Warmth is important for bridging the morality gap

Recently I brought up at a city council meeting, again, the issue of an overnight warming center. People used to be able to stop in at our city hall to sit and thaw out a bit at night, back when it was PD headquarters and open 24 hours. The new police station is likewise open 24 hours, but the city refuses to name it as a nighttime emergency resource in weather extremes.

At the meeting I related that a friend of mine had discovered a person in a sleeping bag in a downtown doorway during the worst of the cold (so far) this winter. Then I was rebutted. It went something like, “Oh, yeah, that’s probably the guy who refuses to go to Hope Haven.”

Well, for some people, if the choices are to go to Hope Haven or SOL, they are not real choices. (This is absolutely no reflection on Hope Haven, which is the best.) Bad things can happen to vulnerable people in shelters, and nobody should blame them for trying to protect themselves by avoiding the unknown. We took in a young man for a couple weeks right after Christmas one year. It was a couple decades ago, but I remember it well because some of his stories literally raised the hair on the back of my neck. In short, giving shit choices to traumatized people doesn’t sit well with me. Continue reading Warmth is important for bridging the morality gap

Mayor’s statement about DeKalb Public Library’s tax promises

Mayor Smith came out this week in support of calls for DeKalb Public Library to keep its 2015 promises to repay taxpayers, and says he is confident the DKPL board “will do the right thing.”

Related:

DeKalb County Online: DeKalb Public Library and its property tax promises

City Barbs: Going deeper on DeKalb Public Library’s expansion and promises

DeKalb County Online: Something’s missing from discussions of DeKalb Public Library’s property tax levy

Going deeper on DeKalb Public Library’s expansion and promises

The main thing you need to know is that DeKalb Public Library made promises to DeKalb property taxpayers in 2015, and now is considering breaking its promises. But I couldn’t resist putting together some FAQs for anyone who might like more details.

How much did the expansion cost?
Total cost was $25.3 million. At center was an $11.6 million Illinois State Library construction grant, along with funding from a mix of public sources (e.g., TIF funds from City of DeKalb), loans, and private donations to DeKalb Public Library (DKPL). State grants involve a local match, so part of the non-grant funding covered the local share. Non-grant funding also paid for extras that were not eligible to be covered by the grant.

What was the delay of grant funding about?
The library construction grant is released in four stages based on percentage of construction completed. If a portion of a grant isn’t released during a given fiscal year, it must be re-appropriated the following year. The library received chunks of the grant at 30% and 60% project completion, but release of monies for 90% and 100% completion were delayed during Illinois’ budget impasse. The outstanding amounts, totaling $4.6 million, couldn’t be re-appropriated until passage of another state budget.

Was there a real danger that the grant money would never be released to the library?
Probably not. According to DKPL, the state had already issued bonds specific to the construction grants, so they couldn’t be used for anything else. It was just a matter of re-appropriation when Illinois started passing budgets again. The immediate threat was a shutdown if the library couldn’t find a way to keep construction going. A shutdown of any length would have been expensive in its own right.

Why has controversy cropped up now?
In January, the state released the rest of the grant except for a final installment of $1.1 million. With millions now in the bank, DKPL faces the decision to keep the money or to keep its promises of 2015. At issue is abatement/rebate of some $971,000 back to property taxpayers, and the removal of the emergency property tax levy of $500,000. People who attended library board’s recent special meeting saw the board “leaning” toward remitting only a partial rebate and keeping the levy for operations. Either action would break a promise.

Property tax scenarios the library is considering. Trustees appear to be leaning toward scenario 2 or 3, but only 4 fulfills the library’s promises to DeKalb residents.

Were there alternatives to a bank loan, and/or a property tax levy increase to cover it? Continue reading Going deeper on DeKalb Public Library’s expansion and promises

City’s water bill issue a symptom of a larger problem

***Updates 2/8: City says no double-billing was involved, so I’ve deleted statements below to the contrary. I do intend to look at 2017 billing cycle dates to confirm the bases for bills from previous months. That the error mostly affects customers on the south side has been confirmed. City remains silent on the plight of customers on fixed incomes, and the criticism of poor communication still stands.***

By now, you’ve received your utility bill (water, sewer, garbage) from City of DeKalb. Does it seem high? If so, chances are the culprit is your water bill. Here’s the explanation:

[O]ne of the mobile meter reading devices was not functioning correctly. The data from the reader did not load the route information to the computer and therefore, that December 2017 reading was not captured. The device was sent for repair and upon return of the device, the route was read again (mid- January 2018). This second read occurred approximately 20 days after the first reading. For this route, this translates to a larger utility bill that is due by February 21, 2018. The next bill, due April 21, 2018, will be smaller by the 20 days that were included on the previous billing. Finance staff at the front counter and answering phone calls will continue to provide this information to the residents.

I have requested more information about the area(s) affected, and what the city proposes to do to accommodate people who will have problems coming up with another $40 or $50 this month that they didn’t expect?

So far, the members of the City Barbs Facebook Group have figured out that DeKalb’s south side is involved in the screwup.

Why does the city even have a website and social media accounts? They do not know how to use them.

DeKalb’s finance advisory committee may be treated with more respect this year

Have you ever heard of the sheep-and-collie routine? It’s when one or more collies nip at the heels of a flock of sheep, to force them toward a destination the sheep really don’t want to go.

Sheep-and-collie applies to both human and animal activity, and in both cases it’s a fact that the “collie” does not respect the “sheep.”

Now, DeKalb’s finance advisory committee (FAC) is nowhere near being a flock of sheep, but over the past 10 years it’s been clear to me that city managers and their minions have worked hard to become successful collies. When Mayor Van Buer reconstituted the committee in 2008, new appointees were treated promptly to threatening letters from the city attorney regarding the Open Meetings Act, and from there the intimidation tactics have never totally stopped. Continue reading DeKalb’s finance advisory committee may be treated with more respect this year

City of DeKalb does not want you to come to this meeting

Tonight is a special meeting of the DeKalb city council. Unlike all other council meetings, this meeting will not be recorded on video. That’s because the city does not know how to video-record meetings outside of council chambers, and council is not meeting in chambers tonight, even though this is the only city meeting scheduled.

Instead, they’re holding it in the Bilder room at DeKalb Public Library. I understand that the Bilder room holds about 30 people. If true, it’s a potential problem, because it’s a committee of the whole meeting, where the number of participating city staff will likely outnumber the council members, and leave — maybe — seating for only about 15 members of the general public.

If more people show up than the room can reasonably hold, that’s an Open Meetings Act violation.

The venue makes no sense.

The vague agenda item is also questionable when it comes to OMA: “Goal-setting session.” That’s it. Fortunately, staff were a little less lazy about putting together the agenda packet for the finance advisory committee (whose meeting has been rescheduled for January 30, FYI) so I’m able to share more. The memo to FAC says this:

On January 24, 2018, the City Council will hold a Goal Setting Session to determine what goals they want to accomplish in 2018. As part of that session, the Council would be asked to identify short-term and long-term goals. Specifically, goals or projects they would like to address in the next one to two years would be identified. This would determine what subject areas Council wants staff to focus their time on and could impact the current and future budgets. Council will be asked to identify the broad outcomes to be accomplished in the next 18 months to three-and-a-half years.

But that’s not all. I’ve attended several planning sessions over the four years of city manager Anne Marie Gaura’s tenure. She is incapable of hiding her hostility toward us. They place the tables in an enclosed rectangle so the audience is facing people’s backs, and between this unfortunate positioning and their failure to use microphones, what you hear is dependent on the projection skills of each individual. Meanwhile, the audience has to wait an average of four hours for a chance to speak to its representatives, after all the decisions have been made.

It’s sketchy. Unacceptable. A 100% shut-out in every meaningful way.

Which is exactly why you should attend if you can.

It’s like they’re unraveling over there

City of DeKalb seems to have a lot more trouble than usual lately with day-to-day operations. Let me count the ways.

1. I turned on my laptop at 5 pm last evening to watch Mayor Smith’s State of the City address, but the meeting was not streaming — some kind of technical issue. Later I found out this has been a problem since January 8.

2. Bright and early yesterday, I put in a request for accommodation of a disability during Wednesday’s special council meeting, because it’s not being held in council chambers (where the disability is already accommodated). Whenever I’ve made the request before — of anyone, anywhere — there’s never been a problem with getting what I need. But not only was there lag time in responding, today I opened up an email that says the city will be “investigating” my request. Continue reading It’s like they’re unraveling over there

Shooting oneself in the foot at the DeKalb airport

We’ve been talking about fuel sales at DeKalb’s airport recently.

This was in the context of DeKalb’s new marketing practice of deeply discounting fuel in order to bring in new customers, and perhaps reaching at some point the same successful level of sales of 2013, the good old days when net sales more than covered the wages of the airport line service technicians.

DeKalb residents, who have been waiting for generations for the airport to pay its own freight, are interested in this subject. For one thing, word is getting out that the city redirected some $260,000 in local motor fuel taxes into the airport budget to help erase its invariable red ink. We’d rather that revenue go toward street maintenance.

People also are unsure that city government should plan for a loss of public money in a gamble. DeKalb is prepared to lose up to $20,000 a year. A loss leader gambit should remain in the realm of private business, the reasoning goes.

There’s a real head-scratcher among these developments as well. During the November 16 budget meeting, where department/division heads proposed cuts to their respective budgets, the list for the airport included cutting line service hours from 10 to 8 hours a day to reduce labor expenses by $19,000.

Got that? The airport is supposedly going “all out” to gain customers by discounting fuel to the point of enduring a $20,000 annual loss, but then proposes to cut the operational hours for providing that fuel.

OPEB: DeKalb’s unfunded liability you’ve probably never heard of

***Updated 12/21, via asterisk, to clarify what’s going on with the fiscal 2016.5 numbers in the narrative, and why these numbers are not in the chart. FYI, the post is probably also easier to read if you distinguish between plan retirees (who are participants and beneficiaries), beneficiaries (who may be retirees or spouses/dependents of retirees), and participants (who may be active employees, retirees, or beneficiaries who are neither).***

I don’t generally gush over DeKalb’s choices of consultants, but I believe EPI was worth every penny – both times – because of their plain talk about our financial situation and the state of city operations.

Too bad DeKalb didn’t take some important advice.

One of the harsh realities was and is the OPEB, which stands for Other Post-Employment Benefits. OPEB is a defined-benefit, comprehensive health insurance plan for City of DeKalb retirees who participate in a pension plan (i.e., full-timers who meet years-of-service requirements). Compared with the pension plans, OPEB is not very highly regulated. There’s no trust fund established, and since the city doesn’t have to pay more than a required annual contribution, it doesn’t. There are no reserves for the future.

This was the picture when EPI came on the scene in 2009:

• Depending on the retirement age of the labor contract/pay plan that applied, some city workers qualified for benefits as early as age 50.
• Employees did not contribute to the OPEB until retirement.
• OPEB covered the retiree for life.
• Some plans had spousal and/or dependent benefits.
• The city at that time was paying approximately 87% of the premium for each retiree.
• DeKalb’s contribution as sole employer of the plan came to about $1 million per year.
• The unfunded liability reported for fiscal 2008 was $29.4 million, which was more than the liability for any city pension fund at the time. Continue reading OPEB: DeKalb’s unfunded liability you’ve probably never heard of

A fresh look at “old” financial advice for DeKalb

At a recent budget meeting, DeKalb city manager Anne Marie Gaura (AMG) stated that she references the “EPI reports” frequently in financial planning.

Because the city’s finance advisory committee might likewise like to revisit EPI findings when it (the committee) reconvenes in 2018, I’d like to introduce EPI to our newer readers (and help refresh memories).

EPI stands for Executive Partners, Inc., which is the former name of an organization of financial consultants who, in 2009 and 2013, tried to help DeKalb think more strategically about its finances.

Here’s EPI’s Larry Kujovich in the spring of 2013, talking about DeKalb’s gigantic financial hole.


Continue reading A fresh look at “old” financial advice for DeKalb