Council Watch, 5/27/08

The Financial Advisory Committee met once again with Council in a special meeting over the FY2009 proposed budget. Eventually, FAC is expected to make concrete suggestions for this budget before continuing its work on longer-term, bigger-picture issues. Last night, however, the group spent much of its time contemplating its tied hands. For reasons of “fair labor practices” and the Open Meetings Act, they have been directed by the city attorney not to discuss any city business with each other without calling an official meeting complete with staff liaison. Something about this stinks, partly because even two Council members can hang out together and partly because this body was not elected and has no vote on any of these matters. IMO the city is trying to shut them down to protect “business as usual.”

Indeed, this put a big damper on the level of enthusiasm, at least for last night’s interaction between FAC and Council which, in the implications for the residents, can be summed up thusly: “We are going to stick it to you again this year, but will fix it next year. We promise!!”

In other news, we’re going to spend $1.6 million on renovating a parking lot to gain maybe 4 more spaces and $8000 on a webcam so we can watch our money being put into the lot. Then there’s the authorization of $5.5 million in bond anticipation notes that was approved, on which neither the city manager nor his assistant could even ballpark the interest rate. (Cityspeak translation: “You don’t wanna know.”)

There were a couple of bright spots. FAC is reeling right now but there are indications that not everyone is ready to throw in the towel. And, as for the parking lot, Ald. Povlsen gets it that a person can support downtown revitalization while understanding that some projects can be deferred for the sake of our solvency so I would urge e-mailing him a pat on the back.

Here are Lynn Fazekas’ prepared remarks from last night. They differ somewhat from what was actually said but nothing that would change the meaning.

Members of the City Council: Good evening. I’d like to respond to remarks made at the budget workshop last Wednesday regarding the airport, and about spending policies and priorities.

First off, the airport. Most of the airport budget is our money. The airport is expected to bring in somewhere around $400,000 in rents and other revenue next year from somebody besides us, and that’s great. But the rest of it comes from us, the taxpayers. $2,845,000 in federal pass-through funding? Our money. Possible state grants of $936,000? Our money. $2.5 million earmark? Ours. Staffing a Streets person and a Water Division person? Again, our money. Clearly, we should have a say in whether we want an airport or not. I say “no.” For one thing, we should be a bit leery about how a continual rise in the price of fuel will change the rosy picture we’ve painted. And the part about the airport “turning the corner” to self-sufficiency, well, that must be one big, bad corner because we’ve been hearing this for a long, long time. It’s time to think about selling the airport to somebody who can complete the turn.

Lest you say that I’m being impatient about this, let me tell you what really tries my patience. Last week in this very room it was said that, up to recently, we’ve been enjoying a “boom” time. Really?! We had a boom and couldn’t make the airport pay? We had a boom and didn’t even get a police station out of it?! Something is very wrong with the plan. It does not make sense.

I also have a question about why Council continues to approve transfers to the General Fund that further defer badly-needed maintenance. For example, Council approves about a half-million every year from the Water Division while long-overdue tower-painting and water main replacements remain undone. That does not make sense, either, at least not on the surface. However, in the context of another statement made here last week about DeKalb’s having “only” $34 million in outstanding debt, I think I am beginning to follow the logic. How’s this for a strategy: DeKalb continues raising fines and fees and taxes to give staff multiple raises and bonuses and top-tier health coverage, but neglects the buildings and equipment and sidewalks and water mains until conditions reach crisis proportions. Then, the city pleads both “emergency” and “poverty” and argues that this is a fine time to go into more debt. Yikes. I fear that DeKalb has decided to travel full speed in one direction and one direction only, which is bad enough in normal times but disastrous in view of the economic forecast.

Because a perfect storm it is shaping up to be. Our fire department providing primary health care in addition to emergency services is just one dismal thunderhead on the horizon. Currently, 9% of our people live below the poverty line, 25% of home sales are the result of foreclosures nationwide, unemployment is creeping up, property values are falling, prices of the basics are rising, and businesses are contracting or even closing. We’ve got a couple of really bad years ahead of us. A refusal to make a course correction, a refusal to shrink the budget and to plan for the rainy days, would constitute a failure of imagination of immense proportions and ruinous results. Now is so not the time for autopilot. Now is so not the time to accept “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as an answer. Please, I urge you to put your imaginations fully to work on this budget.

Thank you.

[Permission is given to reprint in full.]

4 thoughts on “Council Watch, 5/27/08”

  1. I too was a bit disappointed, as my comments on examining labor costs were quoted by council members and I thought progress had been made. (Oh, I asked that the public hearing be left open and council agreed. That’s not a mere technicality. If it had been closed, public commentary would be restricted to the 3 minutes that people can talk on an issue. At an open public hearing, there is far less tendency (and legal right) to limit statements).

    Still i think Yinn is a bit more pessimistic than need be and I’m willing to watch and talk for another month. Council and FAC worked out ways of presenting most of the stuff on background labor costs in public in ways that are permissible with another meeting to be held.

    On open meetings: Yes, two council members can talk with one another legally and so can (a legally defined percent of any public committee, percent is less than the majority of a quorum) but what is not allowed is a round robbin sharing of information through the dyadic conversations.
    Problem is dyadic conversations enable person holding them to manipulate information. Any officially appointed city committee is subject to open meetings act and as a chair of such a committee I am more comfortable with a strict interpretation of that act as it does protect us all. (Past mayors used the loopholes to secretly arrange for subsidies). It is legal to have staff compile information and then send it out to all committee members as such compiliation is then a public document available to all who ask.

    That stated I really hope that at the planned open meetings full compensation data are put out so compare with other cities and with salaries over time. Savings certainly can be found in non salary items but these savings are at best one year or one time savings. We’ve saved several thousand on water cooler costs (or some such thing) but we can’t save that same sum again. In contrast, more controllable labor costs will lower all budgets. (a proviso: I’m assuming we are paying more for labor than need be; if that is not the case, I simply don’t know what to do.)

    On the 1.6 million: Yinn and i do disagree on the importance of continuing the downtown work now but that’s a policy difference not a difference on the current budget. — Ultimately paying back the 1.6 million (that will be more when all is done) depends on the success of a new downtown (and is complicated to explain). Symbolically spending the money right now might not be right. But the bottom line is if we did not spend the money right now it would NOT impact the fy09 budget an iota. (It might or might not impact future budgets depending on the success of downtown). Plus the 1.6 million is not just for 4 parking spaces. The parking spaces were the compromise with the downtown merchants that enabled the whole redesign to go forward. Summary, people do disagree on the wisdom of going forward with the downtown, but the 1.6 million is NOT money being spent out of the current budget or the fy09 GR budget. If it were cut the same GR budget with the same tax needs would still be on the floor (or wherever budgets are kept :)

    That being said, I totally concur with the post above in terms of the need to rethink how raises are given etc.

    Please don’t interpret the length as disagreeing with the core concerns about how wage structure interact with the deficit. I am in agreement here and that is the core part of the concern with fy09. I just wanted to clarify that the open meetings act is vital to preserve and that the 1.6 million is a separate issue, on which reasonable people can disagree, from the current deficit.

    Thanks for the reporting. I talked with 3 committee members yesterday after the meeting and they are all pursuing stuff that should please Yinn (and me).

    A question though and maybe either Yinn could answer it or could ask the poster to do so. Where do we get the money for replenishing the reserve fund and doing some of the repairs from the current budget while cutting back on the tax increase. I support all three (note I’ve changed on the tax increase over time, I’d like to keep half of it to replenish reserve fund and handle the rest through cutbacks) but even with the cutbacks suggested don’t see enough to do all three.

    Herb

  2. Dr. Rubin

    I have moved my response to this page at it seems more suited for my discussion on the current FY09 budget. For others please see my initial opinions on the “Cop Shop” page.

    Maybe this idea could be floated to the FAC.

    I understand and fully anticipate the response from the Council that they are bound and limited by what they can do to the current union contracts. Like they had nothing to do with the creation of those contracts to begin with..

    How about recommending this to the FAC.

    >>> No mayor shall be allowed to enter a Collective Bargaining Agreement or other contract that extends beyond the term of their current office………or…….No sitting Council shall be allowed to enter into a collective bargaining agreement or contract that extends beyond the current term of that sitting Council.

    This would keep one mayor or council from determining how future Councils must govern and set their budgets. Let those in office be responsible for their actions not those in office having to take the responsibility for those that served before them.

    Pevo

  3. Ed,
    Why not send your clever idea to the FAC. Needs to work out many technicalities as council terms are staggered and it would group contract negotiations to the early part of a mayoral term (unless people wanted very short contracts and that’s not good, I think)

    Still if the wringles can be worked out a clever idea.

    After the meeting i suggested to FAC that they missed asking the core question to Berniacki:

    A while back, Berniacki asked the council for the tax increase. Council agreed. But if the council had said no, Berniacki should (must have, ought to have) had a back up plan. What was that back up plan and how much of that back up plan can be used to curtail the present budget.

    FAC people said they would ask the question.

    Herb

    herb

  4. Herb, I was basically asking Mark B for a back-up plan when I asked for the numbers sans the remaining proposed tax increases. You ask it better. The public should be given facts to consider in choosing their priorities.

    The budget issue is pretty much black or white at this point. Increase the taxes and fees as proposed or make cuts. The proposal to increase taxes to arrive at a balanced budget plus $1 million is built on a premise that neglects the fact that we are using longer term debt to paint that FY09 picture. We must cut expenditures to at-or-below revenue and cease debt transfer budgeting. That’s simple economics.

    Good idea, Pevo. Almost sounds like the beginning of a Charter or Municipal Constitution. We need one of those to protect us against Home Rule abuse. Perhaps we should use one to extend the term for mayors to six years, limit one term and subject to your suggested limitations on contract terms.

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