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No Money Blues or Ruse?

Jeff Linamen

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How many people are familiar with this scenario?

You step away from the catered lunch spread, company paid for ‘just because’; and you walk into your supervisor’s office, noticing his new laptop. His old one was only six months old while most of the other computers in the building are at least five years old. You ask if you can discuss the purchase of a new piece of software that will result in time and efficiency savings for your department – leading towards a substantial growth in productivity.

Your supervisor stuffs the last of the free muffin in his mouth and ponders for a moment. Closing his new laptop and leaning back in his recently purchased, leather high-back chair, he says, “I’d like to help but we’re out of money. Maybe we can consider it in the new fiscal year.” The new fiscal year, of course, is nine months away.

We’ve probably all experienced this at one time or another. Especially in corporate or government work.

It goes like this:

  1. There is a problem.
  2. There is a solution. (Usually multiple solutions.)
  3. No one is willing to take the time or the necessary action to solve the problem.
  4. The problem continues.
  5. The decision-makers continue to complain about the problem.
  6. Business as usual.

No action.

This perfectly describes the majority leadership of the Elgin City Council*.

The City of Elgin, Illinois had an estimated population of 111,117 as of 2014. This makes it the eighth largest city in Illinois, yet it has maintained the same feel of any small town in America. And that’s a good thing.

The bad thing? The center of downtown is a ghost town and has been for years. Especially after 5pm and most weekends. Aside from a few struggling restaurants and bars and three (yes, three) tattoo parlors; most nights– there is just nothing going on. I’m not counting  the Centre of Elgin recreation facility (operating at a deficit every year since it opened in 2002) or the library which are both to the north end of downtown. South of downtown is the Grand Victoria Casino which has also seen a major decline in attendance and revenue in recent years.

DistributionNoMoneyElgin’s 2015 Budget is $290,535,730. I repeat, nearly $300 million dollars! But according to the City Council, Elgin has no money. That is, for important things. Things that are holding the city hostage– like the lack of economic development.

We need economic development NOW.

Why is there no economic development department? No money. At least that’s what they say. Of course you don’t have to look far to see where the money could come from, if the City Council really wanted to take the steps to advance this agenda.

You know the saying. “You have to spend money to make money.” But, what happens when you spend money and you don’t make money? You make excuses. Elgin constantly defends ineffective actions of poor financial decisions with phrases like, “Oh, they (or that) are (is) invaluable.” Or, “Some things just can’t be measured.” Really? Did you even try?

Throwing Money at the Wind Two non-profit organizations that could be considered responsible for economic development are the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) and the Elgin Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (EACVB). Both are mostly ineffective. Neither, despite continued funding, show any accountability. Neither are even able to effectively use their websites or social media towards successful progress.

I feel I need to repeat that these are nonprofit organizations. They are not Elgin governmental departments. The money they receive for the city is basically theirs to spend how they see fit, without regulation. The DNA started as a volunteer organization and now has a paid staff (as does the EACVB) . The city gives them this money without any expectation of measurable return.

The DNA was supposed to be financially independent of the City as of 2015, and the City had not budgeted to continue funding their efforts in the current budget. Yet, on June 24th, 2015, the City Council voted to continue to give them money, through a Purchase of Service Agreement for an unbudgeted amount of $135,000. And, not for just one more year, they amended it for two more years. In spite of a few Councilmen raising their concerns, the Council still voted 9-0 in favor of this continued expenditure.

But, wait! There’s no money! So where is this unbudgeted $135,000 coming from? And why isn’t it being spent to hire a director of economic development instead?

Good question.

Now, the DNA may try to claim success with the recent opening of three new downtown businesses. Okay, that’s nice– but what about the seven that closed in the past year? That’s right, seven businesses have closed. While it’s not the responsibility of the DNA or City to make businesses successful, they should still be providing support and resources to give them every possible chance.

There was an article in the Daily Herald recently about the Elgin Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau; questioning its expenditures (71% staff and travel) and suggesting there should be proof of its effectiveness. Nearly $200,000 of their budget comes from about half of Elgin’s hotel/motel tax revenue.

LOOK! I found money! If the City of Elgin took the money they gave these two nonprofits ($335,000), they could easily hire and create a small department of economic development. That’s still only a pathetic 0.1% of the City’s annual budget.

The Elgin City Council believes that throwing money at something–even after years of no measurable results, is better than nothing. Which is exactly what they are getting in return.  Then they can continue to shrug their shoulders and point fingers of blame at others, claiming they (the Council) tried. If I’m wrong— show me the numbers.

The Elgin City Council needs to learn how to cut its losses. They need to learn how to say ‘no‘ and ‘enough is enough‘. Continuing to fund ineffective organizations and projects with no accountability, is irresponsible and being poor stewards of our community’s money. This has gone on for years and it’s time that it stops.

The City of Elgin needs some sound financial planning and should be focusing on developing and reinvigorating our community. Not, continuing to toss money at organizations that are not effective, in order shift the blame.

So back to my original scenario… there are always people that have the ability to make change- to make decisions (sometimes difficult) that are better choices when looking at the big picture. Unfortunately, people often make decisions that are selfish, self-serving, or just downright easier.

There always seems to be money for the wrong things… Ideas that aren’t fully developed, things that are personally or politically beneficial; and it’s always easier to ‘do the same old thing’ than to commit to bringing about change. People are so afraid of change! Why is that?

Elgin City Council, you were elected as the leaders of our community to manage, protect and improve the city and its finances. It’s time you step up to the plate, make some tough decisions and do the job you were elected to do. Stop singing the ‘No Money Blues’ and fix the problem. The time to act is now.

*NOTE: When I refer to the Elgin City Council, I am referring to them as a whole. This includes the City Manager (non-voting member) who, as the senior ranking staff member on the City’s payroll; oversees and is responsible for bringing the majority of the financial and policy decisions to the Council for approval and implementation. There are only few individual Councilmen that are frequently vocal– seeking change and not always voting with the majority. Unfortunately, as members of the Council, for purposes here, they are lumped into the whole– guilty by association.

 

 


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