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.]