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DeKalb's finance committee talks 2020 in heated first round budget discussion

This article incorrectly stated a tax increase recommendation that was not made. The Daily Chronicle regrets the error.

DeKALB – Budget talks heated up Monday with the city’s Finance Advisory Committee following a tense exchange between City Manager Bill Nicklas and the committee chairman.

In a 10-minute exchange, during which Nicklas stood up and almost left out of frustration, FAC chair Mike Peddle voiced pointed opposition that Nicklas, who began his job Jan. 1, waited until October to call the committee to order to begin the budget process.

Ward 6 Alderman Mike Verbic, the city council committee liason, agreed the committee should meet more often.

“The budget process this year has been absolutely unacceptable,” Peddle said. “The plan with respect to and agreed to by the City Council was that this was going to take place in February and March, and the FAC would be essential to developing budget assumptions. Not you, not your staff.”

Nicklas said he was working with what he inherited, and that the city can’t afford an appropriate-sized staff because of its financial situation.

Preliminary drafts of the Fiscal Year 2020 budget tally the numbers at $104 million, with an operating fund of $38 million and a $61 million pension fund, Nicklas said after the meeting. He and the rest of the city staff will work to complete a full budget draft by Nov. 15, after which time he plans to hold a two-night workshop with the advisory committee and council to hash out priorities. The budget will then move to a public hearing and council approval in December.

With money tight, a number of funding recommendations to help repair streets and fleets was shown..

Nicklas admonished Peddle, saying the city is in a “volatile economic time,” and throughout the meeting cited the importance of potentially 1,000 new jobs coming to the city of DeKalb with two major companies eyeing land in the ChicagoWest Business Center.

“Sir, I don’t know where you’re coming from, what book you’re reading, or what you’re smoking,” Nicklas said. “But you’re insulting me and there is no reason for that. We were in a mess when I started here, and there wasn’t a good floor under us. We have sought that floor, we have worked mightily and engaged council along the way on a variety of steps to try to bring a floor under a mess.”

Peddle asked why the city does not have a finance director. Nicklas said he has delegated the duties of that position to Assistant City Manager Ray Munch.

DeKalb citizen Andrew Shepherd also called into question the rising cost of water bills, and urged the council to make finding financial information easier online. Munch said water bills had increased on July 1 in accordance with a schedule the council approved in 2016.

In January, with a mission to “right-size” the government, Nicklas proposed laying off four department heads, among seven positions that council approved eliminating to address a $1 million budget shortfall. The management staffing reductions were expected to save the city $1.1 million, documents show, but the seven positions had “substantial” accrued leave that was fully paid off when the positions were eliminated. The actual savings amounted to $580,000, according to city documents.

“I’m telling you this has worked very well under dire circumstances,” Nicklas said. “We started with a crisis financially and fiscally, and this committee has some role in that. So with what we inherited, we’ve done a lot of work.”

Peddle called Nicklas’ position “a cop out.” Advisory committee member Ron Partch agreed with Nicklas, however.

“We were certainly part of this,” Partch said. “What I will say is we make recommendations, we’re an advisory committee, and the City Council sometimes disregards all of it.”

The tense exchange almost ended in Nicklas walking out of the room, but he remained at the request of Mayor Jerry Smith, who was in the audience.

Nicklas also said a new goal is to gauge council interest on leasing vehicles for the city’s aging police and fire fleet, instead of buying new ones.

“If you just look at it on a cost-benefit analysis, there’s a good likelihood that with improvements in leases, the interest rates where they are now, it’s cheaper to lease new than to fix up some old broken down 15-year-old dump truck,” said committee member Lynn Neeley.

Peddle did apologize at the tail of the meeting.

“I would like to publicly apologize,” he said. “I crossed a line. It was inappropriate and I apologize to [Nicklas] both personally and professionally.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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