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.