If you are a resident of City of DeKalb, this post is for you – especially if you voted in the General Election of 2012.

DeKalb has an at-large city clerk elected by the people, despite at least two referendums over the past decade asking to switch to an appointed clerk. The latest question came in the fall of 2012, when 70.49% of voters rejected a referendum to allow the city to appoint the clerk.

Afterward, the city approved a compensation ordinance that slashed the pay from $60,000 to $5,000 per year for the clerk who was to be elected in municipal elections in 2013 for a four-year term.

The consequences have been devastating in the view of anyone who values the will of the voters. In the municipal election of 2009, when the clerk still had full-time compensation and duties, there were four candidates on the ballot; but in 2013, there were no candidates on the ballot, only write-ins. Then the write-in candidate who was elected in spring of 2013 resigned in the fall of 2014. Following that, there was a gap of several months when no clerk was serving, and then a write-in clerk candidate for the April 2015 election who secretly dropped out of the race sometime before Election Day. Three appointments to the office were made in 2015 alone. Read the rest of this entry

In a recent letter to the editor, Misty Haji-Sheikh asked — and answered — who is supposed to ensure that DeKalb ordinances are enforced. Why? Because she found out there is an ordinance that is not being enforced.

The mayor, city manager and city attorney all have legal duties regarding ordinances. Since the ordinance 2015-30 is to hold at least quarterly meetings (these must be on the same day as the City Council after 1 p.m.) for discussion was passed as ordinance more than 14 months ago, can the mayor, city manager or city attorney explain why no required meetings have been held? Why aren’t they faithfully discharging their duties?

The ordinance, in part, says (my emphases):

Discussion, Planning and Vision Meetings: In addition to all other meetings contemplated herein, the City Council shall conduct at least four special meetings, with one such meeting occurring no less than quarterly, for the purposes of discussion, planning and visioning.

If the ordinance language had been written as “may” instead of “shall,” the meetings would be optional. “Shall” means they are not optional. (Find the rest of the ordinance in the Municipal Code, here, in 2.05(b)).

Now, this wouldn’t even appear on my radar today, but for a member of the City Barbs Facebook Group having posted video of Monday’s council meeting, towards the end of which the mayor defends not having the meetings required by ordinance. He calls these meetings “goals.” He then lists all the council meetings he’s attended over the past 14 months and declares, “The suggestion that the city has not been engaged in strategic planning is nothing short of ridiculous.” Read the rest of this entry

If you participate in the City of DeKalb’s electrical aggregation program — and about 5,800 electric customers in DeKalb do — your rates should have dropped as of July 1, but they didn’t.

There are two disturbing elements of this story. One is that resident Mark Charvat began making inquiries about the rate change in early July, but nothing was done for two months. The second is that City of DeKalb, which negotiated and signed the contract with Homefield Energy two years ago, is not taking responsibility for the screw-up.

[DeKalb Public Works Director Tim Holdeman] said although the agreement was negotiated by the city on behalf of local customers, in the end it was an agreement between a company and its customers and there wasn’t an effective way for city officials to police it.

Um, no. Guffaw, even. City of DeKalb signed the contract, so we’re talking basic due diligence. Somebody should have put this on their calendar and followed up, or gotten a clue from Mr. Charvat. Why didn’t City of DeKalb post an announcement on its website, and/or send out a press release? It would have cost next to nothing to publish the good news about a rate drop.

We’ve got more details at the City Barbs Facebook Group because that’s where the story first broke when others dragged their feet. See here, here, and here.

If you are confused about why some people’s electricity is not supplied by ComEd, here’s an article I did a few years ago on electrical aggregation deals: Municipal Electrical Aggregation & You.

Growth of Part-Time Wages

City of DeKalb’s three-year-plus hiring spree and pensions are not the only budget-busters we have to face. The wage growth for part-timers hired within the past three years, obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, is another area that appears out of control:

DepartmentStarting Hourly
Pay Rate
Latest Hourly
Pay Rate
% DifferenceMonth
of Hire
(1 person)
20.0325.82+28.9%Jun 2013
(1 person)
20.4325.01+22.4%Mar 2014
(1 person)
10.7018.65+74.3%May 2014
(2 people)
10.3318.65+80.5%Jun 2013
Comm Dev
(1 person)
15.0022.16+47.7%Nov 2013
(2 people)
13.7417.51+27.43%Jun 2014

This is a sample of eight part-time “Chapter 3” workers (not including crossing guards, and interns known to me) who came on board in 2013 or later and are still working for the city. I noted in the first column how many people each row applies to, where more than one person shares the same wage growth and approximate hire date.

DeKalb probably has about 50 part-time employees in total.

We used to have a council-approved “step” pay plan wherein “Chapter 3” employees, whose wages are not governed by negotiated labor contracts, would receive a raise of 16.75% following their rookie year of service. That plan was eliminated one year ago, but the numbers are still insane.

***Update 8/18: The Facebook discussion of this post has prompted me to expand and clarify it. What I’ve added, I’ve placed in italics.***

The Illinois Attorney General has issued a binding opinion concerning public employees’ use of personal email accounts when messages pertain to public business.

What the opinion does is to remove doubt that email or texts from personal accounts are subject to the Freedom of Information Act when public business is the topic. Read the rest of this entry

This happened on Monday.

DeKalb’s council is made up of seven aldermen chosen by ward and a mayor. Aldermen seemed interested Monday in establishing a rule that would call for at least four aldermen to be in favor of a measure before it could pass.

On most questions brought before council, a simple majority vote is all that’s needed, and the mayor doesn’t (or at least isn’t supposed to) vote. Council already needs to have four in most situations.

What this potential proposal would do is impose the requirement of a super-majority vote on council if even one alderman is absent. And in the scenario of the non-voting mayor and four aldermen, unanimous votes would be required to get anything done. And for what good reason?

This is, in short, not smart. It’s a bad solution for a non-existent problem. It rarely happens that even two council members are absent for any council meeting. What’s more, one situation where we might anticipate the absence of several council members would be a special meeting to deal with an emergency. To be shackled with a super-majority or unanimous vote requirement could have awful implications when time is of the essence for decision-making.

No, as long as the quorum of five is met for conducting the city’s business, leave the voting rules for aldermen alone.

That being said, there is a structural problem with DeKalb’s voting rules. Read the rest of this entry

You may recall that Security Properties, a real estate investment and development company in Seattle, fought hard for much of last year to get approval for zoning changes for DeKalb’s University Village apartment complex. Security wanted to buy and rehabilitate UV, but first had to meet its government lenders’ conditions, and those requirements included action by our city council.

The company actually arrived in DeKalb much earlier, and one of its tactics in 2014 was to approach Bill Nicklas, at the time a Northern Illinois University VP, to ask him to send a letter of support to City of DeKalb. Some of this conversation played out over email. Here’s a highlight:

Given DeKalb’s code requirements regarding legal nonconforming uses, our permanent lender (HUD) and allocating agency directing low income housing tax credits and trust funds to the project (Illinois Housing Development Authority) are not willing to consider applications for funding with zoning as-is. As a result, we will be making an application to DeKalb for a Planned Development that would allow the site to exist in its’ [sic] current state as a conforming use.

Given your background with the city, I thought it would be worthwhile to get your thoughts on this process and how we can best navigate the proposal to a successful ending. Also, we would very much appreciate a letter from you supporting the transaction that we can include with our submission. I’m happy to forward a draft support letter if that is helpful.

So, a private developer is asking for help from a unit of state government in greasing the wheels on a deal with local government. Think about that. Read the rest of this entry

Local EAV and TIF Performance

DeKalb County has placed online a variety of property tax information at DeKalbCounty.org. Among the reports are breakdowns of Equalized Assessment Value (EAV) by type of zoning, which include farm, residential, commercial, industrial, and railroad properties.

In City of DeKalb, the two top property tax-producing categories are residential and commercial. You can see below that residential and commercial losses in EAV have driven an overall steady decline since the Great Recession, until last year when commercial property saw a slight rebound (residential again lost a little value).


I also checked EAV in the tax increment financing (TIF) districts, because there is no more important sign of success for a TIF district than increased EAV.


TIF EAV has fallen worse than DeKalb’s overall, and (though not explicitly shown in the chart) has gone from a share of 15% of total city EAV to 11% during the time period we’re looking at. Considering that both TIFs are set to expire in the next couple years, this poor performance should prompt us to question seriously DeKalb’s judgment in selecting redevelopment projects.

People have been asking me why their city property taxes went up sharply this year. While much of it has to do with your assessment, of course, here’s the rest of the story.

Fire Pen1,837,5362,078,0612,056,9832,177,8362,177,856
Police Pen1,097,5011,379,2341,472,1751,636,8851,636,914

Until recently, City of DeKalb levied property taxes for pensions and FICA only. I went back as far as 2006, and the only years when the city levied for any other purposes are shown in the table, because collection of property taxes for bonded debt and for general corporate purposes is either new for DeKalb or a revived practice following long hiatus. Read the rest of this entry

The DeKalb County Health Department is trying to persuade our county board to place a referendum on the November election ballot to begin levying a property tax specifically for health services.

If this referendum does appear on the ballot, the most pressing questions for voters must include evaluation of needs, and of DeKalb County’s stewardship of our money.

Turns out, I have an example related to the latter for you to consider. Let me introduce you to Cindy and Ed. Read the rest of this entry