DeKalb’s growth in personnel expenses

There’s another special city council meeting, specifically a budget meeting, set for this evening. It’s apparently a follow-up of what they discussed last week.

On Thursday, the council held a joint meeting with the finance advisory committee to outline a proposed 5 percent reduction in city department budgets for fiscal 2018. This equates to nine full-time positions and 11 part-time positions being dropped and nearly $20 million being cut.

I watched the joint council-FAC meeting that the newspaper is referring to, and it did not look like there was much cutting of staff happening. With few exceptions, department heads talked about cutting expenses in a one-off manner. For example, they suggested simply not contributing the usual $12,000 to IHSA this year, and cutting non-critical training, and putting off purchases of equipment and software. In other words, the show was pretty much the same juggling act they do every year. Continue reading DeKalb’s growth in personnel expenses

Anatomy of DeKalb’s proposals for a sales tax hike

That’s not a typo in the headline. There are, I believe, two proposals for a sales tax hike of one cent for fiscal 2018. One comes from DeKalb city administrators, the other from the city’s finance advisory committee (FAC).

Here’s the proposal staff put into the draft budget:

proposed increase of sales tax

Sales tax for hiring police officers? Sales tax for “operations stabilization?” These people have run out of money for day-to-day expenses. The hiring spree chickens have come home to roost. Continue reading Anatomy of DeKalb’s proposals for a sales tax hike

Chief Lowery doesn’t want you at meetings if you don’t have anything nice to say

DeKalb’s police chief, Eugene Lowery, is so very, very tired of your negativity. Here’s what he said at Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting of council.

I want you to hear everyone’s voice. Not the voices of the few that walk up to this podium, and day in and day out, or week in and week out, have nothing but negative things to say.

In this setting (or so my 12 years of watchdogging the city tell me) “negativity” is substituted for the more accurate word “disagreement.” It’s a device the bureaucrats occasionally use to try to silence and marginalize people who disagree with their ideas, goals and methods.

But I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a city employee straight-up tell the city council who to listen to. That part may be unprecedented.

More from Chief Lowery:

God, I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to say it anyway. I believe Brendan Behan was an Episcopalian bishop, I think it was, like, late 1800s. He said this: “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they are unable to do it themselves.”*

Continue reading Chief Lowery doesn’t want you at meetings if you don’t have anything nice to say

TIF spending for streets in FY16 did not come anywhere near what DeKalb is claiming

The setup: During the special Committee of the Whole meeting of Monday evening, DeKalb council members were discussing with staff a proposed budget reduction in 2018 for the street improvement program in our two TIF districts, specifically a staff recommendation to cut in half the usual $1 million budgeted for streets in the TIFs. During the course of this discussion, Alderman David Jacobson asked whether the money budgeted in the TIFs for previous years actually got spent. Here’s the actual transcripted exchange:

Jacobson: One other question, only because it was something that was brought up this afternoon to me. I know there was a question last year about– I think it was in the 16-and-a-half budget, if I’m correct, that the council asked for a million-dollar budget in the TIFs for road expenditures, and there was some question as to whether or not that was ever spent?

Public Works Director Tim Holdeman: Absolutely, that was spent. That was in our road program for this year; we have completed that street maintenance, both in TIF 1 and TIF 2 districts. I don’t have the final numbers, but it’s very close to a million dollars. It bid out at about $990,000. So with the engineering, we were right at– we were a little bit above a million, but we could supplement that with Fund 50, so…[crosstalk]

Jacobson: And was that the same in ’16 as well?

Holdeman: For ’16?

Jacobson: The full million for ’16?

Holdeman: Yes, that was the same for fiscal year ’16, yes.

Holdeman’s comments make it sound like the city spent $1 million out of the TIF funds in FY16, another $1 million in FY17, and maybe something in between, during that six-month budget period they call FY16.5. But these claims are not demonstrably true at this point. The FY16 audited numbers are available, and as I reported earlier this year,* the TIF reports filed with the Illinois Comptroller show that not quite $115,000 was spent in the TIF districts on street improvements during FY16 — nowhere near the budgeted $1 million. Continue reading TIF spending for streets in FY16 did not come anywhere near what DeKalb is claiming

Why I’m alleging DeKalb violated the Open Meetings Act yesterday

During a special meeting of the city council yesterday, I alleged that City of DeKalb had not given sufficient notice of the meeting, in that DeKalb did not explicitly name a location for it.

The city maintains that it gave sufficient notice because the agenda was printed on city letterhead, which includes the address of the Municipal Building. I believe letterhead may be sufficient for a regular meeting but not for a special meeting.

From merely a practical standpoint, consider that DeKalb often holds special meetings in special places, not just the Muni Building. As an example, I’ve attended special meetings of council at NIU, the library — even once on a bus. People who attend city meetings know about this aspect of special meetings, and the lack of location information caused confusion among the public yesterday.

There are legal considerations as well. Let’s explore them. Continue reading Why I’m alleging DeKalb violated the Open Meetings Act yesterday

Mayor Smith runs from Freedom of Information right smack into the First Amendment

I went to a special city council meeting last night, where I noted two odd occurrences.

First off, Aaron Stevens attended. Stevens is DeKalb’s Freedom of Information Act officer, but there was nothing on the agenda about FOIA.

The second weird thing was the attentiveness of council members. Gone were the usual tablet-tapping movements and studied indifference as I shared my views during the citizen comment portion of the evening. They were rather intent, if you get what I mean. Expectant, even.

Afterward I was talking in the city hall parking lot with a neighbor who said I should catch the video of Monday’s regular council meeting (August 28) because the mayor called out some of us who have been critical of the FOIA Center and the way it was and is being deployed.

In view of the information from my neighbor, my observations of the odd suddenly made sense to me. I realized that a portion of the room must have anticipated that I would use my public comment time to respond to Mayor Smith’s remarks from Monday. However, I hadn’t attended or watched Monday’s meeting by that point. Not knowing anything about the specifics, I’d stuck to talking about the Streets budget as directed by the meeting agenda.

Today I find that the Daily Chronicle has reported on the Monday remarks, and it occurs to me that some were probably expecting not only my comments on them but also, perhaps, a mayoral smackdown of yours truly. Continue reading Mayor Smith runs from Freedom of Information right smack into the First Amendment

DeKalb Park District did not endorse the Annie Glidden North plan proposal. Here’s why

The DeKalb Park District (DPD) did not endorse City of DeKalb’s Annie Glidden North proposal.

The resolution on the issue, unanimously passed during a special meeting Tuesday night, reads as follows:

NOW BE IT RESOLVED by the Board of Commissioners of the DeKalb Park District, County of DeKalb, and State of Illinois, as follows:

That the DeKalb Park District does in good faith and through its cooperative nature support the City of DeKalb in its deveopment of a plan for the revitalization of the Annie Glidden North neighborhood and will actively participate in the development of the plan for the benefit of the residents of the Park District.

The commissioners support “a” plan that they “will actively participate in.”

DPD had the special meeting to hear the city’s presentation on the plan proposal. It was the only chance they had to hear the proposal before the DeKalb city council considers it next week.

That’s right, City of DeKalb plans to push through the proposal without ever consulting DPD, even though DPD operates four parks within the area designated as Annie Glidden North. Apparently, the city thought DPD would just rubberstamp the proposal.

I honestly can’t wait to read the minutes of this meeting. According to attendees, commissioners did not exactly mince words.

Council members: We love the new you, and we want you to succeed. Please remove Annie Glidden North from the agenda for the time being, and take steps to mend fences with the park district.

And please, take a good hard look at the unforced errors of your city manager.

Video of today’s meeting for 4th and 6th wards

The council members held it at the DeKalb Township building, and about 20 people from the 4th, 5th, and 6th wards attended.

The last time I can remember going to a meeting in my ward was 2005, so this was a pretty big deal to me.

They didn’t disappoint.

I’ve posted it at the City Barbs Facebook Group as well, and I expect most comments, if any, will end up there.

Send an email with the same PDF you put up at the website. Yes, it is that simple.

I’ve now viewed DeKalb city council’s Committee of the Whole meeting held last night. The meeting centered around the new online Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Center, and whether city staff members’ changes to FOIA policies and procedures are legal and fair.

Nothing was resolved, so they will take up the topic again in a future meeting. City staff are on the hard-sell path, so they will continue to try to grind down the council until they “win” whatever game they are playing, or until council tells them to knock it off.

Over the next couple weeks, I sincerely hope that council members will talk to the resident requesters whom the FOIA officer essentially called liars last night, and try to ascertain the truth about their experiences. Requesters say staff called them up and told them FOIA requests would no longer be accepted via email. Staff says that never happened. Seems like this could use some follow up.

I hope that Ald. Noreiko, who asked whether the launch of the FOIA Center was publicized and was told by staff that it was announced on social media, will actually visit the social media sites and see for herself whether this is so (and if it’s not, someone needs to be called out. Do we really need to say this?)

And when we meet again, I hope we can get to the crux of the matter: Why exactly is it suddenly unreasonable for people to ask for an email response to a FOIA request?

My answer: It’s not unreasonable. The FOIA officer would just send an email containing the same PDF file as he has uploaded to the website. It doesn’t take much more time, it doesn’t use any more paper, it ensures the requester can access the response, and it’s just good customer service with the potential for building good will.

Indeed, city business routinely involves email, so the refusal to send FOIA responses that way is actually kind of bizarre.

More Reasons to Put the Brakes on the STEAM Center Project

Several of DeKalb’s city council members balked at making financial or other commitments to the STEAM center project until they have in hand a thorough analysis of its most important source of funding, the soon-to-be-retired Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts.

Even the most worthy projects are subject to resource limitations, so a peek into the municipal wallet and thoughtful prioritization make good sense, and are probably the most important reasons to apply the brakes.

But there are other reasons, too. Here are three of them.

1. It’s not our job. It’s not automatically the duty of the city to pick up the slack on an NIU project, especially one that NIU itself has decided it can’t spare a dime for. Public safety and infrastructure are supposed to be the names of our games, but now the consultant and administrators are broaching consideration of involvement in site selection, governance, even operations. Boundaries, people.

2. The push is premature. This is a top-down pet project headed by city administrators who have clearly done most of the work, and last week’s special meeting was clearly about hard-selling our new electeds into supporting it. But there is no sign of any corresponding surge in public support. No organization has stepped up to pledge financial support for its construction and operation. It’s an entirely backwards process, which bodes ill for fundraising efforts. If STEAM gets approved at this point, we will all get stuck with the bill.

3. The TIF goal is unclear. As proposed, the project tells us little about ROI, which in a TIF district means raising EAV in the district. In fact, at least initially it would do the opposite, by taking another large property off the tax rolls.

I want to note that counil members David Jacobson and Michael Verbic have asked for financial analyses before (Verbic as a Financial Advisory Committee member), and they’ve been completely ignored in the past. The unified insistence on the TIF analysis is a welcome move, and I hope it means this council aims to reclaim its full authority in stewardship. Fingers crossed.