Public Watchdog.org

One Small Step Forward On Zero-Based Budgeting

12.09.09

Monday night the Park Ridge City Council had its first close encounter with the concept of zero-based budgeting (“ZBB”).  And as best we could judge from the video and commentary at Park Ridge Underground, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

Mayor Dave Schmidt raised ZBB as part of the “Mayor’s Report” because he claimed he wanted the topic discussed in a public forum rather than in private between himself and the City Manager.  After four years of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing by former mayor Howard Frimark, that kind of transparency is refreshing – even if it appears just a tad disingenuous by Schmidt, given his admission that he decided not to veto a recent amendment to the zoning ordinance after having private discussions with some members of the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission.

But progress toward open government, however incremental or inconsistent, is still progress.

Not surprisingly, City Manager Jim Hock expressed more than a few reservations about ZBB as an alternative to budgetary business-as-usual.  We can understand that, even if we don’t agree with it: No bureaucrat likes the idea of having to reinvent his/her particular “wheel,” and much less so when the “wheel” is one he inherited – with several spokes missing – from the mismanagement team of Frimark and former city manager Tim Schuenke a little over a year ago.  It also doesn’t help that Hock’s finance director is exiting, stage left, after the first of the year.

We’re not counting Ald. Frank Wsol (7th Ward) among ZBB’s staunchest proponents, either.  With the faux-ness of his “fiscal conservatism” having been revealed by his successful (so far) opposition to passing through increased water costs to water users, and by his unsuccessful (mirabile dictu) efforts to saddle us with a big new $16 million-plus cop shop, Wsol’s tepid endorsement of a “modified” ZBB was no surprise.

Fifth Ward Ald. Robert Ryan admitted that he doesn’t understand the concept of ZBB, so he shouldn’t be counted on for a “yes” vote, either.  And Ald. James Allegretti was MIA so his view on the matter could not be ascertained.  But given his track record of fiscal irresponsibility and plain boneheadedness, we’ll pencil him in for a “No” vote until further notice.

We were surprised by what sounded like an unqualified endorsement of ZBB by Third Ward Ald. Don “Air Marshall” Bach, who claims he wants a “business case” done for each significant City expenditure.  We can’t tell if Bach is just blowing smoke or if he has become a born-again fiscal conservative, but we’re not complaining – at least not for the time being.

Alds. Joe Sweeney (1st Ward) and Tom Carey (6th Ward) seemed to be in favor of the concept, but Ald. Rich DiPietro (2nd Ward) gave it his customary non-committal treatment, so he could be the swing vote on this issue.

Separating the wheat from the chaff is required for ZBB to be a success, which means cold-heartedly determining what City government ought to be doing with the taxpayers’ money and then coldheartedly prioritizing those tasks.  The key is to make sure we can pay for the things we truly need before we even think about things we merely want.

At the top of the “need” list has to be public safety, a/k/a police and fire.  But just because they are No. 1 on the hit parade doesn’t mean that those departments can skate through without cuts, or even systemic changes, to make them operate more cost-effectively.  In addition to police and fire, however, “public safety” is also provided by certain types of City Code enforcement, inspections, permits and licensing.

Next comes water and sewer.  Anything less than a 100% pass through of all water costs to consumers – on a usage basis – will be a clear indication that City Staff and/or the Council are not serious about ZBB or balancing the budget.  And given how sewer maintenance appears to have been neglected, just keeping that system up and running is likely to be an expensive proposition that may require the sacrifice of other services.

After that comes streets and sidewalks, the repair and replacement of which also have been put on a slower track over the years as money was diverted to other uses.  Part of that cost also relates to things like snow plowing and salting, which not only make it safer to drive on our roadways but also may have some effect on the rate at which those roadway surfaces deteriorate. 

Beyond that are a variety of services to keep the City functioning, including flood control and even tree trimming – especially where overgrowth poses a threat to power lines.  Determining how many, and to what extent, such services can survive given the City’s current revenues will be a challenge for Staff and the Council.

And for ZBB to be truly effective, in addition to justifying every dollar spent, those justified expenditures also should be measured against the price that those particular services could be purchased from the private sector or otherwise outsourced.  That way we can get a better sense of whether the City’s cost structure is lean or padded.

As with any reform of a program or system, the success of ZBB will depend primarily on the strength and tenacity of the leadership promoting it.  That means no compromises and no free passes given to any department or department head, or else ZBB will look like empty rhetoric that can be ignored.  And that also means each department head must be forced to take ownership – and personal accountability – for every ZBB recommendation and decision he/she makes.

Implementation of ZBB can bring a “New Age” of cost-effective management to City government, or it can be a worthless boondoggle.  Which outcome prevails will depend upon the folks at 505 Butler Place.

18 comments so far

PD:

You had better see a Chiropractor. I think you may have strained something reaching for a way to compliment/credit Schmidt!!

A “tad disingenuous??” How about completely disingenuous, especially on the heels of his recent vote on the Frimark Insurance issue. Yet you sum it up by calling it “refreshing” and stating “But progress toward open government, however incremental or inconsistent, is still progress.” Put on you party hats everyone!!! Yeah Mayor Dave!!!!

Of course you easily point out that potentially positive comments by an alderman may be blowing smoke. Based on recent behavior, what is to say these same words could not apply to the Mayor???

anon on 12.09.09 11:30 am:

Schmidt’s suggestion that a private conversation with the City Manager about ZBB was not properly transparent was “a tad disingenuous” solely in light of his admitted private conversations with several unidentified P&Z commissioners about the zoning amendment.  Conversely, the mayor has not indicated that the Frimark fiasco was the product of private conversations, so it’s irrelevant to the issue of transparency.

The possibility that Bach may be blowing smoke on ZBB is suggested by his two-year record of fiscal irresponsibility, including: his voting for the $2.4 million giveaway to Napleton Cadillac; his support of the big new cop shop; his support of the $2,500 per household private flood control giveaways; his opposition to the pass-through of water rate increases to water users; his support for changing B-1 commercial property into R-3 residential; and his vote to over-ride Schmidt’s veto of additional over-budget giveaways to private community groups.

So when it comes to fiscal responsibility, Schmidt still may not have made it to home plate, but Bach only now may have found the right ballpark.

If Bach is in the right ballpark someone should tell him to pull his hands out of his pockets because that’s not a bat he’s holding on to.

I will never understand the ignorance of the whole bunch not passing on the cost of water to us. Alderman Carey got it right at the meeting. We don’t mind paying our fair share for using the water we use. It is common sense and fairness.

Pub-dogs —

Thanks for the recent plugs.

Good topic coverage this week.

Interesting comments about ZBB…Although I think at the end of the day, you can use a variety of methods for budgeting: ZBB, program, line item, etc. The issue isn’t so much what method you use, but rather how transparent you want the process to be and what you want to spend your money towards. For example, do you need “X” officers per shift versus “X – 1 or 2”? Can you outsource various services or other functions of the organization?

A lot of municipalities are at a crossroads of sorts and are having to make some difficult decisions. It may be time to get back to the nuts and bolts of government, it may not — that’s a policy call for the council. And you can present it in a myriad of fashions (ZBB, etc.) but difficult decisions or “cuts” will ultimately need to be made to stave off tax increases.

The value of ZBB seems to be the ability to get back to ground zero and decide what we need to do and budget from there rather than just adding 3% to an existing mess.  And I don’t think we should be giving a dime of tax money to these private organizations. If they can’t convince enough people to contribute to their causes, then either their causes aren’t what people care aoubt or they’re not doing their jobs well enough to justify support. Same goes for a Hawks championship parade (although I’m a big fan), to which 36,000 Park Ridgians didn’t bother to show up.

The city passed a budget last time that had a deficit in it. Doing that was really dumb.

Like Anonymous 3:18 said, there are many methods for doing budgets. Any of those methods can work.

The problem I see is the creeping spending all year long. How many expenses did the council add for things they didn’t budget for over the last few years? That joke of a police audit comes to mind and the bigger donations to the social service and arts clubs too. Those things were by choice and not any emergency.

The city has to learn to control its spending. No matter what budget method you start with if you just keep adding expenses then your budget doesn’t matter.

OK, but if we are going to cut the parade then we have to cut the July 4th celebration, right?

Anon 5:44,

Why would you even suggest cutting the July 4th celebration? You don’t see any difference between a National holiday and a football team parade?

I think you’re being ridiculous. I hope when the Mayor and the council talk about any budget cuts they aren’t so ridiculous.

If they are going to do ZBB right, then the 4th of July fireworks has to be on the table, too – at least to the extent that the cost isn’t picked up by Americaneagle or some other private donor.

If they are going to try to balance the budget that’s been putting up multi-million dollar deficits, parades and fireworks do not rank with police, fire, sewer and water.

5:44:

That is the point – isn’t it?? We all have opinions. You clearly think a parade for a winning highschool team is wrong yet a much more expensive July 4th celebration is just fine with you. What are you criteria?? Neither is absolutely necessary. They both contribute to a sense of community. So with all respect, much of the same criteria you would use against the MS parade could be used for July 4th. You say you hope they are not so ridiculous. What exactly does that mean?? You want them to cut a parade that probably cost 2K (if that) and yet an event that cost 10 times that is out of bounds?? Good luck balancing the budget that way!!

See the thing that never gets talked about here is what balancing the budget really means. It means cuts in services. I mean you can wack Brickton and the rest of the arts crowd if that makes you feel good. You can get rid of the MS victory parade (while you are at it what about homecoming???). You can stop support for TOPR and all the other fests. That will not even get you in the neighborhood of where you need to be. Of course all the above needs to be better managed and they need to have answers about why they are giving and what they are getting but even if you wipe them all out you do not get close to a balanced budget.

What is even more funny is we are talking about a “flood plan” if the committee ever delivers a report. So on the one hand spending a few shekels for a parade for some highschool students (and their families) who won a championship and yet there is this “reasonable” expectation about the city and or the taxpayer ponying up god knows how many million to solve the flood problem – good luck with that!!

What I have not heard yet from the Mayor or a single Alderman is what exactly the believe we can and should cut to balance the budget. They can dance around the rest of this all they want but it does not deal with the issue.

Perhaps this ZBB discussion will at least get them thinking about big numbers.

10:41, whacking Brickton, TOPR and the rest of those kinds of things won’t get you big dollars, but it’s what’s got to be done if we’re ever going to get “GOVERNMENT” back to doing only those limited things that only government can do.

If the Watchdog post from 5/27/09 is at all correct on its numbers, the city could save $1.5 million by doing just three things: freezing staff wages ($800,000), passing through water rates ($400,000) and cutting out community group funding ($270,000). How hard is that?

I thought in America we have a representitive form of government. which means there will be different OPINIONS on what GOVERNMENT (for, of and by the people) should do. If Some want less involvement or more involement then that is the debate philosophically.

But in the end it resides with the elected Voting representives who must decide and not some tyrannical, myopic politician who wants to say one thing and do another (all in his pure self interest) (ironically–its not Frimark to whom I allude but to the self serving, can\’t take him at his word (and that is documented in public sources), push my friends projects to make money Mayor –Ol\’ Transperancy man himself –Dave Schmidt)

Thank God we live in a country where we can decide to not elect him again. He fooled voters once- shame on him –if voters elect him a second time then shame on them–Dave Schmidt is the WORST thing to happen to Park Ridge in a long time!!!

The sad thing is that I voted for the guy thinking he would change things, but the more we find out about him, the worse it becomes. What is the worst of all is that my vote and many others were wasted on someone who plays his lawyer games but in the end does nothing for the betterment of our community but rather takes credit for what others do.

I guess you could say the trust I placed in Candidate Schmidt has been squandered by Mayor Schmidt and now Park Ridge has to suffer three more years of his moronic attempts at being a mayor.

It is going to be a long three years…..

Sure will be a long three years…for a-holes like you who seem to believe Howard Frimark could possibly have been the lesser evil…if Schmidt could even be considered “evil” as opposed to simply being a dumb ass on countable occasions.

Ironically enough…Schmidt is now dealing with a city council he contributed mightily to “making”…sort of like having to eat his own purple ribbon crow.

…though NOBODY should find any of it “satisfying” as we’re all stuck with this brain-dead brigade for, at least, another year and a half.

But good luck to the new/old HOmeowners Party just the same…

ppppppppppfffffffffffffffffttttttttttttttt!

Anonymous on 12.10.09 3:23 pm

I have to agree with you about it is going to be a long three years with schmidt as mayor.

I\’m in the same boat you are when it comes to voting for him and then watching him screw it up over and over in the past 6 months.

I mean what is so hard for him to follow through with the ethics thing? Jeez–he is the bonehead that brought it up and then it gives it a pass. where the hell is the honest govermnt candidate now?

It seems that now that he is mayor he is doing the same crap he said the previous mayor was doing. His new name should be DejaVu schmidt because what he is doing is the same old crap just a differnt year.

Let\’s see…

appoint a friend and supporter to his alderman seat –been there under Mayor Howie, done that under Mayor Dave.

create a special event for your friends–been there under Mayor Howie, done that under Mayor Dave.(to be fair –at least the people running the event Mayor Howie helped set up have their names and contact info on thier site –Mayor Dave\’s cronies won\’t even list their info –who are they? Other than the one name mentioned on here on pubdog –mayor dave\’s campaign supporter who has a criminal record–who runs polish fest and why hasn\’t mayor dave made a big case of disclosure and reimbursement about them? …Something smells about that one (but we are in the county of Crook and the State of Corruption after all…)

So it looks like the person I voted for in the spring was all talk (out of both sides of his mouth)

That just pisses me off…

Mayor Dave…either live up to your campaign promises or resign.. don\’t put us through this crap

Anonymous on 12.10.09 9:12 pm

We have not hidden our dissatisfaction with certain aspects of Mayor Schmidt’s performance during his first seven months in office, but we must take issue with most of your criticism.

His “No” vote to prosecute Howard Frimark for what the City Attorney found to be a violation of the City’s ethics ordinance was only one of at least five votes needed, so even a “Yes” vote by Schmidt would have still been four votes short of a decision to prosecute.

Although Schmidt appointed a friend and supporter to fill his council seat, unlike Frimark he didn’t pick a significant campaign contributor (Jim Allegretti) and then fail to disclose throughout the course of the nomination and confirmation process both the fact and the amount ($300) of Allegretti’s contribution, which Allegretti followed up with another $200 a few weeks after he took his Council seat.

And if we’re going to talk “special events,” Frimark’s no-bid, no-cost, no-disclosure, no-accountability giveaway of Taste of Park Ridge to his buddies a few weeks after he became mayor in 2005 costs the taxpayers more in one year than a decade of Polish Fests.  Mayor Schmidt has suggested that all special events cover their related City expenses – an idea that so far has received nothing but silence from a City Council comprised of five “Frimark guys.” 

So if you want to be irate about these things, once we get past Schmidt’s wimping out on the Frimark prosecution it looks to us like you’ve got more of a beef with Frimark, the City Council and the folks who run the don’t ask, don’t tell TOPR than you do with the current mayor.  But that’s, admittedly, just our opinion.

PD:

I will admit that the poster you replied to is a bit over the top, but something you wrte has me really scratching my head. You said the following……….”His “No” vote to prosecute Howard Frimark for what the City Attorney found to be a violation of the City’s ethics ordinance was only one of at least five votes needed, so even a “Yes” vote by Schmidt would have still been four votes short of a decision to prosecute.”

Are you willing to extend that “cover” to all those who voted that way? I mean if any of the alderman had voted yes that would not have been enough for a decision to prosecute. Is this the new yard stick?? It is OK for an elected official to go against the picture he/she presented when they ran for office because there was not enough votes anyway?? Now that is accountability!!

If you read our posts on 11/4 and 11/11, you will see that we have provided no “cover” for Mayor Schmidt on the Frimark prosecution fiasco.  Of course, we assume even the Frimark apologists out there can comprehend the difference between Frimark, who actually committed the alleged ethics violation, and Schmidt, who simply lacked whatever it takes to vote for prosecution.

In point of fact, both the mayor and the alderdwarfs are equally guilty of selling out their constituents by voting against prosecution notwithstanding the violation found by the City Attorney – although, as we pointed out in our 11/4 post, we never expected a “yes” vote from any of the five who put almost $4,000 into Frimark’s re-election fund.



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