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Sometimes City Spending Is All About the Timing!

The definition of the "municipal mindset" expands!

A non-Geneva municipal employee and friend just told me, “It sucks to work for city government right now.” I’m sure he’s right! You can’t even whisper the word “raise,” more cuts and layoffs are most certainly coming, and meanwhile, those have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too citizens aren’t willing to pay more property taxes, but they don’t want to see any city service cuts, either.

But as much as I sympathize with his plight, especially when it comes to aldermen and mayors, these more-often-than-not-well-intentioned public-sector folks seem to shoot themselves in the foot more often than not.

Let’s take two recent city of Geneva endeavors as prime examples of my newest municipal mindset hypothesis.

The first is yet another water-rate increase. To be more specific, that base $1.39 customer-service charge that kicks off each of our H2O bills is about to go up by an undetermined amount. Of course, that prospect comes directly on the heels of a 5 percent 2011 water rate hike with another 5 percent increase coming in 2012.

Not only did they endorse a meter-charge increase, but the Geneva Water and Wastewater Task Force, consisting of aldermen and private citizens, also recommended hiring a consultant to perform the first comprehensive review of the city’s water utility since 1985.

I hope to God it’s not the same ones who couldn’t predict that if water bills go up, then consumption will go down.

Though the proper was smart enough not to say it out loud, some of the task force members managed to utter the equivalent of that dreaded municipal-mindset-infected phrase, “We have to bring that base rate in line with neighboring cities.”

Considering St. Charles’ meter charge is $4.96 and Batavia’s is $3.92, we are getting a pretty good deal. But I’ll keep on saying it until I’m blue in the face! The fact that someone else charges more doesn’t necessarily mean the city of Geneva has to follow suit.

In fact, as it is with siblings in dysfunctional families, these comparison arguments can lead to all sorts of problems. For example, it opens the door to me saying this!

Using the data on the Kane County Treasurer’s website, it’s clear our property taxes are, on average, about 5 percent higher than our neighbors in Batavia and St. Charles. So thus, in order to bring that levy in line with other local municipalities, Geneva needs to immediately cut that tax rate by 5 percent.

All of a sudden that whole juxtaposition rationale doesn’t look so good anymore, does it?

In addition to the possibility of spending $40,000 to evaluate the water system, Geneva just approved the purchase of a new $515,000 software system that will unite most city departments under one computer umbrella.

The current 14-year-old DOS-based COBOL system simply can’t do the job anymore, and when you see what the new software , from a former business system consultant perspective, it appears to be the kind of thing that will quickly pay for itself in increased productivity.

But oddly enough, while they’re making specious water-rate comparisons, I haven’t heard any Geneva administrator make the case that the new data system’s greater efficiencies will save taxpayers money in the long run.

So even though clearly time for these expenditures, I’ll go on the record as adamantly stating it’s not the time for either. But before you accuse me of harboring multiple personalities, let me explain what I mean.

Since we haven’t taken a serious look at our water utility for 26 long years, it’s probably a good idea to finally apply the magnifying glass. But while no one would’ve batted an eyelash about spending 40 grand in 2002, it’s gonna raise a lot of eyebrows in 2011.

A half-million dollars to replace a software system that was obsolete when it was installed would’ve solicited minor muttering in 2005, but in 2011, it’s got some citizens shouting, “Say what?”

Thus, we’ve come to the newest facet of the malady I frequently refer to as the “municipal mindset!” “Let’s not consider an issue until we have no choice, but to consider the issue.” It’s similar to Geneva asking residents to share the cost of replacing diseased ash trees—but only after they’ve cut down more than 1,000 parkway trees.

We certainly don’t want our civic leaders to throw money around like Nicholas Cage, but waiting until you’re painted into a corner to consider an imminently necessary course of action isn’t sound fiscal thinking, either.

Now that the city waited 26 and 14 years to address the water and municipal software systems, it’s faced with the kind of economy that makes it difficult to do either. So my advice to those municipal folks who say it sucks to be them would be to occasionally look in the mirror and consider if, at times, you might be your own worst enemy.

And that should be the end of the column, but I want to issue a rare addendum. When previously speaking with former alderman Ray Pawlak about a possible downtown Apple Store, he said we have the antithesis of that kind of procrastinatory thinking right here on First Street.

“Mary McKittrick is a proactive thinker who should have her intuition followed and supported by the mayor and City Council,” Pawlak said, “Especially in these tough economic times.”

Bob McQuillan December 08, 2011 at 05:03 PM
This can't be happening; two Jeff Ward columns in a row that make sense! One of the problems we have in today's current economic environment is that each taxing body works independently of each other and they don't look at the whole picture. It's the old theory. "everyone needs to cut expenses but me (submit the name of any local taxing body). When the city council can't agree on a tax levy, you know things are "a changin'". It might only be $10 a year but add that to the other bodies increasing their budgets and it quickly turns into $500-700 per property. Residents need to speak out to stop this craziness. And vote on March 20th for those that will change the "good old days."
Thomas December 08, 2011 at 06:06 PM
There is that old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What if, because of the the recent economic climate, people dont want to pay for either the prevention or the cure but they want someone to blame when the disease hits their doorstep.
Bob McQuillan December 08, 2011 at 08:48 PM
Part of planning & budgeting is projecting what your expenses will be and fund them accordingly. If you know your computer system will need to be replaced in 5 years at a cost of $500,000 you fund that expense with $100,000 over 5 years, not $500k in 1 year. The same is true for projected yearly preventive maintenance costs. That said, you don't need 50% of your operating budget in reserve for a rainy day.

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