Playing The Shell Game


Well, we now have a 2011-12 City budget. 

If Mayor Dave Schmidt doesn’t veto it.  Or if he does and the Council over-rides that veto.

Monday night the City Council voted 6-1 (Ald. Joe Sweeney dissenting) to approve a budget that, according to the cover story of today’s Park Ridge Journal (“Budget OKd, But Work Remains,” Mar. 23), is projected to produce a $200,000 deficit (on revenues of $57.2 million and expenses of $57.4 million) despite a 4.51% property tax increase.

Or at least that’s the way it looks on the surface of what, in reality, is one big shell game with more shells than most taxpayers and voters – and, probably, most aldermen – can keep track of.

Let’s start with the fact that the City has (by our count) 28 – yes, 28! – separate shells…uh, we mean… funds, plus a number of Special Service Area (“SSA”) shells…oops, did it again…funds for those defined parts of the City that receive some special benefit that the City decided to charge against the properties receiving that special benefit.

Of those 28 funds, the City actually budgets for about 15 of them, starting with the General Fund, which is the City’s main operating fund.  That’s the fund from whence payroll gets made, even if the General Fund has to borrow from some other shell…d*mn!…fund in order to have the cash necessary to make payroll – something that has happened several times over the past few years.

One reason for that is because we have been spending more than we take in.  D’oh! 

That’s one of the legacies of what we call “The Frimark Years” – after former mayor Howard “Let’s Make A Deal” Frimark, who ostensibly came up with the concept of a smaller, leaner, meaner City Council that has found ways to increase taxes every year it has been in existence while still posting big deficits and spending down fund balances to what are approaching dangerous levels.  But look at the bright side: we’re saving $8,400 a year in aldermanic compensation, as Frimark promised.

Another reason is that the City is cash poor.  As we understand it, almost 60% of the General Fund’s “cash” consists of a $4.5 million I.O.U. from the Uptown Redevelopment project (a/k/a, the Uptown TIF) for debt service and other(?) payments the General Fund has had to make on behalf of the TIF because the TIF hasn’t generated enough revenues for the special TIF-related funds to discharge their obligations. 

That TIF is a legacy of a prior City administration and, according to the most recent financial reports, looks to be a gift that will keep on producing deficits until at least 2016.  If we’re lucky.

Meanwhile, one of the Uptown TIF’s chief architects, former city manager Tim Schuenke, has his City pension checks sent to Delafield, Wisconsin, where (at last report) he was raking in around $100K in self-imposed exile as the city administrator.  And another one of the TIF’s architects, former mayor Ron Wietecha, also isn’t around to watch his tax dollars flow down that particular drain.

But we digress.

In addition to the General Fund, the City also has 9 “Special Revenue” funds, 6 “Debt Service” funds, 3 “Capital Project” funds, and 3 “Enterprise” funds, all of which are restricted to certain limited uses – which apparently include serving as an in-house ATM when the General Fund runs low on cash.  Admittedly, that beats borrowing from the bank, or issuing working cash bonds or tax anticipation warrants.  But it’s still just robbing Peter to pay Paul.

And it also skews the budgetary process by what appears to be, for lack of a better metaphor, balancing apples with oranges.  By considering all of these separate and distinct funds as part of one budgetary unit, the City is effectively “balancing” projected General Fund deficits with, e.g., projected enterprise fund surpluses.

That may technically be legal, but it sure seems misleading.

Which should be expected from a shell game with 28 shells.

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1 comment so far

No wonder this is such a mess. Who can keep track of all this?

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