then $2,500” to cover insurance. The Porta Potties were just part of what the city ordered for other events.
Mazzuca said that he personally supported keeping the market a city service. While most aldermen agreed, Ald. Nicholas Milissis (2nd) said that he felt it was the wrong direction for the city to take, given the recent precedent.
“To me, it seems counter to the direction the city has been following for the last two years, of the exact opposite – meaning not subsidizing things that aren’t essential to the city,” he said. “We did it with holiday lights, we did it with human services associations and organizations – they used to get funding from the city. This, to me, doesn’t seem to be different.”
Milissis said that while the Farmers Market didn’t cost the city much money, to him, it was the matter of principle.
Moran said that he agreed with Milissis’ point, but, at the same time, he felt that the market had value to the city, which should be taken into account as well.
“I’d hate to see it go away,” he said. I’d hate to see it get mismanaged. I like the fact that it can be somewhat under the city control.”
The committee then considered whether the market should aim to be self-sustaining – something the rest of the aldermen readily agreed to. Then, they looked into what the Market Master position should be and how it should be filled. While some aldermen floated the idea of officially making Grunschel and Crowley co-Market Masters, Gilmore advised against it.
“It probably would be easier for the city staff to interact with one point of contact,” he said.
The aldermen ultimately settled on establishing a committee similar to other city commissions and committees, where all members are volunteers appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council on the advice of the Mayor’s Advisory Board. The committee members would then choose a chair, who would act as a Market Master.
The Committee of the Whole then considered which department the market should fall under. Jim Brown, the Community Preservation and Development Director, said that, while he was fine which whatever the aldermen decide, he believed his department was a logical choice.
“We already do health inspections, we do business licensing,” he said. “The community development mission entails being invoked with something like Farmers Market I personally have experience winning Farmers Market grants and managing them – this isn’t new territory for me.”
The aldermen readily agreed. They then moved on to the final issue – whether the Market should be exempt from any budget and spending rules. Gilmore said that he believed that there was a way to allow the market flexibility without requiring major exceptions.
“I think we can definitely keep this within budget and procurement rules and still allow them the ability to operate,” he said. “We do it with some of the other [municipal entities], such as pension boards.”
Furthermore, Mazzuca noted that, given how relatively little money the market spends, it is unlikely that some of the rules – such as rules regarding procurement – would even come into play.
The city staff will now codify those changes into an ordinance. As of Sept. 8, it is not clear when this ordinance will go before the aldermen, and whether it will have to go through the committee before going to full council for approval.