Council Watch, 6/10/08

About that $485,000 rabbit. Refuse Fund info can be found both in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) and on the proposed budget pages plain as day. However, before it was revealed just what the plans for it were, there was really no way of knowing what it meant. Nobody found line-items for the truck and trommel, I suppose because they were still saving for them, so if you are looking at that fund for only one budget year you would naturally assume that the fund was allocated throughout Public Works. You really have to look at several years’ worth of budgets and/or CAFRs to see that they were building up the Refuse Fund.

So what’s missing is the mechanism for calling attention to such a “savings plan.” We thought such a mechanism would be called “city manager” or “assistant city manager” but since the mechanism failed to pull the rabbit out onto the table at the first peep of fiscal crisis, we know this is not sufficient.

To be very clear on this: I consider this a major failure and, if conscientiously hidden, malfeasance. That is not the same as illegal. There are a heck of a lot of things that aren’t illegal but still demonstrate incompetence and/or violate the public trust. Question: When does somebody get fired?

What did we find out last night? For one thing, there are 30 non-union employees with the city and that 23 of them work in the Administrative Services Department. File that away; it might be helpful later. We found out that the police and fire pensions are 70% funded (did anyone catch what he said about IMRF?). And here is what Council has directed to be changed in the proposed FY2009 budget, to be considered next meeting:

  • Raise the fuel budget line items to reflect the high probability of increasing fuel costs
  • Eliminate the revenue projections from the almost-sure-to-fail natural gas and utility taxes from the proposed budget
  • Reduce the $100,000 legislative placeholder to $50,000 and forget the “branding” project for now
  • Eliminate overtime another 10%
  • Reduce expenses in the Administrative Services Department by another 10%
  • That last one is quite an accomplishment, I think. Overall, though, my instincts tell me that way too little was done under the current financial circumstances.

    One particularly interesting aspect to me was the conversation about psychology. They talked about “sharing the pain,” about symbolic gestures for the benefit of the public such as a token reduction in Council’s salaries or insurance. You know: stuff that’s good for everybody’s morale. This is a little ironic considering nobody but Ald. Baker even questions the ludicrousness of keeping the $75,000 line item for the skating rink. Or, to put it another way: “HELLO! WE DON’T CARE IF IT’S TIF DOLLARS YOU’RE USING . TAKE IT OUT! IT’S A TOY! TAKE IT OUT!”

    Oh, geez, I think I popped a vein.

    As for the rabbit, looks like they might save 75% of it for capital expenditures (also called capex, I just found out). This is quite contentious, as we guessed might happen. The argument here makes me a little dizzy. Those who want to throw the $485,000 into the General Fund say that they need the flexibility of access to it in a tight budget year and that they always find the money in GF for capital expenditures just fine when needed, without setting it aside special; and that not throwing the money into the big pot puts services in jeopardy. I don’t know how they can believe these things to be true. As Ald. Povlsen pointed out, some of the sidewalks outside the TIF district are so bad that they increase the city’s liability. This tells us that a very basic repair/maintenance function is not being properly prioritized. And may I remind them of the ancient water mains becoming geysers with greater and greater frequency, and a leaky water tower that got that way through sheer neglect. That puts a basic service in jeopardy, does it not? What we have here is a budget team, a partnership between city staff and council, that spends its energies on defending what should be low-priority items such as a blood-sucking airport; and which is too bedazzled by its sexy downtown projects to pay much attention to the rest.

    One last thing. If staff talked to me the way they talk to some of the aldermen, they would get an earful. Council members should not put up with disrespect.

    15 thoughts on “Council Watch, 6/10/08”

    1. One observation of many that I have after last night: The $485,000 rabbit was presented as a way to forego the natural gas and utility tax for two years. The Council did then reject those 2 taxes on first reading. Didn’t we already ‘spend’ that $485,000 by that action??? The income from those two taxes was in the proposed budget already and now it’s gone. Why does the Council now still believe they have an ‘extra’ $485,000 to spend on capital +/or ANY fund?

      I don’t believe they made enough cuts last night to make any sort of substantial difference. It appears to me by their silence in agreeing to most cuts that the City Council STILL does not get it. Gorski didn’t put her ‘vote’ on even ONE cut. I sure hope some different people step up to the plate and run for the upcoming aldermanic races…. THESE people just don’t get it.

    2. There are two ways to go. One is to use the $485,000 in lieu of the natural gas and electricity hikes–a short-term band-aid to get us through the year. The other is to put it to an area that’s being neglected, or in reserve, but that means making up for it in cuts.

      IMO what you have spotted, Gracie, is some disarray on the part of Council. Those who are advocating for putting the “windfall” to capex should have been leading the charge very aggressively for cuts to make up for it. They lost their focus and their footing. Hope they can regroup.

    3. You said that better than I, yinn, but yes… the disarray is what I’m trying to point out. I agree wholeheartedly that those advocating putting that money towards different funds should have more strongly pushed for other cuts to the budget. That didn’t happen. The silence in that respect was deafening. I usually am the optimistic one in the bunch but I sure find it hard to think that they might actually refocus now on the needed cuts to the budget.

    4. If it stinks like a fish:

      The ‘rabbit’ is probably a surprise red herring, carefully orchestrated to throw everyone off. I think the same technique got used with the threats of laying off workers which came first and loud in January, then later, those tax increases came up. I believe that was orchestrated, too. Scaring everyone with laying off workers came first, then those tax increases did not seem so bad with saving everyone’s jobs in mind.

      The city manager is not a stupid man–Follow the trail of bread crumbs backwards.

      The same process happened with the airport. They got wind that there were criticisms about the airport and the lobbyiest, and bam, the airport got a surprise earmark thus justifying it and spending the money for the lobbyiest, quieting down criticism of both. Score! That was a Twofer!

      So, now there might be a pattern of behavior, what will happen next?

      Which pet project of the city manager’s will he save first through the next shell game with the money? His own department from a 10% cut? The apartment rental inspection plan (probably his idea, from his Elgin days)?

      Wagers anyone?

    5. Wild card alert: the Home Rule Tax on gasoline.

      Scenario: Staff revenue projections on the 2-cent Motor Fuel Tax hit their mark ($400,000). That would mean 20,000,000 gals of gas purchased in the city. At $4 per gal, that’s $2,000,000 sales tax in a year. At $5 per gal that’s $2.5 mil. (based on 2.5 cents, could be 1.75, you do that math)

      Staff projected $1.8 mil in total new sales tax revenue from the increase in the Home Rule Sales Tax. That figure include all sales subject to the tax.

      I agree with Mike Peddle that if possible we should rescind the Home Rule Sales Tax increase per gas but I have doubts of that measure’s legality. It (legality) should be asked of Dept of Revenue.

      However, if such a measure would be rendered undoable then any sales tax revenue beyond what is currently projected should be designated to the Reserve Fund and yes, EVEN rebate.

      R E B A T E spells relief.

      ALSO: I have not given up on postponing consideration of the Rental Inspection program until the fy10 budget. I still maintain that the staff expenditures for that proposed department are in fact factored into the fy09 expenditures and that amounts to around $250,000.

      Proof: If the program is rejected by the council, what happens to the 3 staff members dedicated to it… Mark B said that it would be up to the council to lay them off or other. With the reduction in building permits and potential overstatement of those types of revenues in the budget, I’m very sorry but those positions must go. Those are annual expenses plus building “post retirement expenses.”

    6. Mac–I would like to see “other” happen. I do not like how the city manager used the threat of laying people off as a way of playing chicken with the Council in order to attempt to ramrod that program through. There is a desire in the community to enforce the existing ordinances. There would a service those people could provide that citizens want. OK, so how to pay?

      1. Well, increase the fees people pay when there are code violations. The proposed inspection program punishes the good landlords and the good tenants with higher costs and throws them into the same boat as the bad landlords and the bad tenants. Instead, I prefer seeing the bad ones pay more.

      2. I am beginning to think that although there is a budget problem, we have a TIF problem and that is causing a secondary problem in setting priorities. If money can be found to have a $2 million dollar Taj Mahal parking lot, $100,000 to hire a company to make sure the work gets done right, and set up a Web cam yet the city cannot find enough money to pay people who are already hired, that sounds like a TIF / priorities problem.

      People before Web cams. Please. If the answer is it’s TIF money and it shouldn’t be touched, well the question should have been months and months ago, what can the city afford to set aside for TIF?

      3. Go back and look at what these folks might be doing without the program before laying them off. Based on all the complaints that residents have about the lack of code enforcement, it sounds like there is work for these people to do. Will it take three? Maybe not?

      4. Things I have not thought of yet, things I have wrong, and ideas others have.

    7. What might be helpful here is a kind of advisory petition with lots of signatures on it, where the leading statement would say something like the following:

      “We the undersigned residents of DeKalb express an opinion of no confidence in the City of DeKalb’s administration, due in part to the misplaced priorities of the city staff and Council, the intellectually-dishonest management of certain city funds, and the failure of the city’s administration to correct these issues.”

      Get a couple hundred signatures (not just a couple dozen, numbers count here) and bring it in as a big stack to present at a Council meeting and it may end up being a shot across the bow that says that we’re not going to play these mickey mouse games.

      It’s less extreme than revoking home rule outright and gives them a chance to do an about-face (whether or not they deserve another chance is a question for the reader).

    8. Friends from the Rochelle area think DeKalb is set to repeat Rochelle’s mistake. They tried a similar rental inspection program and tried to kick out the Mexicans (of course, no one will say that openly because that is discrimination) and anyone with multiple people living in an apartment meant for a couple of people. It totally backfired. The landlords organized, formed alliances, they got their tenants involved in fighting back to keep their rents down, and the result ended up being the bad properties are still bad. Some of the renters considered undesirable got motivated and now many of them are land owners–that is a bright spot in the result.

      According to these people, the best thing DeKalb can do is put off the rental inspection proposal, and just let it fade away.

      Funny how Wogen did not show up for the meeting on Tuesday yet it took two days to realize that he didn’t contribute because he didn’t show up. They should get three or four sick days a year and after that, they should be docked pay.

    9. Anonymous: Acutally, under Section 2.07 of the DeKalb Municipal Code, it is provided that an Alderman who misses a meeting can be fined up to 1/24 of his compensation. The Council decides by vote if the reason for missing a meeting is acceptable and if not, they then vote on the fine. If only…

      However, there is no fine for aldermen showing up for meetings and then wreaking havoc on the populace of the community.

      (I was curious as to the procedure to remove elected officials; there is none, at least that I could find).

    10. The recall for elected state officials got blocked in the Illinois Senate. There is nothing for elected officials at any level. I would be in favor of recalls with reasonable yet strong enough requirements that it could be done on rare occasions. Cook County Board President Todd Stroger is so bad that the City of Palatine threatened to split from Cook County but there is no way to get rid of him.

    11. HEY MAC.

      If you think you will need more than 3 minutes at the June 23 meeting to express your views let me know. I can always show up and fill out a form then yield my time to you. Let me know how much time you will need and I am sure I can get others to reserve time then yield it to you also.

      There may be more than one was to skin a cat. IE taking the stop watch out of the attorneys hands


    12. There are limits to what can be done with TIF monies, especially with regards to administration. Generally, they can be used to fix up the blighted properties in the district, be transferred to other TIF districts in the same municipality under certain circumstances, and also be used to pay for the administrative expenses for the district. Again, Mike Peddle is the fellow to see about what is legal or not with the Illinois TIF laws. It has been a while since I went through them. What I am concerned about is that the council and mayor are being led by the nose by the city administration. I agree that the “refuse” money pot is probably a red herring. The announcement of the deficit and the campaign to raise taxes are starting to stink badly. The mayor and council need to regain control of the city from the administrative staff. I agree with Ivan that some heads need to roll. A few disclaimers here. I teach public administration courses at NIU. I also support the council-manager form of municipal governance. And, after Jim Connors resigned, I submitted my resume for the city manager job. I was Mayor Sparrow’s neighbor for many years, and we were civil but disagreed on many points. I knew full well that I would not be considered for the position, but decided for the sheer joy of it to apply and handed my application personally to the head of HR. While I met most of the qualifications stated for the position, I am sure that my application and resume were in the shredder before I left city hall. But despite all of that, I am not happy with how things are being handled. This is true of both the budget mess and with the building inspection ordinance.

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