From the Daily Chronicle today comes “DeKalb aldermen confront budgeting issues.”

During their Monday discussion of the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, DeKalb aldermen were told the city will need to cut services or boost revenue in order to maintain operations in the coming years.

Beginning July 1, alderman were told, the city should shift its structure and look at the way the general fund is used.

“The main thing is the current structure of how everything is put together is not sustainable,” City Manager Anne Marie Gaura said. “Something has to change and that will require policy decisions in the coming months and coming years on how to address this long-term.”

Gee, where have I heard this before? Read the rest of this entry

The Daily Chronicle notes that new DeKalb city manager Anne Marie Gaura has made some personnel changes. I am particularly gratified by this statement:

The moves all deal with personnel issues, a subject on which employers are generally limited on what they can say, but they could have announced they happened.

The Chronicle’s actual main point is that Gaura is shaking things up and it looks like the aim is to save money while improving service. This is something I’d love to embrace 100% but I keep getting hung up on the city’s failure to communicate these decisions until confronted.

By passing up opportunities to announce changes, DeKalb is squandering opportunities to rebuild trust that previous city leaders destroyed through a culture of dishonesty and secrecy.

Speaking of which, have you seen the video of Saturday’s town hall meeting yet? Distrust and suspicion were recurring themes.

Mayor Rey has un-ironically declared on his Facebook page, “I see a better, safer and more transparent DeKalb.”

Yet DeKalb is a town that:

– Told no one that its finance director had resigned until specifically asked about it more than a month later.

– Refused to announce the location of its warming center during the worst of the winter.

– Allowed citizens to find out the hard way last week that there was no one available to issue the permits that they needed.

The above events don’t reflect a better, safer or more transparent DeKalb. They are anti-public relations and furthermore enough removed from common sense as to have ventured a toe into the realm of the bizarre.

NIU president Baker and the mayor each spoke to the group, as did NIU vice-president Bill Nicklas and an architect who explained the process involved in the development of the Bold Futures Thesis.

In a nutshell, NIU wants to transform the thesis into a real plan for better use of the physical campus in nurturing a sense of place. It is one of several initiatives they hope will improve enrollment and retention of the hip, urban Millennial Generation.

When audience members expressed concern that the university is also pushing development plans for nearby historic neighborhoods without their input, the NIU representatives seemed genuinely surprised that they’d reached this conclusion. The NIU thesis isn’t a plan yet, they said; and besides, the focus is on the campus center.

Funny. I’d reached the same conclusion that the audience did when I attended the March 15 City of DeKalb strategic planning meeting. There, VP Nicklas shared his top budget priorities that involved the city and my notes show one of them is “Locust Street enhancements.”

So, I think maybe the NIU folks are back-pedaling a little.

However, I also believe the city has hitched its caboose to the NIU train with a little sleight-of-hand. Read the rest of this entry

Can DeKalb Really Help Fix NIU?

The Daily Chronicle’s editorial board scolded a group of residents this week for being total NIMBYs hating on good and necessary change.

[D]espite all the benefits that our communities draw from having the university here, there is resistance to ideas that could change the nearby neighborhoods, particularly the Ellwood historic and Hillcrest neighborhoods, where residents have formed a community group, Preserve Our Neighborhoods, in response.

People by nature don’t like change. It’s natural for them to be skeptical. But fighting to stop any change will not be good for anyone, really.

My observations suggest this is a mistaken assumption. Group members aren’t resisting change per se but rather are targeting the utter gall of NIU’s handing down a plan for their neighborhoods without their input.

Now that Preserve Our Neighborhoods has succeeded in forcing something of a pause, maybe we could productively use it to think through the notion that widening sidewalks, installing tram service and building more housing are really the best uses of resources in combating the problem of plummeting enrollment. Read the rest of this entry

Laura Pisarcik was City of DeKalb’s financial director for three years until her resignation March 7.

Despite her position as a department head, Pisarcik’s departure went unannounced until the Daily Chronicle began making inquiries and reported the separation April 12.

Since then I’ve obtained the separation agreement from the city under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

A non-disclosure provision is item numbered six in the agreement, while items 10 and 13 indicate Pisarcik had up to 21 days to consult with an attorney before signing, and notes that she did. Pisarcik and Anne Marie Gaura signed it less than two months following Gaura’s installation as city manager in January.

Severance pay is explicitly rejected in the agreement, but Pisarcik’s accrued hours of paid time off came to a payout of $9,000.

The document is five pages long and I’ve placed it after the jump. Read the rest of this entry

From the Daily Chronicle’s weekend edition:

The city of DeKalb is without a finance director after Laura Pisarcik resigned the same week city Manager Anne Marie Gaura announced financial consultants would review the city’s financial policies and procedures.

Ordinarily I’d applaud the sight of heads rolling for the sake of accountability. This time I can’t. Here’s the problem: Though the Daily Chronicle published the news yesterday, Pisarcik resigned the first week of March. Her absence was discovered by accident last week, when somebody noticed her name had been removed from the city’s website and thought to ask about it. (Yeah, that was me.)

A city department head has been gone for a month without a public announcement of the departure? I wonder why?

Gaura acknowledged there is a separation agreement between the city and Pisarcik, but declined to disclose the details.

Oh.

Does Ms. Gaura think she can withhold these details indefinitely? I’ve already submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, and please note I’ve never been denied copies of any contract. And when it comes specifically to separation agreements, we have only to recall that the Chronicle had no problem obtaining agreements signed with former city clerk Steve Kapitan and former park district executive director Cindy Capek.

There’s no doubt the separation agreement will come out. Also, Laura Pisarcik would have been missed at the next budget meeting, right? The city manager has blown, for no good reason, an opportunity to build trust with the community.

City of DeKalb’s use of administrative tow fees brings up lots of questions, such as how many of these off-budget accounts the city has and whether their collective use rises to the title of “shadow budget.”

I don’t have the answers to the above questions, but I do know that even off-budget transactions are included in the invoice payment listings, aka check register. And thanks to the new account coding, you can usually easily tell what type of account each purchase is charged to, should this be of interest to you. Read the rest of this entry

The Daily Chronicle may have just published one of the most important investigative reports ever written about City of DeKalb finances.

Since early 2013, the DeKalb Police Department has used around $300,000 of the $350,000 collected in administrative tow fees to buy a wide range of items outside of its regular budget.

There are a lot of potential issues arising from this revelation, from whether the tow fee ordinance is fair to how much the equipping of the new police station might have gone over budget. The article seems to suggest that, right now, the city is mostly concerned about the administrative tow ordinance itself coming under attack. But to me, we’re taking our eyes off the prize if we stray too far from the simple fact that $300,000 in public spending was not publicly accounted for in 2013.

I mean, doesn’t it make you wonder:

  • What other accounts holding fines and fees are used for “extras”?
  • How this might relate to the $3-million-plus “excess expenditures over budget” that the city’s auditors found noteworthy?

  • Why the city has begun changing the policy even while insisting there’s nothing wrong with the status quo?
  • That’s just for starters. So I’m going to keep my eyeballs on this for awhile, yes, yes indeedy.

    Strategic Planning Docs & Thoughts

    Last Saturday I attended a “strategic planning retreat” of DeKalb City Council, department heads and a couple others. Here’s a slideshow of the agendas, planning guide and timeline. Read the rest of this entry

    **Update, noonish: Just picked this up on Twitter: IL Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) is sponsoring legislation to help prevent thefts of local government funds. One of the key provisions includes auditors’ sharing copies of the management letters with the governing bodies of counties and municipalities.**

    Recently I became aware that each annual financial audit includes an auditor’s “letter to management” with comments and recommendations. As far as I know, such letters are not published (perhaps due to inclusion of deficiencies that some would find embarrassing) but a citizen can obtain them via Freedom of Information Act requests and I did.

    This piece of the FY2013 letter caught my attention:

     photo AuditorsLettersOverBudget_zps70d364e4.jpg

    “Excess of actual expenditures over budget” to the tune of $3.1 million is pretty major, especially for a town that supposedly is striving to meet a target to hold the equivalent of 25% of its General Fund balance in reserve.

    Why isn’t the overspending big news? When it comes to the General Fund, the city enjoyed revenues that exceeded projections for the year — enough to cover the excess spending and a bit more. I guess the philosophy is, if you don’t end up with an actual deficit in your GF, it doesn’t matter what you spend.

    Other funds, such as Equipment and Fleet, aren’t so easy to explain. For example, Equipment had excess expenditures of $512,680 according to the letter, yet total expenditures as shown in FY2013 estimates (which are part of the FY2014 budget) are only $259,310. Fleet has a similar story. Did someone OK last-minute spending sprees that didn’t make it into the FY2013 budget estimates? What should we make of this?