Considering the state of the economy and our deadbeat state, I recently asked my good friend Mark Furlong how things were going at Thresholds. Mark and I met while working at that social service agency in the '80s.
Briefly, Thresholds does a magnificent job of getting schizophrenics and other mentally ill folks back on their feet. If you’re looking for a place to get the biggest bang for your charitable buck, search no further.
Now an agency VP, Mark said they were enduring layoffs and program realignments. Then he said something that really struck a chord, “We’re building long-term strategies to put ourselves in a stronger position. We’re not waiting to see what the state does with funding anymore.”
“Wow!” I thought. There is one place on this planet that actually understands the concept of foresight. An entity that relies on the state and the state of the economy actually realizes that, though they can control neither, there are concrete steps they can take—even if distasteful—to mitigate this too-predictable fiscal volatility
That same day the Kane County Chronicle ran an excellent piece on the effects dwindling investment income is having on local government. Folks like Donna Oberg, Disitrict 304 assistant superintendent for business services, and Geneva Finance Director Tim Dahl lamented a 95 percent decline in interest income since 2007.
The piece was intended to showcase just one of the fiscal challenges facing municipal bodies. Maybe I’m just heartless, but the first thing I thought was “What the 'bleep' did you expect?”
C’mon! Anyone who’s managed to muster the courage to open a bank statement within last two years already knows you could get the same interest stuffing your savings in your mattress. Yes! The current 12-month Bank of America CD rate is a massive .55 percent, but you didn’t have to be a psychic to predict that!
The minute Mark mentioned Thresholds’ proactive posture, I started praying that kind of thinking was contagious. Because if it was, we could send our esteemed city managers/council and District 304 School Board/officials down to their offices to be infected.
I know they’d vehemently disagree with me (they always do), but our City Council and School Board clearly aren’t willing to take the bull by the horns. Despite the state’s frequent threats to take a bigger cut of the sales and motor-fuel-tax pot, despite plummeting home values, our Geneva leaders tenaciously cling to the status quo.
The best example of this phenomenon is I'm now paying an extra 100 mortgage dollars a month because of an escrow shortage primarily caused by a $500 property tax hike! And that privilege comes along with my home losing more than $100,000 in value in two years.
To be fair, some of the blame for that selective municipal blindness lies squarely at our feet. In true government fashion, those folks take our refusal to show up to council/board meetings as a signal that everything's hunky dory. So instead of representing our best interest, they lean toward the best interests of the city and district staffers they have to deal with on a daily basis.
That said, this human-nature hypothesis doesn’t nearly add up to an excuse. If you have a job to do, then do it! If the City Council and School Board truly represented our best interest, property taxes wouldn’t have risen one thin dime, much less half a yard.
Trust me! Both the city of Geneva and School District would’ve done just fine without the extra cash.
Whenever a Geneva citizen issues a demand for cuts, Mayor Kevin Burns always answers them with, “Where would you make them?” But when I respond, “Ten percent staff cuts, a complete revamp of employee health benefits, and working with the state to reform pensions,” he gets very quiet.
And now he’s running for County Board chair? So far, I’m not impressed.
I tend to agree with School Board President Tim Moran’s theory that once you negotiate a contract, you honor it—bad times or good! But beyond that, neither he nor the School Board instill much confidence, either.
The last time we talked, Moran said, “We’re facing a year of stagnation at best and decline at worst. The board does not expect nor do they intend to be able to keep everyone happy. That includes staff and taxpayers.”
Sorry, Tim, but that answer ain’t gonna cut it. I shouldn’t have to remind you or the mayor that, within the bounds of fiscal sanity, your first responsibility is to the people who elected you and not the people you hired.
Earlier this year I asked Oberg what the district would do when distressed properties were included in 2011 assessments. She replied, “I don’t know.”
Though I appreciate that honest answer to a tough question, we elect mayors, school boards and city councils based on the proposition they’ll diligently work on our behalf to come up with those answers. And that answer better not include another property tax increase or I’ll be running for City Council and the School Board.
Just once! Just one time, I’d like to hear one of ‘em say, “In anticipation of this dire fiscal probability, here is our specific strategy for dealing with it now and in the long term. We aren’t willing to sit around waiting for the other shoe to fall. These tough choices won’t make me popular with our staff, but it’s exactly what you elected me to do!”
The difference between Geneva and Thresholds is a social service agency can’t fall back on the taxpayers after they’ve finally figured out that interest rates might stay low.
“The situation with the state is so fluid that one week we might hear one thing, and next week we might hear another,” Thresholds spokesperson Dan Billingsley added. “What we have to do is build long term strategies to respond to frequent changes in funding with as little disruption of services as possible.”
Please tell me why this kind of fiscal foresight is such a novel concept in municipal government.