Water is the new TIF

This is second of a series. First one is here.

For years, DeKalb bailed out its general operating budget with tax increment financing (TIF) funds. TIF administrative fees helped soften the blows following the 2008 market crashes and assisted the hiring spree after that. Now the enormous “TIF 1” district is gone, replaced by the “Downtown TIF” that is but a shadow of its previously glorious, slush-fund-y self.

Pandemic relief money — just in time — is now subsidizing the city’s payroll and will continue to do so for a couple more years. What follows when that’s gone, especially now that other federal funds will disappear with our population losses? My hypothesis is the Water Operations Fund will see pressure to take on more of the bailout role.

Water Ops already assists in compensating city employees who work outside of that division, and has for ages. But since 2016 it’s hard to spot. The city scrapped its policy of clean, transparent transfers from Water Fund to General Fund and adopted deceptive budgeting practices that help to conceal the dependence on water sales.*

The Water Ops budget for regular full-time wages this year is $1.2 million, enough to cover base wages for 15 Water (aka Utility) employees including supervisors. But Water only has nine full-timers. The rest goes to help staff the city manager’s office and divisions under the manager’s direct supervision (Finance, HR, IT) without this being shown anywhere in the General Fund budget where these offices and divisions reside. Water also is apparently picking up the insurance tab for more than its nine workers, as its currently budgeted expense for employee health insurance is $569,000.*

size-of-water-div-2021

Continue reading Water is the new TIF

DeKalb taps into water trends

First of a series.

The Better Government Association recently published an article about Joliet’s ambitious and controversial mayor, who plans to buy Lake Michigan water from Chicago.

[Water scarcity] tensions have arrived in northeastern Illinois, which, despite its proximity to the world’s fourth-largest source of fresh water, faces a coming water crisis.

Among the first battlegrounds are Chicago’s southwest suburbs, which have been reliably served for 150 years by underground sandstone aquifers that soon won’t be able to keep up with forecasted demand.

The loss of the aquifers — which comes as water bills are already rising and climate change accelerates — will leave many Chicago suburbs with the added expense of finding alternative sources to survive.

BGA: “Pipeline to Chicago could make Joliet mayor the new suburban water czar”

Joliet has about a decade to solve the problem. The idea is to find alternatives to pumping its aquifer dry and to conserve what’s left in the aquifer for emergencies. Its mayor wants to fund the infrastructure for piping surface water by reselling the lake water to neighboring communities and by recruiting new customers in the form of large industrial users of water — a scheme that has landed the city in court, so who knows how this will turn out.

Continue reading DeKalb taps into water trends

A look back: DeKalb and its radium water

25 years ago, residents of DeKalb organized to pressure the city to reduce the amount of radium in our drinking water. The city, which already had obtained a variance that allowed it to exceed EPA limits for radium, required a second variance in 1996 to obtain permits to extend water mains for new construction. This presented an opportunity to argue for a higher standard for the long-term health of the community. Upon discovering the Illinois Pollution Control Board regulations allowed for citizens to request public hearings, that’s what they did. Here’s the letter to the editor that Linda Lahey wrote to alert her neighbors of the upcoming public hearing:

linda-lahey-letter-7-1-1996

And here is the city’s rebuttal, two days later:

nicklas-letter-7-3-96

This was city government attacking an individual who disagreed with its policy, and the newspaper of record approving the hostilities. The double betrayal must have been devastating at the time. But the residents persisted. They filed suit against the city in December 2016 and, just shy of a year later, they won.

Continue reading A look back: DeKalb and its radium water

DeKalb Park District property transfer could use another look

DeKalb Park District (DPD) passed a resolution last summer to convey park property to City of DeKalb for its new city hall. The transfer has since occurred under an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between the two.

City of DeKalb paid DPD a dollar for the property known as the Nehring building. Possibly illegally by ignoring the Park District Code of the Illinois Compiled Statutes. Definitely unfairly as we bear witness, for example, to DPD’s financial struggles to keep its golf courses open. 

DPD acknowledges it must go to referendum to sell a golf course – there’s the Park District Code for you – but somehow a virtual freebie to the city under IGA is fine? What the two parties did was cite other authorities for the conveyance, the Local Government Property Transfer Act and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act. Here’s what the Property Transfer Act says:

If such real estate shall be held by the transferor municipality without restriction, the said municipality shall have power to grant or convey such real estate or any portion thereof to the transferee municipality upon such terms as may be agreed upon by the corporate authorities of both municipalities…

“If…without restriction…” So, isn’t the next step to check the statutes that apply to the transferor to see what restrictions it might have? City of DeKalb might not have any restrictions, but the city is not the transferor. DPD is, and Article 10 of the Park District Code has a lot to say about it. Continue reading DeKalb Park District property transfer could use another look

Story of Dixon sparks ideas for preventing fraud and building trust in city government

Last night I went to the Egyptian Theatre to watch “All the Queen’s Horses,” the documentary of Rita Crundwell’s embezzlement of more than $53 million from City of Dixon when she was treasurer-comptroller there.

I won’t spoil the film, because even a person who followed Crundwell’s arrest and the aftermath quite closely is bound to find a couple of surprises. If you haven’t seen it, you deserve an equal opportunity to scrape your jaw off the floor once or twice. 🙂

Let’s explore, instead, the general lack of curiosity, assertiveness or persistence, when red flags pop up, to get questions answered to one’s satisfaction.

Why do so many people ignore questionable activities? A lot of it’s the expected consequences. If you reported potentially illegal behavior at your workplace, would your employer give lip service but ignore the problem, address the party involved, or plot retaliation for you? I’ll bet you don’t have to think much about it to answer. Chances are you’ve interacted enough with the culture there to know already. Continue reading Story of Dixon sparks ideas for preventing fraud and building trust in city government

DeKalb’s housing rehab program is seriously underperforming

Last night, City of DeKalb held a public hearing and approved an annual budget for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). CDBD is a federal program administered by HUD that helps ensure viable communities, particularly in the area of decent and affordable housing for low- to moderate-income residents.

The general public did not participate in the public hearing. We rarely do. The CDBG budget is treated as routine and unremarkable, even when it’s not.

And this year it’s definitely not. Continue reading DeKalb’s housing rehab program is seriously underperforming

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

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.

A look at the county’s nursing center renovation project, and what it might mean

I have a dark red brick on my mantel that came from the old DeKalb County Home, now known as DeKalb County Nursing and Rehabilition Center (DCNRC). On one side of the brick is a sketch of the Home, on another a short history of the facility in dates and names.

The brick tells me that DCRNC’s previous location on Sycamore Road was demolished in the year 2000, which means it has taken the county more than 15 years to bring to light chronic logistical issues at the “new” place that create congested hallways and risk cold food.

I asked myself, “Why now?” And this is where I landed:

Also planned is an addition to the north of the existing structure, adding 18 single-occupancy rooms. These rooms will be the Medicare rooms, but also help the facility keep up with the times.

Presenting the addition as almost an afterthought to a primary mission of logistical remediation is hilarious to me. It’s actually much more likely that the desire for the addition kicked off the project. Because money. Continue reading A look at the county’s nursing center renovation project, and what it might mean

Ask me how I feel about the Annie Glidden North project when I know how NIU is involved

DeKalb city council had a special meeting on Tuesday to discuss what they’re calling the Annie Glidden North (ANG) “revitalization plan.” ANG is what they call three neighborhoods in the northwest section of the city on either side of Annie Glidden Road.

According to the 100-page memo that accompanied the meeting agenda, DeKalb in 2016 “began a process to solicit proposals for consulting services to develop a strategy for the revitalization of the Annie Glidden North (AGN) neighborhood.” In other words, the city hired another consultant to do another study.

During the meeting, however, city employees objected to members of the public calling the project a study. They’re acting very thin-skinned about members of the public noting that we have stacks and stacks of studies lying dustfully on the shelves, so they’re countering by calling this one a “plan” already instead.

I encourage you not to engage them in the game. They may not have a leg to stand on, and they may produce little when it comes to results, but they can do semantics all day long. Just smile and say, “Po-ta-to, po-tah-to,” and move on to the important stuff. Continue reading Ask me how I feel about the Annie Glidden North project when I know how NIU is involved