No amount of imaginative accounting can close a $1.1 million shortfall in the city of DeKalb’s budget. There’s only one way an operation the size of DeKalb can close that big a gap: cutting staff.
Now, DeKalb has a manager willing to do it.
Previous administrators were reluctant to make hard choices. Most recently, in 2016, the city laid off an accountant and a project implementation engineer, saving a little more than $200,000 in salary – not enough to solve the problem.
Previous administrators preferred to hide the budget deficit rather than fix it. The city’s water fund, which is supposed to be used to fund water infrastructure projects, paid $190,000 in employee salaries in this year’s budget. Its airport fund paid another $22,000.
Molly Talkington, the city’s former finance director, was called out for reducing the amount that the city paid to provide health insurance for employees in order to pay expenses.
New City Manager Bill Nicklas has shown that he will seek a real solution to the problem. Unfortunately, the deal-with-it-later approach of his predecessors has put the city in a deeper hole than it might otherwise have been.
Documents released by the city Thursday show that Nicklas has recommended layoffs of four management-level employees at City Hall. He proposes paying them for accrued time off, but no severance. The employees still should receive a good amount of money after they’re compensated for unused sick days and vacation time.
Three other vacant positions – finance director, economic development planner and a deputy fire chief – also will be eliminated under Nicklas’ plan.
In all, the layoffs should save about $1.1 million – but more cuts are needed because the city was using other money to cover payroll costs.
So an additional $30,000 will be cut from city grants to economic development and tourism promotion groups – cuts that could hurt the city in the long run if it limits the attraction of new business and tourism spending. Nicklas also has proposed a $30,000 cut in his own $150,000 salary.
Some employees will be promoted; they and others probably have to assume more responsibility.
We don’t celebrate that people are losing their jobs. Many of them have worked in public service for many years.
It’s clear that the city has not been living within its means. Council members should keep that in mind when they consider Nicklas’ recommendations at their meeting Monday.
People often talk about the need for “structural reform” to government. This is part of what it looks like, although it should be a first step, not the end.
Perhaps in the future, spending can be restored or redirected. But first, there must be balance.