Housing authority’s listing of payments to Sundog is not complete

Some readers have expressed interest in how much money Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb (HACD) has paid to Sundog IT over the past few years. My ballpark figure covering the calendar years 2015 through 2020 is $325,000. The rest of the post will be about why we can call it only a ballpark figure.

I requested payment listings of HACD from January 1, 2015 “to date,” which was the tail end of August. I expected they would print off a report, but that’s not what the response looks like to me. A report typically identifies the program user and has dates and page numbers. This looks like somebody made a table in Word in which payment information was copied and pasted.

housing-auth-payments-2015-2020

I’ve seen this kind of thing twice before. The first time was when I served on the board of directors of a not-for-profit organization where the executive was hiding transactions from the board. The second time was in a City of DeKalb executive session during which certain administrators ran a smear campaign against one of their colleagues.

Why HACD decided not to print a report, we may never know. I’m just explaining why this is an automatic red flag to me.

Another red flag: missing information. Look on the third page of the PDF to the start of 2020; you can see no entries for February, March, or April. I have 2020 invoices on hand and in cross-checking I did find payments for March and April, and more for January, too. I’ve asked for February payments now and have no reason to believe I won’t get them.

But I have no reason to trust that the missing payments I’ve found were the only omissions, either.

Looks like DeKalb Park District failed us too

The DeKalb Park District Code devotes 3-1/2 pages to protection of trees in the district. But when it comes to contracting IT services, the district can’t be bothered with boilerplate to protect the interests of its non-arboreal constituents.

I decided to continue my comparison of the relationships the Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb (HACD) and DeKalb Park District (DPD) have with Sundog IT. We’ve already established that HACD did not perform a Request for Proposal bidding process and DPD did, which is how we know what fixed-price services DPD approved and should receive.

Unfortunately for us, that’s where the contrasts end.

sundog-signed-quote

This is what appears at the end of Sundog’s bid and comprises the extent of the terms and conditions, according to DPD’s Freedom of Information Act officer. The problem is, DPD is not just taking delivery of a new lawn mower. It’s an agreement for an ongoing working relationship that includes communications and visits to park facilities by Sundog staff, with all risks and liability borne by DPD. An appropriate contract would require Sundog to abide by DPD’s confidentiality guidelines, sexual harassment policy, and other applicable rules of professional conduct.* Also:

  • The duration of the contract should be clear in the contract.*
  • There should be a termination clause that applies to both parties.*
  • Provisions for handling disputes and breaches of contract should be spelled out.*

DPD signed a $7,000 agreement for architectural services related to a roofing project just a couple months before it approved the $45,000 per year IT “contract.” The roofing services agreement contained duration, termination, and dispute resolution provisions as bulleted above, as well as assignment of authority for safety plans.

Again, as with HACD’s faulty agreements with Sundog IT, we see with DPD a manner of dealing with Sundog that suggests partiality that leads to disregard of the public interest. When a standard contract is not enough, as is clearly the case with Sundog’s, it’s time to get the government’s attorney involved.

DPD, next time you’re fixing to sign an IT agreement, pretend we’re trees, okay?*

*Not professional legal advice.

Continue reading Looks like DeKalb Park District failed us too

Documents continue to suggest housing authority’s pattern of partiality toward its IT vendor

In June, the DeKalb Park District approved a contract with Sundog IT, the company owned by DeKalb’s mayor, Cohen Barnes. We opposed the deal for reasons of conflicts of interests, but the district did run a request for proposal (RFP) bidding process and the buck did stop with the park district board, as one would expect.

Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb, Illinois (HACD) has a similar arrangement with Sundog IT for services. However, there is no evidence among documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that an RFP process was followed or that the housing authority board voted on the deal.

Question: Why did the park district run an RFP selection process for IT services but HACD did not?

Answer: HACD probably should have done an RFP.

Continue reading Documents continue to suggest housing authority’s pattern of partiality toward its IT vendor

Housing authority helped Cohen Barnes with marketing his company

Besides giving Cohen Barnes of Sundog IT frontrunner status on contracts, including providing him information about his competition, staff at Housing Authority of County of DeKalb (HACD) used their resources to assist him in crafting a testimonial with their name on it.

emails-cohen-asks-viv-for-testimonial

Notice the HACD operations director cc’d the executive director in granting the favor. This is not one rogue staff member. We can therefore regard granting favors to private companies without public discussion as an institutional issue.

The testimonial appeared on Sundog IT’s website until recently, around the time Mayor Barnes became DeKalb Park District’s chief information officer and City of DeKalb found a way to add parking spaces on North Sixth to benefit HACD despite HACD’s not having discussed or documented one iota of need as far as we can see.

I do not blame Cohen Barnes for soliciting marketing help for his company before he became mayor. But he has shown with his recent behavior in park district and housing authority matters that he either cannot or will not make the shift to public ethics that his oath of office requires.

As for HACD, it is funded with federal dollars and I can’t believe HUD would approve of this use of it.

The avaricious romance of the local housing authority & our mayor

***UPDATE 8/21/2021: I’ve come across the rest of the conversation in my giant pile o’ emails and added the new pdf below the first one. In this batch, the operations director shares information about Sundog’s competition and says, “So, please update your quote. I now, officially have 3 bids or contacts so I can move forward with Sundogit replacing/updating our servers.”***

The following is an email conversation between the operations director of the Housing Authority of the County of DeKalb, Illinois (HACD) and Cohen Barnes of Sundog IT (Barnes), who is now mayor of the City of DeKalb. HACD was gathering price quotes for replacement of a failing server at the time.

Barnes: Does this help you with having a competitive quote? If so, what are the next steps for moving forward?

HACD: Thank you so very much Cohen. I also have Impact Networking, LLC…They supposedly also work out of Rockford and now support Ogle County HA — which is a smaller HA. They are coming in next Wednesday to talk servers. Hopefully, I can get a quote out of him ASAP (and yes, I will share that info with you)[.] Once I receive that quote — I will add it to my comparison spreadsheet — run it by the grand pooba (aka Shelly) — I am guessing she will want to give the board a little more in depth facts and figures (they already know our server has to go). And then we will give you the go to order.

Barnes: Let me know when we are closer and I will refresh our quote.

— Email string obtained from HACD under Illinois Freedom of Information Act

One of the basic rules HACD must follow as a government body in buying goods and services is the way they conduct procurement should “maximize competition and competitive pricing among contracts and decrease the Agency’s procurement costs.”

It is difficult to see how HACD can accomplish any increase in competition when it plays favorites, as illustrated by its relationship with Cohen Barnes and Sundog IT in which Sundog is the presumed winner even before all the quotes come in.

Continue reading The avaricious romance of the local housing authority & our mayor

Let’s learn from Hammer before we incentivize Barb

Remember “Project Hammer,” the big food manufacturing and warehousing project that ended up unmasked as Ferrara Candy? We offered them a lot of incentives to come here.

The incentives are flowing because that was the only way Ferrara would choose DeKalb for its new facilities over a city in Wisconsin, city leaders told us.

From the backup material for the December 29, 2019 city council meeting, here’s the list of state incentives a qualified project in the enterprise zone is eligible for:

— An exemption on the state sales tax paid on building materials for new construction, expansion, or an interior buildout.

— An Investment Tax Credit of 0.5 percent for any qualified property.

— Assistance in road upgrades from IDOT’s Economic Development Program (EDP). This program provides 50% state funding for locally-owned roads and 100% funding for state-owned routes that serve new or expanding industrial developments. A maximum of $2 million ($30,000 per new job created) is available for a qualified project.

— Natural Gas Tax Exemption for “wheeled” or open market natural gas transactions.”

We’ve come a long way from the Illinois EDGE tax credit. The enterprise zone comes with a really nice package. So why did we have to up the ante on local incentives? Local governments signed a 50% property tax abatement agreement that stretches 15 years instead of the usual 10. And City of DeKalb additionally approved $500,000 to furnish a water main loop and an abatement of 50% of electrical utility taxes for 15 years.

The building is built and the ribbons are cut. Let’s have the list of incentives offered to Ferrara’s site selectors by the State of Wisconsin and the loser Wisconsin town, so we know exactly how DeKalb came out on top.

That way, when it’s time to incentivize the new warehouse build, Project Barb, we’ll have more information to evaluate whether the Hammer package was just right or overkill, and adjust offerings accordingly. We wouldn’t want to give away the farm if we don’t have to.

How the DeKalb Housing Authority violates the Open Meetings Act

The DeKalb County Housing Authority has not often pinged my radar until now. A few years ago a couple people shared with me their being told by staff that federal rules prohibited bringing their cats with them into public housing unless the animals were declawed; my advice since then is to ask for citation of chapter and verse when it comes to staff “interpreting” house rules.

Much more recently the housing authority’s suffering over inadequate parking at headquarters came to the fore because City of DeKalb decided to fix it by turning a section of North Sixth Street into one-way traffic to squeeze out a few more spaces.

What really makes it difficult to spot the general public interest in the city’s granting of this assistance is the lack of public process to establish the need in the first place, and to explain why the city jumped into a county problem with city resources. I asked the authority to provide me with records of its board’s discussions of the parking issues. There aren’t any. This appears to be 100% the product of back-room conversations until the matter popped up on the council agenda as a possible ordinance. An ordinance has passed, so now we can only guess at better solutions public discussion might have generated.

Continue reading How the DeKalb Housing Authority violates the Open Meetings Act

Nicklas Consulting, LLC

Bill Nicklas, city manager of DeKalb, owns Nicklas Consulting, LLC. I did not know this until I read a complaint in which he is named a defendant. At the time of the discovery, I was the city clerk so I hesitated to address it publicly, especially when thinking of him as an abuser guarantees bias on my part. But a transparently biased view is better than not discussing these ethical issues at all, and it’s important we chip away at the impunity afforded some of our local leaders if we want to build a better local government.

So let me count the ways Nicklas Consulting is ethically problematic.

  1. The employment contract with DeKalb doesn’t allow side gigs. The contract states in three places that Mr. Nicklas is to work exclusively for City of DeKalb, with termination for cause an option if he engages in competing or other outside employment “without the express prior written consent of the Employer.” Since the employer is the city council, the approval would be hashed out in an open meeting, but this conversation has never happened.
  2. City of DeKalb policy reinforces the contract language. A rule from the employees’ handbook states city employees must obtain approval from their superiors to commence outside employment and to seek reapproval annually. Mr. Nicklas signed a form saying he had no outside employment, and then approved it himself. Maybe he suspended consulting activities for the city manager’s job, but the failure to discuss continued ownership prevented an evaluation of the appropriateness and potential consequences of maintaining the active status of the corporation. This is the council’s responsibility and purview, not Nicklas’.
  3. ICMA takes ethics seriously. The premier professional organization for managers in government, the International City/County Management Association, not only has crafted a strict code of conduct and ethics but also a structure for providing training, advice, and enforcement that can include public censure of members who violate the code. DeKalb city management do not pay dues to ICMA, but they are members of the state-level version of the organization, ILCMA, whose membership has adopted the ICMA ethics code. ICMA looks at outside employment the same way Nicklas’ contract and DeKalb’s personnel policies do: that outside work should be employer-approved in advance. The code furthermore states that conflicts of interest should be avoided, as well as even the appearance of conflicts of interest.
  4. The existence of Nicklas Consulting helps to create the appearance of a conflict of interest and partiality. According to the aforementioned complaint (that I hope you’ll read if you haven’t already) a developer who’s been a client for Nicklas’ services became a major investor in the TIF redevelopment project that replaced another TIF redevelopment project called 145 Fisk after Bill Nicklas convinced the city council to revoke its preliminary approval of Fisk. If Mr. Nicklas had dissolved his corporation upon accepting the manager’s position, he’d have provided less fodder for the plaintiff.
Continue reading Nicklas Consulting, LLC

Snapshot of DeKalb’s pension trends through 2020

The chart below tracks the unfunded liabilities of DeKalb’s Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF), police (PD), and fire (FD) pensions.

unfunded-pension-liabilities-thru-2020

We expect total pension liabilities will go up with raises, cost of living adjustments, etc. However, the unfunded portions of the liabilities should not. Actuarially determined annual pension contributions are supposed to ensure they don’t rise. Yet you can see by the chart that unfunded liabilities for police and fire climbed steadily for a generation. We’ve now accumulated some $126 million in liability debt. One of the consequences is this year’s contribution total of $9.7 million, which will gobble more than a quarter of the city’s operating budget.

However, the chart also indicates that someone began applying the brakes in 2018. It’s important to explain this so we can support policies that continue the trend to reduce unfunded liabilities.

Continue reading Snapshot of DeKalb’s pension trends through 2020

DeKalb’s annual audit turns up deficiencies in physical security

Amid habitual deficiencies in internal financial controls, DeKalb’s move to a new city hall has created physical security risks, according to the city’s auditor for budget year 2020.

During our observation of the City’s internal controls, we noted the initial entrance/front of the building has limited security and minimal restriction to the departments stationed in this area. Access from the back of the building is also available and requires no key card for entry. Cash and other City tangible assets/property should be reasonably safeguarded to protect the City from loss.

We recommend the City implement a more restrictive environment, where departmental employees work together to avoid instances where one employee is left being responsible for the department, running the cash registers, and overseeing the City safe. In order to help mitigate this risk, we recommend the City implement and enforce a more comprehensive control environment where appropriate/trained employees can support the department and the public. In addition, to improve physical access and ensure security amongst City employees and the general public, we recommend implementing a key card and electronic access system.

Auditor’s Communication to the city council and management, page 14 (page 256 of the PDF file).

Management response:

City Finance Staff have lock and vault procedures in place to protect on site [sic] assets. Presently, the building maintains two entry points to accommodate individuals with a physical disability. City Staff in FY2021 can investigate modifying the Lincoln Hwy entrance into an Americans with Disability Act (ADA) compliant entry thus eliminating the need for having an additional open door on the first floor.

City hall has been in this building a year. Blaming the ADA for not fixing the entry issue doesn’t cut it, and “lock and vault” procedures aren’t a substitute for having two staff on hand when the situation calls for it.

In all, it doesn’t sound like management intends to take the steps necessary to mitigate the risks, but that is par for DeKalb’s course. Deficiencies from the 2019 audit, such as failure to assign a second person to review transactions and to reconcile bank statements timely, were not corrected in 2020. One deficiency that was corrected in 2020, that of water rates billed that did not match the rates authorized by ordinance, was originally identified during the 2018 audit.

Management is careless with our money and the record shows it. City council is either clueless or doesn’t care.

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