DeKalb playing favorites with the bandit in the castle

Cohen Barnes owns a building in downtown DeKalb under the name “The Bandit’s Castle, LLC.”

So he’s a bandit who bought a castle. Is this like the tv shows where the psychos leave little clues of their crimes? The imagination runs wild.

The thing with bandits is that, by definition, they belong to gangs. This is more or less what we saw last night, with City of DeKalb enabling Mr. Barnes to return to council to grab more TIF money since his rehab job on the Castle, for which he obtained a development incentive of $400,000 last spring, has hit a snag.

What’s the snag? Nobody anticipated that a 100-year-old building could have water damage and asbestos. No inspection was done, and no money for contingencies was set aside. It’s municipal malpractice, is what it is.

But due diligence doesn’t matter, because the city checkbook is simply always open for Mr. Barnes.

Many thanks go out to Aldermen David Jacobson and Mike Verbic, who voted against the double dipping. (Alderman Pat Fagan recused himself.)

Y’all folks in the Third, Fifth, and Seventh wards have a year to find replacements.

Rockford aldermen promising to control themselves if voters give back home rule

Let’s start by reviewing what almost happened here a couple months ago. The city manager in DeKalb decided she wanted to raise the sales tax, claiming complete inability to balance a budget without it.

Having the highest sales tax around is not the greatest business move, but despite financial consultants’ adamant warnings against it, city administrators sold it hard. If we hadn’t turned over a couple of staff-compliant electeds in last spring’s elections, the measure likely would have passed.

And your instincts surely tell you that, if DeKalb lost home rule powers and had to go to referendum to invent or raise a tax, it just might discourage bureaucrats and legislators from floating the idea every time they want a new toy.

Home rule in DeKalb can be exhausting.

City of Rockford had home rule at one time, but the residents took it away 35 years ago. Rockford aldermen are now asking voters to give them another chance, by passing ordinances that limit their own powers. Here’s an example:

Among the self-limiting ordinances approved was one that has raised significant concern — that leaders would have the power as a home-rule authority to raise property taxes at will, behind closed doors, or as high as they wish without voter approval. Under the ordinance, taxes cannot exceed the non-home rule limit established under the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (PTELL).

Far be it from me to tell Rockford residents what to do, but may I point out that ordinances can be repealed. Let’s say voters pass home rule. Probably the current council would abide by them, but what would stop a future council from reversing these actions?

Depending upon its collective capacity for shame, the answer would range from “not much” to “nothing.”

Noreiko worries about frozen pipes, just not yours

I’m still digesting the DeKalb city council’s goal-setting session from earlier this week.

The alderman from the Fifth Ward, Kate Noreiko, was pushing to build a new DeKalb Municipal Building instead of renovating the one we have. She says she thinks it’s unsafe, though she provided no foundation for this belief.

Part of Noreiko’s argument was that, if the pipes there freeze and burst, what would city workers do?

Hold that thought for a moment. I want to introduce another goal council members talked about evening, which was emergency operations planning. During that discussion, Noreiko wanted to address active shooter situations.

My mind went back to frozen pipes, because we don’t have SWAT teams for that.

Last month, 30,000 Com Ed customers in Kane, Will, and Kendall counties lost power during one of the days of extreme cold we had. Fortunately, the outage lasted only two hours. Continue reading Noreiko worries about frozen pipes, just not yours

DeKalb can become “business friendly” when this city manager is gone

DeKalb city council had another goal-setting session Tuesday evening.

It was a good session, as was last month’s, but at one point I had to laugh, and it was during the perennial make-DeKalb-more-business-friendly discussion.

I dearly wish more council members truly understood that friendliness is impossible under city manager Anne Marie Gaura. Unless you are one of a favored few, you run into a culture that not only disregards the basic tenets of good service, but systematically finds ways to make the going harder.

Alderman David Jacobson tried to explain this again Tuesday. He talked about “the hoops you have to jump through, and the games you have to play” as a local business owner.

Likewise, I’ve become an expert in the travails of the general public, and the latest example involves council’s establishment of a state-mandated “TIF interested parties registry” for the proposed new downtown TIF district. The TIF Redevelopment Act only requires that the city adopt “reasonable registration rules,” which this crew took as an opportunity to create something decidedly unfriendlier than what came before. Continue reading DeKalb can become “business friendly” when this city manager is gone

Here’s the difference in agenda rules between regular and special public meetings

During a recent Annie Glidden North task force subcommittee meeting, I alleged Open Meetings Act (OMA) violations. I want to explain why.

What I objected to was the subcommittee’s addition of discussion items to the agenda of a special meeting. During regular meetings, a public body can talk about anything it wants, but that same body must stick to the published agenda when it has a special meeting.

It’s easier to understand if you unhook “notice” from “agenda.” Maybe you’ve heard of the rule of publishing meeting notices and agendas 48 hours in advance? The “notice” part actually differs between regular and special meetings. While you might also see meeting specifics on a regular agenda (makes sense) the notice that counts under OMA is the schedule published at the beginning of the fiscal or calendar year; the 48-hour notice applies to the agenda only. A special meeting, on the other hand, requires that the body publish 48 hours in advance the notice of the meeting and the agenda together.

Adding discussion items to a regular agenda is allowed due to the abundance of notice for regular meetings. At least hypothetically, anyone interested has enough time to arrange to attend any or all regular meetings.

The agenda rule for special meetings is tighter — no additions allowed — due to the short notice.

So back to the subcommittee meetings. These are special meetings so far, but last week at least one committee added items to its agenda. Whoever is the boss of these committees (the mayor, I hope) could decide to give them flexibility of agenda by setting up a regular meeting schedule, but until then they must stick to their agendas.

Also, could somebody please train the city staff. There were three staff members attending the meeting I observed, and none of them had a clue. Continue reading Here’s the difference in agenda rules between regular and special public meetings

Warmth is important for bridging the morality gap

Recently I brought up at a city council meeting, again, the issue of an overnight warming center. People used to be able to stop in at our city hall to sit and thaw out a bit at night, back when it was PD headquarters and open 24 hours. The new police station is likewise open 24 hours, but the city refuses to name it as a nighttime emergency resource in weather extremes.

At the meeting I related that a friend of mine had discovered a person in a sleeping bag in a downtown doorway during the worst of the cold (so far) this winter. Then I was rebutted. It went something like, “Oh, yeah, that’s probably the guy who refuses to go to Hope Haven.”

Well, for some people, if the choices are to go to Hope Haven or SOL, they are not real choices. (This is absolutely no reflection on Hope Haven, which is the best.) Bad things can happen to vulnerable people in shelters, and nobody should blame them for trying to protect themselves by avoiding the unknown. We took in a young man for a couple weeks right after Christmas one year. It was a couple decades ago, but I remember it well because some of his stories literally raised the hair on the back of my neck. In short, giving shit choices to traumatized people doesn’t sit well with me. Continue reading Warmth is important for bridging the morality gap

Mayor’s statement about DeKalb Public Library’s tax promises

Mayor Smith came out this week in support of calls for DeKalb Public Library to keep its 2015 promises to repay taxpayers, and says he is confident the DKPL board “will do the right thing.”


DeKalb County Online: DeKalb Public Library and its property tax promises

City Barbs: Going deeper on DeKalb Public Library’s expansion and promises

DeKalb County Online: Something’s missing from discussions of DeKalb Public Library’s property tax levy

Going deeper on DeKalb Public Library’s expansion and promises

The main thing you need to know is that DeKalb Public Library made promises to DeKalb property taxpayers in 2015, and now is considering breaking its promises. But I couldn’t resist putting together some FAQs for anyone who might like more details.

How much did the expansion cost?
Total cost was $25.3 million. At center was an $11.6 million Illinois State Library construction grant, along with funding from a mix of public sources (e.g., TIF funds from City of DeKalb), loans, and private donations to DeKalb Public Library (DKPL). State grants involve a local match, so part of the non-grant funding covered the local share. Non-grant funding also paid for extras that were not eligible to be covered by the grant.

What was the delay of grant funding about?
The library construction grant is released in four stages based on percentage of construction completed. If a portion of a grant isn’t released during a given fiscal year, it must be re-appropriated the following year. The library received chunks of the grant at 30% and 60% project completion, but release of monies for 90% and 100% completion were delayed during Illinois’ budget impasse. The outstanding amounts, totaling $4.6 million, couldn’t be re-appropriated until passage of another state budget.

Was there a real danger that the grant money would never be released to the library?
Probably not. According to DKPL, the state had already issued bonds specific to the construction grants, so they couldn’t be used for anything else. It was just a matter of re-appropriation when Illinois started passing budgets again. The immediate threat was a shutdown if the library couldn’t find a way to keep construction going. A shutdown of any length would have been expensive in its own right.

Why has controversy cropped up now?
In January, the state released the rest of the grant except for a final installment of $1.1 million. With millions now in the bank, DKPL faces the decision to keep the money or to keep its promises of 2015. At issue is abatement/rebate of some $971,000 back to property taxpayers, and the removal of the emergency property tax levy of $500,000. People who attended library board’s recent special meeting saw the board “leaning” toward remitting only a partial rebate and keeping the levy for operations. Either action would break a promise.

Property tax scenarios the library is considering. Trustees appear to be leaning toward scenario 2 or 3, but only 4 fulfills the library’s promises to DeKalb residents.

Were there alternatives to a bank loan, and/or a property tax levy increase to cover it? Continue reading Going deeper on DeKalb Public Library’s expansion and promises

City’s water bill issue a symptom of a larger problem

***Updates 2/8: City says no double-billing was involved, so I’ve deleted statements below to the contrary. I do intend to look at 2017 billing cycle dates to confirm the bases for bills from previous months. That the error mostly affects customers on the south side has been confirmed. City remains silent on the plight of customers on fixed incomes, and the criticism of poor communication still stands.***

By now, you’ve received your utility bill (water, sewer, garbage) from City of DeKalb. Does it seem high? If so, chances are the culprit is your water bill. Here’s the explanation:

[O]ne of the mobile meter reading devices was not functioning correctly. The data from the reader did not load the route information to the computer and therefore, that December 2017 reading was not captured. The device was sent for repair and upon return of the device, the route was read again (mid- January 2018). This second read occurred approximately 20 days after the first reading. For this route, this translates to a larger utility bill that is due by February 21, 2018. The next bill, due April 21, 2018, will be smaller by the 20 days that were included on the previous billing. Finance staff at the front counter and answering phone calls will continue to provide this information to the residents.

I have requested more information about the area(s) affected, and what the city proposes to do to accommodate people who will have problems coming up with another $40 or $50 this month that they didn’t expect?

So far, the members of the City Barbs Facebook Group have figured out that DeKalb’s south side is involved in the screwup.

Why does the city even have a website and social media accounts? They do not know how to use them.

DeKalb’s finance advisory committee may be treated with more respect this year

Have you ever heard of the sheep-and-collie routine? It’s when one or more collies nip at the heels of a flock of sheep, to force them toward a destination the sheep really don’t want to go.

Sheep-and-collie applies to both human and animal activity, and in both cases it’s a fact that the “collie” does not respect the “sheep.”

Now, DeKalb’s finance advisory committee (FAC) is nowhere near being a flock of sheep, but over the past 10 years it’s been clear to me that city managers and their minions have worked hard to become successful collies. When Mayor Van Buer reconstituted the committee in 2008, new appointees were treated promptly to threatening letters from the city attorney regarding the Open Meetings Act, and from there the intimidation tactics have never totally stopped. Continue reading DeKalb’s finance advisory committee may be treated with more respect this year