Mayor Dave Schmidt has made “transparency” a central theme of his, both during his 2-year tenure as 1st Ward alderman and in his 5-year tenure as mayor. He has done so not just for transparency’s own sake but, also, because transparency is essential to accountability.
For information to be transparent, however, it has to be readily accessible in user-friendly form so that the ordinary taxpayer, as well as the ordinary alderman, can understand it and effectively use in understanding how City government is operating.
Which leads us to the subject of today’s post.
Tonight the Park Ridge City Council is scheduled to adopt the 2014-15 Budget. Although that budget has to be approved prior to May 1, we’re hoping that doesn’t happen tonight, if only because the budget the Council has been given by City Staff – and which is still titled “preliminary” – projects a $6,050,768 overall deficit and calls for a 16.38% property tax levy increase. Neither of those points sounds promising.
But arguably more problematic than those unpromising numbers is the way City Finance Director Kent Oliven is presenting them, specifically in his April 18, 2014 FY2015 Budget Summary Memorandum (the “Summary”).
The narrative in Oliven’s Summary contains good news: that the City’s General Fund from which it pays its day-to-day operating expenses is projecting a $581,877 surplus. It also contains what sounds like bad news: that, overall, the City is projecting revenues of $61,673,703 but expenditures of $67,724,471, for a $6 million overal budget deficit.
But Oliven has made understanding why there is such a large deficit a significant challenge. And in so doing, he pretty much undermines the value of his “summary” document for both the Council and for the ordinary citizen who might want to better understand City finances and how our City officials are dealing with them.
For example, Oliven reports that $2,131,612 of that $6 million overall deficit comes from bonded debt being incurred for relief sewers and high-capacity line connections during the last year of something called the “Sewer Construction Fund.” That sounds like needed long-term capital improvements to us, but we’re just guessing because Oliven doesn’t make any attempt at explaining what the “Sewer Construction Fund” is, what it was created to do, and what it has done and spent in however many years prior to the upcoming final year.
Another $992,807 of the deficit is projected for the Water Fund, but the reason for that deficit is not described at all in Oliven’s narrative. Another $601,208 deficit is projected for the Parking Fund, again with no explanation other than “the City Council decided to review parking rates in FY15.” So not only aren’t the taxpayers being told why the Parking Fund is deficit spending, but we are being warned that WE may end up paying for that unexplained deficit spending through higher parking rates.
There also are no explanations in the Summary for the Municipal Waste (Refuse/Garbage) Fund projected deficit of $123,325, the Library’s projected $368,510 deficit, the Motor Equipment Replacement Fund deficit of $939,393 and the Technology Replacement Fund deficit of $401,901.
The financial black hole commonly known as the Uptown TIF Fund is budgeting for a $653,804 deficit, based on a reported “increase in bond payments.” We can’t tell from Oliven’s Summary narrative, however, the amount of that year-over-year increase; and whether that $653,804 is the entire bond payment or only the net payment after TIF revenues (also unidentified) are deducted.
Curiously, Oliven projects “$200K for Court Fines, which is significantly above the $56,721 FY14 budget amount” due to “better enforcement and collections.” Only a few years ago, however, Oliven’s predecessor discovered over $1 million in uncollected fines, including penalties and interest – which we wrote about in our 11.08.11 post – which is why we would have expected an explanation of how the City is planning to increase its fine “enforcement and collections” by approximately 350%.
We suspect that all those figures mentioned above as MIA are included somewhere in Oliven’s 210-page budget document. One of the early lessons taught in ”Bureaucrats 101″ is how to hide information in plain sight by burying it in comprehensive that include as much information as possible, preferably indiscriminately and in a way that discourages casual readers from accessing it without enduring painful tedium. That’s because so long as the information is somewhere in the report somewhere, the bureaucrat’s derriere is covered – and the taxpayers don’t get easy access to the kind of information that might lead to unpleasant questions.
Make no mistake about it: there are plenty of places to hide information in a 210-page budget document.
But, frankly, the ordinary taxpayer – or even the ordinary alderman – shouldn’t have to wade through 210 pages to find those figures and explanations missing from the Summary. If the subject is important enough to be addressed in an executive-summary fashion, that executive summary should provide enough basic detail so that the issues can be understood from reading that summary, without diving into the 200 pages of back-up for each point made.
But Oliven doesn’t seem to get that. And because it appears that simply leaving important numbers and explanations out of his Summary isn’t troublesome enough for ordinary citizens and aldermen alike, Oliven adds insult to injury by providing an “Index” of the entire budget document that lacks any page numbers.
So much for transparency. And maybe for competence, too.
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