The Absurdity of the Airport, & Other Budget Tales

Tonight at the budget workshop I remarked that it was kind of nonsensical and backwards (exact words) to continue to carry this albatross of an airport (paraphrase) when the police department does not have adequate facilities. Later in the evening, I was rebutted with a pretty picture presented by Public Works Director Rick Monas of DeKalb-Taylor Municipal Airport’s (DTMA) “turning the corner” to self-sufficiency. Oh, and by the way, the $1.1 million deficit is fake. They have to budget out for projects in hopes that the state will suddenly start coughing up their share (har) but if it doesn’t (duh), we don’t actually spend it. The “real” deficit is “only” $230,000. And to top it off, Rep. Foster just earmarked $2.5 million for DTMA.

I send out hat-tips to two other members of the audience tonight. One told me that he’s heard the “turning the corner” turn of phrase before–20 years ago. The other pointed out the absurdity of trying to pretend that almost every penny for the airport doesn’t come from us one way or another. Join me on the flipside for the rest.

OK, let’s see. First here’s the link to the proposed budget. The airport stuff starts on page 85.

Here’s my list of airport absurdities. See if I’ve missed anything:

1) City employees keep using that “either-or” frame like they did at the beginning of the budget crisis when they presented the solutions as either tax hikes or layoffs when we know darn well there are other options, like salary cuts. With the airport, it’s: either DeKalb runs the airport or there is no airport, all the while pointing out that some of our corporate business wouldn’t have come to town without it. Apparently they haven’t heard of privately-owned airports.

2) They keep acting like all the grant money we get that keeps the deficit to $230,000 (actually more; see #3) isn’t our tax money. Sure, we like to bring home our federal and state tax dollars when we can but we should surely have a say in whether we want to be in the airport business, especially considering it’s not one of the primary functions of a city.

3) The $230,000 is the only discernable deficit in the airport budget because two employees, one from the Water Division and one from Streets, are charged off to those divisions of Public Works. Among other things, this means the water bill is also helping to pay for the airport.

4) It was announced that Rep. Bill Foster has earmarked $2.5 million for the airport thanks to the Daley Group. So, we used an intermediary costing us $60,000 per year plus expenses (soon to be $72,000 per year plus expenses), to meet with a congressman who wants our vote so badly in November that he’s made himself super-accessable and will help wherever he’s able. Please, tell me who couldn’t have achieved this.

In other news, we have no money for capital projects outside of TIF, motor fuel tax, CDBG and one other fund which name escaped my ears. Plus, the city manager said that the city’s outstanding debt is “only” $34 million, the lowest since 1990. Translation: “We have chosen to starve the capital fund in favor of raises and Cadillac health insurance because we think we have a green light to go into debt for that other stuff.”

Speaking of infrastructure needs, another absurdity in my mind is for Council to approve the transfer of $525,000 from the Water Division to the General Fund as planned, when the Division has water mains to replace and a water tower to fix. Do two water billing clerks and Rick Monas’ salary require $525,000? Maybe we can find out at the special meeting on Tuesday, same time, same channel.

24 thoughts on “The Absurdity of the Airport, & Other Budget Tales”

  1. Elaboration of Yinn (I chickened out and went home at 8:45; have to go to early dentist appointment)

    Been hearing the same airport stories for a generation now. Airports are needed for economic development but being promised a return on investment for over twenty years now gets a bit wearing. I was upset that the costs of shared labor was not reported in the airport deficit, nor the interest costs on the hangars the city owns. The police report was an example of fine open reporting that contrasted with the airport report. My guess is the airport accounts for about a third to half of the deficit.

    Couldn’t tell if the Foster money could be used for operating expenses or if it was money for capital expenses.

    Overall, most of the city cuts are real in staffing and they are very real in overhead items. Was generally pleased at how the city has tried to cut back. Even development cut back. The 20 to 16.5 cutback was actually more since of the 20 4 positions are basically base through federal money positions for transportation and CDBG. So the cutback was from 16 to 12.5 or something like that. Whether 12.5 are needed or not is out of my expertise.

    However, the water fund stuff wass often slight of hand. You transfer money out of the water fund (money that can be legitimately used either by the water fund or the general fund) and then you raise water rates to keep the water fund healthy. That’s a pay Peter to pay Paul strategy.

    Don’t get me wrong. Having sat through all the hearings (with the exception of the last half hour) i am very impressed with the economy moves of the city and the tightness of staffing with the following non trivial exceptions.

    However, as I mentioned in my presentation, council has yet to confront the salary and raise structures — several council members have indicated in private lobbying they are willing to do so but some want to wait until union negotiations. My sense is to pressure the unions through threat of layoffs to open contracts to agree to postpone COLAs.

    Airport — that bothers me greatly. Yinn’s analysis of the false dichotomy argument is right on target. Kay asked elsewhere my thoughts on privatization. I’m really ignorant here, but problem is complicated because Uncle Sam mainly helps public airports and airports involve stratospheric costs (revenge for someone else’s pun).

    I think the fee issue and the rental inspection issue confused the discussion of budgeting. The inspection issue can/should be argued on policy grounds, not fiscal grounds. Anyway my take is that the extreme form of the nuisance/inspection program does NOT stand a chance of passing so the topic is moot. (just my political guess). A weakened form, inspection at sale for example, might survive.

    At times, policy fights got blurred into financial discussions where the borders really were indistinct. Baker, for instance, was pushing for ward benefits that loosely connected to budget decisions.

    Wrap up: what scares me is that my conclusion is that at least in protective services (the largest part by far of general revenue and also the most expensive employees because of their earlier retirements) we are if anything seriously understaffed. Fire department report should have scared the two south siders who testified (me being one) as it indicates that our station’s ambulance crew is often out of the area because of staffing. Police officers make a good case they need at least two more officers.

    I’m not capable of judging the technical accuracy of what the public works person said about efficient snow removal i.e. two trucks working in tandem do a way better job than two trucks running at separate time. Assuming that is the case, the two shift argument that made sense in theory won’t work hence overtime..

    Maybe more after the dentist, or maybe I’ll just lie around and feel miserable.

    Herb

    final, final point. Meetings are way too long and press coverage just adequate at best.

  2. notes… I’ve heard of a private airport and that may be the answer. I wonder if we listed it at $38.5 million (plus any further land acquisition costs) if we’d get any offers. Perhaps NIU or Kishwaukee College would like to develop a world class aviation school. There are subdividing corporate and even high end residential opportunities if outside of the box thinking is employed.

    At the very core of the problem is the General Fund and in particular the over use of it. Paul keeps getting robbed and Peter keeps getting paid. I’ll leave it to the taxpayers to decide who is Paul and who is Peter. Line item designation for revenue to expenses might be the only way city council can regain control. Some might call that micromanagement but on finances it is necessary. “Placemarks” should be elminated.

    I played baseball beyond high school years and coached it for a couple of decades. I’ve never seen a bigger curve ball than what was thrown last night. Apparently much of the numbers we were asked to crunch were only hypothetical (sp) and not actual. Perhaps it would have been more considerate to explain that difference on the first day of hearings as opposed to 2.5 hours into the last one.

    The use of fees is critical. Transparency on debt obligations is critical. Old school thinking on staffing and scheduling must be challenged.

    More later

  3. Well, I can see that posting at midnight is not the best idea if I want to weave it right. In the light of day here, I can see that the problem of the Water Division transfer is indeed part of the strategy to ignore capital needs until we’ve reached the emergency stage, continue the current salary and raise structures, plead poverty and bond out everything else. They will put us into debt for everything from a new air conditioning system to replacement vehicles.

    I don’t blame city staff. They are representing their own interests. To a point I’d be doing the same in their positions. It’s City Council that has a responsibility to make certain immediate, tough decisions on the budget and to re-examine the faulty policies that got us in this mess. The current economic situation just magnified them, is all. This is why Ron Naylor makes me madder by the day; it is NOT his role to defend staff proposals as he has been doing consistently during this process. I am beginning to think he is in the wrong job.

    Also, I forgot to call b.s. on Public Works saying they can’t possibly have more than one shift. They simultaneously refuse to consider other options and play the martyr when it comes to o.t. Well, I for one do NOT want a guy who’s been driving 24 hours to be plowing my street in that condition. That’s insane. Council should insist they keep exploring other options.

  4. Here is a possible alternative to the John Street proposal (which will be up for discussion on June 9th):

    http://www.historicsavannahfoundation.org/SuccessStories.html

    The computer pictures do not quite do the dramatic transformation justice. But the pictures should show that what looks like it might be a throwaway house could be saved. We don’t much of anything that looks like that bad in that whole area, not even the properties with bats.

    A lot of properties along John Street, etc. flood. If that could be dealt with first, then it would be worth it for property owners to invest in repairs or selling properties to new owners. Until the flood issue gets fixed, there is no point in blowing money in that area.

    Going ‘green’ seems to include not throwing a lot into the landfills. Perhaps the construction people reading this would know if rehabbing would create less garbage than complete tear down and rebuild, and could be used in marketing.

    Here is a similar model for Charleston, SC:

    http://www.historiccharleston.org/

    The money is all done differently for these foundations than TIF but could be modified to get the stress off the taxpayers’ backs. Incentives and/or low cost loans could get investors/home owners interested and the hammers swinging.

    It seems as though folks are grabbing thin air trying to find an identity for DeKalb. No strip mall could ever give DeKalb an identity.

  5. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve done it or do it. It is very easy to find yourself behind the wheel plowing for periods even longer than 24 hours. I’ve been behind the wheel during some snow storms and their aftermath for almost 50 hours plus.

    Catching 10 to 15 minutes cat naps instead of eating lunch or supper. Easy to do if your munching ocassionally while plowing. Driving many hours with a window open to help stay awake, good radio is a plus, and a good rig always helps from getting beat up bouncing around and forward when obstructions kind of pop up.

    It’s when you get down plowing and you’re too tired to actually go to sleep. When your body actually starts to crash is when things really start to catch up. That is what is so difficult when you have snow events that happen either every other day or back to back storms.

    Catching up on the loss sleep becomes almost impossible because now you find yourself catching up with obligations that were put to the side and business as usual continues.

    I would like to see the city incorporate some part time back up drivers from area companies that have slowed down and let go of drivers during a slow season. The state does that with their plows and many townships and countys do that. I think going to some type of a staggered shift would help keep some fresh drivers around and especially on weekends, it could help eliminate some of the overtime hours that are being used up. Something has to be done and I’m sure that the shift idea is just part of a brainstorm, never hurts to explore different scenarios.

    I hear that they are still finding ways to make the wheel better!

  6. Naps are great. A nap of 15 minutes can “buy” you about 3 hours of alertness. If the drivers are napping when they need to, I feel a whole lot better about it.

  7. In going over tommorrow night’s agenda for the City Council I see the following:
    RECOMMENDATION TO WAIVE THE BIDDING PROCESS AND AWARD
    MANNING FORD THE PURCHASE OF TWO HYBRID VEHICLES FOR THE
    COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT DEPARTMENT IN THE AMOUNT NOT TO
    EXCEED $55,398.00

    I know for a fact that they said the 09 budget ONLY includes 1 car for the police and all other vehicles have been put on hold. Are they going to try to buy these 2 vehicles for the comm. dev. dept. from THIS budget that we are already in the red on?? We need to watch this item….

  8. Gracie,

    Here is the explanation (I also suspect that this will be paid for from fy08 budget)

    From manager’s explanation on line:

    Community Development has budgeted $55,000 for vehicle replacements through the
    City’s lease/purchase program in Fiscal Year 2008. These two new vehicles will replace older
    Code Enforcement SUV’s with new hybrid vehicles that perform with nearly 300% better fuel
    efficiency.
    Each will save the City approximately $4,000 annually in fuel consumption, which was
    calculated at $3.00 per gallon, which equates to over $5,000 annually if fuel costs reach $4.00
    per gallon. The proposed new vehicles are also Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles that create
    virtually no carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, or similar emissions.
    These vehicles will replace two older SUV’s in the Community Development
    Department. Since delivery of the new vehicles is not expected until sometime this fall, a
    decision on how the vehicles will be disposed of will be made at a later date. Options may
    include rotating vehicles to other Departments or sale by bid.
    Approval of the purchase of two Ford Hybrid Escapes from Manning Ford, in an amount
    not to exceed $ 55,398.00, is recommended

  9. I’ve read all the backup on these vehicles Herb, but glad you shared them with others not wanting to download the 12mb file. I, too, like the switch to hybrids and appreciate the long term savings.

    I have to wonder though, with us being over 2million in debt for the 08 budget, if this purchase should be put off for the time being. The Community Development Dept. is being scaled back and they already have a lot of red trucks.

  10. The two vehicles should be pulled off of the consent agenda and discussed. The discussion should lead to voting NO on the purchase of those vehilces. I just don’t think that we should spend $56,000.00 that we don’t have just to save $10,000.00. The vehicles would not be delivered until late fall and the others would more than likely be kept and given to some other department. Well keep them in this department for another year or two.

  11. I have edited and deleted comments that referred to matters that are best left private.

    If you want anything else removed because it doesn’t make sense in the new context [coughMaccough] let me know.

  12. With us in the red like this, the only answer for Council to give is “no,” excuse me, I mean, “NO!!!” to any vehicle purchase beyond the police station’s modest request. This is where we find out if they were paying attention last week.

    I’m taking bets, though. Comm Dev is obviously the fair-haired child.

  13. Thanks Yinn for the appropriate editing.
    herb

    Hi Mac,
    Just commenting on general that we have all been spending way too much time at city hall, school district etc. I have books to write, bird pictures to prepare and trips to plan. Life has to have more in it than public meetings.

    I’ve been in politics my whole adult life but going from the last election to the referendum and to the budget crunch (and not doing enough for the building cost control on the school district) has worn me out.

    It dawned on me that during a holiday weekend reading city back up material and writing to the council (both of which i did) might not be the best use of personal time. Still we all face these time problems.

    On the budget, I have been finding that the obvious has already been pointed out and much has been cut back. Many other issues raised really require back and forth between us, staff, other citizens. On CD for example I am constantly saying on the one hand, but on the other hand, but on the third hand. So I (unlike some on this blog)I really do support community preservation programs through inspections, but on the other hand question if present programs done anything, on the third hand, how are these programs tied into crime prevention, on the 4th hand is CD as much a priority as other programs. Ditto with TIf: I support some of the current TIF programs, others don’t. In the short run cutting back tif programs does little, but in the longer run doing so has budgetary implications, but these are not simple. City staff have not been forth coming enough on the overtime and contracting issues, but on the other hand changing overtime and contracting, especially contracting out, are totally non trivial efforts.

    In situations of such complexity my tendency is to simplify as follows:

    (a) make it clear to council and staff as we have done (and I’ve done privately) that a ceiling is needed on expenses and on taxes and we have exceeded that ceiling right now. I think the message has been given and now let’s watch to see what is done but do so understanding that the public sector is very much an air craft carrier. (For instance, It’s clear to us that the airport is a financial sink, I’d be happy if steps were taken to reduce the bleeding, but short of shutting it down, transisting to a more cost effective facilty can’t be done over night. But some steps should be taken )

    (b) Citizens have given ideas for cutbacks. Obvious ones should be accepted and others debated. But generally council and staff should work out what stays and what goes, but do so within the following constraints:

    (i) We’ve exceeded the politically acceptable level of taxing and something has to give. (the current tax increase should be used only to restore the reserve fund and that’s it). The tax increase or at least most of it needs to be cut back but that means non trivial cutbacks in expenditures.

    (ii) More aggressive policies are needed on total staff compensation packages as that is where the big bucks lie. That 800 lb whatever has not yet been discussed at public meetings other than by us.

    Herb
    who definitely won’t do any more of this today

    The

  14. On the latest check register dated 5/9/2008 on page 8, here we go again with the Wright Athletic Center membership and this time, I *know* a couple of them are not for police or fire:

    $299 J. Diedrich Membership
    $299 M. Biernacki Membership
    $299 G. Guzinski Membership
    $299 J. Mattera Membership

    I looked through the fire, police, and AFSCME union contracts and saw nothing about athletic club membership as a perk. With the memberships lumped together on the itemized 2009 budget, I cannot tell if the memberships to the Wright Athletic Center got cut or not.

    Those Wright Athletic Center memberships need to be cut and never should have been there in the first place.

  15. AIRPORT FOR SALE

    This airport is located in a nice western suburb community. Located conveniently for all of those who may own a plane and would like some inexpensive hangar space. Newly built runway with the length to land that corporate jet or even a charter jet with capacity of 60. Newly acquired land also gives you the potential to lengthen or even add another runway.

    Newly acquired, state of the art landing system is also included plus maybe any other concession you would think necessary to “help” you make the purchase.

    Reason for selling: Citizens of DeKalb would rather see monies and energy focused on the important parts of government. Services that all citizens use on a daily basis. Minor things such as police, fire, water, and roads. Citizens of DeKalb would be eternally greatful if you were to buy the airport which serves so little of the local citizens.

    Call City of DeKalb for more information.

  16. Before someone calls health club memberships a perk that should be immediately taken out of the budget may I offer an alternative opinion.

    If these modest fees ($300.00) per year can somehow decrease the drastic increases the city faces in the health insurance costs than maybe this so called perk should be mandated to cover all employees. One could argue that every employee should belong to a program if it directly reduces the costs of the self insurance program.

    Many corporations today offer lower deductibles to their employees who join and use a health club because it leads to lower health related expenses. If this is the case than these memberships may be actually saving the city money by encouraging better health habits.

    Difficult decision but the cost of good health may outweigh the costs of treatment for poor health habits. This is just a thought on my part. I would bet you would find these costs buried somewhere in the prevented medicine part of the health costs. My apologies to Ms Shelton as I am not trying to argue with her point but I am just trying to offer an alternative position on the subject..

    Pevo .

  17. Pevo–How about folks use the Park District facilities that are already paid for by taxpayers, too, instead of Wright?

    How about a flexible spending account? We have no idea if folks actually use the Wright Athletic Center but if they were given $300 a year to spend in an FSA (which can only be used for health-related expenses not covered by health insurance, such as over-the-counter medicines), then at least if they could make a choice, the money could be used more wisely.

  18. One problem with health costs is that people change plans so often that it is not to the advantage of any one plan to pay for prevention. So long as the city is paying health costs and employees stay for a long time (the actual situation) it makes sense for the city to emphasize prevention. Health membership is one such approach that I’d just as soon not blur with an FSA, a good idea but a separate one.. How about the following: have a club member as a perq but one that is only paid if used. Meanwhile increase employee share of the health costs but so so for a lesser amount for those who are non smokers, participate in routine exercise, are not obese.

    We also need some information on how good the city coverage is. I was talking with a city employee about dental insurance (I’m spending low five figures out of pocket on some dental problems of my own) and learned that city coverage was even worse than the state coverage.

    Herb

  19. Actually, I’d like to know more about the fund the gym money comes from–1757 or something like that?–because it’s not a General Fund account.

  20. This is a simple problem that is getting too complicated–Dump the gym membership for all employees making over say $60,000 and encourage all to use the Park District facilities. Taxpayers pay twice under the current system, once to the Park District for its facilities and a second time for the memberships.

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