Another Meeting Marathon to Nowhere

City Council’s most damaging flaw is its low overall level of intellectual curiosity. Between the grandstanding and the gotchas and the preening and pomposity, there is little time or inclination left for understanding the fundamental shifts necessary for our continued well-being, much less prosperity. Whatever energy might have been devoted to real study of big-picture issues is instead spent at scrutiny of minutiae and potshots at the individuals who understand, care, and represent the struggling DeKalbite best.

Mac McIntyre expressed the only compassion to be witnessed in Council Chambers last night. He set real people of DeKalb — the foreclosed-upon, the unemployed, the underemployed — against the next extravagance contemplated for the downtown. The cognitive dissonance must have caused instant, painful hissing of synapses, for, instead of mirroring and applying the compassion, the response was defensive and dismissive.

And, even with hard numbers in front of them, Council continues to miss the point.

The FY2009 pre-audit numbers are in.

  • Property tax revenues were down by nearly $63,000 over the year before.
  • Right now, the city puts all its property tax revenues into pensions and the pensions are already scandalously underfunded. What’s more, the financial consultants are recommending the city raise and borrow against property tax in the future since it is a more “stable” revenue source. A shortfall like this means the conventional wisdom of property tax stability is now in question. Is this a temporary glitch due to falling home values or a signal of a longer-term problem of depopulation? We’d better figure this out because appropriate responses are not all the same in both cases.

  • Sales tax revenues were down 7% for a total shortfall of more than $540,000
  • DeKalb is extremely sales tax dependent for funding its operations so this is a huge blow, but the city doesn’t seem to have absorbed any of the implications. For now, it has applied tourniquets to the bleeding in the forms of hiring and wage freezes and is declaring the budget cured. However, these are blunt-instrument, short-term solutions that, already, are resulting in unbalanced outcomes. One of these outcomes is a relative overabundance of building inspectors with simultaneous shortages of first responders.

    I think city leaders are betting that the recession is pretty much over and they can go back to full staffing very soon. Certainly their spending behavior — more land acquisition for the airport, the TIF project popularly known as “Sidewalk to Nowhere,” etc. — suggests their rosy view. In one way they are right. Leading economic indicators do suggest we’ve reached the recessional bottom. What they are missing is a) employment always lags behind most other indicators, b) the lag is expected to last two years, and c) the good ol’ days of 5% unemployment may not be seen for quite some time after that. The people’s spending habits have changed to the detriment of city hall, and we do not know for how long.

    So, we see that the attitude that they will be vindicated in delaying long-term strategies — save for their continuing pet-project “investments” — by an economy that will be rebounding “any minute now” is unhelpful in the extreme. It also kills any motivation to investigate and plug sales leakages, and we get gibberish like this:

    The mayor also thanked the firefighters’ union for continuing to meet, often behind closed doors.

    Although these discussions were not in the public eye, Povlsen said “the firefighters knew, along with the city council, that we would come to an agreement some day.”

    Apropos of nothing, the mayor seems to be defending use of the closed session when he should be explaining what the city will do if 2-3 firefighters retire this fall. Does the across-the-board hiring freeze still hold or will another policy take its place? What’s the plan if the numbers are flat, or worse, in FY2010?

    If revenues continue to fall for some time, we will require as much flexibility as possible to meet the demand for services in the face of shortfalls. Flexibility has already been strained by extended no-layoff clauses in at least two union contracts. Debt policy is another area where flexibility can be retained or lost. Every revenue dollar that is claimed by debt service is a dollar lost to the cause of responding to resident needs, and we already have $4.4 million in the “lost” category annually.

    Call me Cassandra, but I see them painting themselves into a corner here.

    Oh, and Councilmen, you can continue to claim debt management policy is first and foremost on your minds, but until it’s bumped up from #8 in priority ranking (p. 12), you will have to abide some skepticism.