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Tax increases, self image topics at city retreat

DeKALB ­– City leaders say improving the perception of DeKalb to residents and outsiders could help economic and residential growth.

A frequent concern among all participants: money.

“A common thread I’m seeing is ‘We need to find a way to finance all of this,’ ” said Greg Kuhn, assistant director of public management and training at Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies.

Kuhn and his colleagues facilitated the morning session of a full day of strategic planning Friday at City Hall. Throughout the day, City Council members, city staff, and members of the city’s Finance Advisory Committee highlighted a need for infrastructure road improvement, making DeKalb more business-friendly, prioritizing safety and encouraging residential growth.

The session also was meant to operate as the kick-off for the city’s budget season, and for City Manager Bill Nicklas to update the new council on where the city sits ahead of the fiscal 2020 planning period.

“Why is it people aren’t building houses in this town?” Nicklas said. “Is it because we charge too much? If could be they don’t like wrestling with bureaucracy here at city. It could be the way we talk about ourselves? There’s a lot of negativity in this town, more than I’ve ever noticed. That has an effect.”

Following a group exercise where council members and staff divided up to make a list of prioritizes, many pointed to negative perception as a barrier for cooperation.

“If it weren’t for lack of positive self-image, we would unite for progress,” 1st Ward Alderman Carolyn Morris said.

Kuhn’s consulting team has traveled across the region helping municipalities ask themselves where they want to be in five years, and where they actually think they’ll be by then.

“What we’re trying to do is build a deck of information to start from,” Kuhn said. “You can’t implement anything unless you communicate. Whether you’re private business, government, a small team, family, whatever. It’s going to be up to staff and council to take the information and build today and move forward.”

Many council members and staff said politics at the state-level affect city finances out of their control.

“If it weren’t for our historical pension funding methods, we would be better off financially,” assistant city manager Ray Much said.

Documents show city staff identify several challenges still ahead to balance the budget, including continued public safety pension obligations (expected to rise by $815,000 in fiscal 2020), a rise in personnel costs because of health insurance premiums and a lack of economic development.

Nicklas also said the city is behind on its maintenance of police, fire and public works vehicles, with past budgets falling short of the necessary capital to put towards purchasing new vehicles or fixing aged ones. He said after the Great Recession hit, many municipalities including DeKalb did not have a choice in the matter.

“To replace those that are literally falling apart would take about $4.3 million,” Nicklas said, saying the fiscal 2018 budget covered repairs to current police vehicles and $30,000 in repairs to Fire Station 1. “That’s it. So we punted this year. What I’m proposing is that we don’t punt another year.”

Prefacing his next suggestion by saying, “Don’t kill the messenger,” Nicklas put forward some possible options for discussion, including a property, Motor Fuel or Home Rule tax increase.

City staff said the average street maintenance expenditures required to keep pace total about $3.7 million a year, while necessary replacements to the city’s police, fire and public works fleet would cost $4.3 million, documents show.

The City Council will continue budget discussions in the coming months, with a fiscal 2020 budget expected to be up for a vote before the end of the year.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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