DeKalb’s Finance Division is a story of loss and low priority

DeKalb’s city council has so far failed to face the troubling results of its last annual audit. This has led to a failure to recognize the connections between those results and the turnover and staff reductions in Finance Division, including the loss of a full-time finance director.

And the squeeze is still on for this year.

Reorganizations”

To put this into historical context, DeKalb used to have ten full-time, in-house finance staff, including an appointed treasurer/controller and two senior account clerks. Now there is no named full-time treasurer or controller, reductions in positions have occurred three years running, and these remaining staff are supervised by the assistant city manager, who also supervises human resources and information technology personnel.

Source: DeKalb annual adopted budgets
Continue reading DeKalb’s Finance Division is a story of loss and low priority

City of DeKalb made the budget even harder to follow for 2021

Let’s say you are looking at the Fire Pension Fund in the 2021 budget.

Fire-pension-fund-employer-contrib

You can see the annual employer’s contribution is approaching $4.3 million.

Next, you decide to look at the Fire Department budget to get a feel for how much of the total FD budget is comprised of pension contributions.

FD-budget-employer-contrib

The Fire budget shows only $3.5 million in employer contributions. What gives?

Continue reading City of DeKalb made the budget even harder to follow for 2021

Peter, Flynn, and the united front

This is my (intentionally stark) account of the destruction wrought some 30 years ago by one toxic person in a workplace. Names are changed.

=1=

Peter stopped getting out of bed in the mornings. He denied he was sick and said he just didn’t feel like going to work. After a couple weeks of this, his attendance dropped to 50% and there it stayed.

Peter had been the first client I’d met on my first shift working at a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities. When introduced, he’d clutched my arm with a gleam in his eye and I briefly wondered if I was cut out for the job. A couple weeks later I was tasked with nail care, and the first time he took off his socks I wondered again about my suitability. But by the six-month mark I was no longer startled by people standing too closely nor freaked out by fungal toenails. We’d worked together five years when Peter’s troubles started, so I did know he’d never miss work at the sheltered workshop voluntarily. Even the thought that he might be running late in the morning would upset him.

=2=

Investigating significant behavior change starts by talking with the client and ruling out medical issues. After that you talk some more: with client, family, frontline staff, and other members of an interdisciplinary team. Flynn, a recent hire with an impressive resumé, headed up the day training program Peter belonged to. Following a team meeting one morning, we drove to a nearby diner for a working lunch to brainstorm Peter’s situation.

The conversation was routine and unmemorable until it was time to head back to the office. As we started to gather our things Flynn said, “I come from a family that’s very open about sex.”

“I don’t,” I said.

Continue reading Peter, Flynn, and the united front

Attorney General determines NIU Foundation must respond to Freedom of Information Act requests

The determination resolves at least three requests for review of NIU Foundation’s refusals to release information on payments to vendors. It followed an examination of the relationship between NIU and NIU Foundation.

Hover over the top of the PDF to enlarge it and turn pages.

39715-request-for-review-niu-foundation

NIU has sometimes used NIU Foundation to hide purchases and/or sources of funds for purchases. I’ve written about some of them, which you can find here.

‘There was no felonious activity’

The headline is a quote from City of DeKalb’s latest budget meeting, a joint meeting of city council with the Finance Advisory Committee held last week. Alderman Carolyn Morris asked about following up on findings from the TIF forensic assessment . The city manager and the FAC chair responded that no laws were broken, no “felonious activity” occurred, and that was pretty much that.

Let’s take a closer look at the statement that no laws were broken. If a city makes transfers from its TIF fund to its general operating fund to reimburse for staff time spent working on TIF projects, but then inflates the transfers beyond fair reimbursement to “bail out and make the General Fund look better,” as the city manager has aptly put it, these actions run counter to the TIF Act. Criminal penalties may not attach, but committing zero felonies doesn’t equal law-abiding. Taxpayers and taxing bodies got cheated out of returns on TIF projects so city government could enjoy a larger workforce than it could otherwise afford. The loss is real, large, and a result of ignoring rules to work a staff agenda. Don’t let anyone minimize it.

Continue reading ‘There was no felonious activity’

DeKalb city council voted to allow me to participate remotely in order to exclude you

As DeKalb’s city clerk, I’ve been participating in council meetings via teleconferencing since April. Then, during the July 13 committee-of-the-whole meeting, the city council, somewhat bizarrely, took a vote to allow me to teleconference. This post will explain why.

Here’s the clip of part of the mayor’s introduction to the topic. (The first 4-1/2 minutes of the audio were lost and not recovered.)

The money quote:

Accordingly, if a majority of the council allows for the city clerk to attend this meeting, and our following city council meeting, by means other than physical presence, then it may do so without also having to provide the same accommodations to the general public.

So, how did this all start? After looking at the July 13 council meeting agendas, I saw the city was intending to remove remote participation from the general public as an option. Here’s my email to the mayor about it:

city-clerk-remote-participation-email

The city then went right to work to prove me wrong. I think they spent half a day coming up with a reason to offer me the “courtesy” of the Zoom application while barring the public from same. The mayor rushed a vote through council on an item that wasn’t on the agenda — does council even know what it voted for? The vote itself was another subversion of the clerk’s independence of office, an abuse of home rule power, and — since home rule does not supersede the Open Meetings Act — it was a violation of OMA as well.

The one thing they got right, the one teensy bright spot in the latest fiasco, is the acknowledgement that council, not the city manager’s office, has the final say in how to conduct its meetings.

If council wants Zoom for all, Zoom for all must happen.

Let’s get that on the agenda for July 27.

How red do the flags have to be?

The DeKalb city council recently received and filed its fiscal 2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) along with the auditor’s letters and communications to council and management. Although the audit was problematic, the council did not talk about the issues, so we will do it here. First, to summarize:

  • The auditor detected material misstatements in the financial statements.
  • The auditor found deficiencies in internal controls that are supposed to prevent and detect material misstatements.
  • The auditor reported that findings from fiscal 2018 were not corrected in 2019, including mismatches between fee rates charged and the actual rates authorized by ordinance.
  • For the second year in a row, the city has failed to review and properly adjust accounts at year’s end.
Continue reading How red do the flags have to be?

Eliminating Zoom option for city meetings is a terribly backwards thing to do

The Daily Chronicle reports that City of DeKalb is eliminating the remote public participation option for meetings because Illinois is entering Phase 4 of its reopening.

First victim is Human Relations Commission, which during its last meeting enjoyed remote participation via the Zoom application by nearly 90 people. Since the meeting tonight also will not be televised, your only option for real-time participation is to show up in person for an historic discussion of recommendations for better police-community relations.

This is a completely backwards move. Reasons:

— Safety. I have not watched one city meeting in which board members and city staff have successfully practiced COVID-19 precautions. At times I’ve seen no masks, masks pulled down under noses and chins, and failures of social distancing — even people shaking hands. During the last TIF Joint Review Board meeting, members of the public who attended in person had to pass within a couple feet of board members to make their comments.

Another safety issue right now is the weather. Some people have medical issues that prevent them from venturing outdoors in the extreme heat. Pulling Zoom at this point seems ableist.

— Accommodation. The Open Meetings Act states that public meetings must be held at times and in places convenient to the public. Remote public participation is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Act, and turnout when Zoom is used demonstrates there is demand for this option.

— Progress. There is no good reason not to make remote public participation part of the repertoire for conducting meetings in a modern city.

Staff recently made a serious error on the wrong side of the Open Meetings Act by offering a remote participation option for members of the TIF Joint Review Board while barring the general public from the same option; the State’s Attorney’s Office had to step in to correct it. Better decisions could be made if council would stop ceding its authority in these matters to staff, who do not have the same motivation to take the side of the public. Conducting meetings is policy, and policy rightfully belongs with our elected representatives.

Charging the Water Fund for salaries in other departments is a masterpiece of nontransparency

*Note: “Departments” as used in this article should be read as shorthand for “departments, divisions, and offices.”*

Take a look at this budget from DeKalb’s Finance Division:

FY2020-Finance-adopted-budget

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, it’s not. It does not show all the wages the Finance employees get paid. This is a budget that accounts only for the wages coming from the General Fund (the city’s chief operating fund). Finance staff also get paid portions of their wages from the Water Fund.

Total full- and part-time wages this year for Finance people are projected to come to $157,000 more than this Finance budget shows. Likewise, the Water Fund provides part of the compensation for the city manager’s office, Building & Code, HR, IT — even the city council.

Continue reading Charging the Water Fund for salaries in other departments is a masterpiece of nontransparency

TIF forensic assessment tells us how DeKalb operates

The promised forensic audit report (now being called a forensic assessment for some reason) of City of DeKalb’s tax increment financing funds has been released by the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office.

The report details miscalculations, missing documents, and other failures of due diligence occurring across the 10-year period examined.

Much of the fireworks over TIF began when members of the Joint Review Board that oversees it, particularly our school district, began questioning the size of transfers from TIF funds to the General Fund, the city’s chief operating fund, to cover administrative costs.

The report includes the document below, which accounts for 2018’s originally intended $791,744 transfer amount. You can decide for yourself whether all these people were “administering” TIF. DeKalb ultimately settled on $160,000 in transfers for 2018, and for this year has budgeted $15,000, so apparently even the city no longer thinks so.

tif-transfer-to-GF-fy18-2

The good news is the transfers began shrinking in the sunshine. The bad news is the assessment tells you just about everything you need to know about how DeKalb operates, always. If you look at the dates of missing invoices and proofs of service, for example, you see that it’s not just one or two years where missing documents are a problem; it’s spread across the entire 10-year scope of the assessment. It’s true today, too — I can confirm from my “look behind” information requests that documentation related to licensing comes up missing with some regularity.

What the TIF transfers did were to enable the city to retain more staff than it otherwise could have. In the fiscal 2008 budget the transfers came to $350,000 and the stated goal was to reduce them to zero by 2013. This didn’t happen because the Great Recession happened and they abandoned the plan. In 2010, the city was in a hole and the TIF transfers topped $1 million. In target year 2013, transfers helped fuel a nascent hiring spree that ended with another hole in 2018.

The transfers are virtually down to nothing now, but there’s still a chart similar to the TIF transfer chart and it’s also for deciding how much of employees’ wages should come from another city fund — the Water Fund. The assistant city manager recently confirmed for me that about $370,000 is charged to Water to pay employees who work in other city departments/divisions/offices.

More later.