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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012 05:15 am

Don’t leave city budget to consultants

Last week’s bizarre discussion at the city council committee meeting about the vote to deny employees in civil unions health benefits obscured another important issue raised that night. When Alderman Gail Simpson pointedly asked city budget director Bill McCarty when council members will receive their budget books, there was no mistaking her growing annoyance and concern about having adequate time to review the mayor’s proposals. McCarty’s now predictable response: final budget development awaits the results of the Maximus study.

We wait for the results of a personnel audit by Maximus to determine how city government can run more efficiently. Despite my professed concerns about Maximus, the company [see “Maximus to the rescue,” Sept. 22, illinoistimes.com], I suspect the resulting study will be professional, instructive and potentially very useful. It will probably be not unlike the 73-page study by the Blue Ribbon Committee on Springfield’s City Finances commissioned by Mayor Tim Davlin in March of 2008. Yet this earlier report’s very thorough examination of the scope of the city’s financial problems and the resulting set of recommendations has not, to my knowledge, been cited as a source for current budget analyses.

What’s strange about that omission is that Mayor Mike Houston was a member of the 2008 distinguished committee of experts and signed off on all the recommendations in the report. The Davlin blue ribbon study focused on curing the basic structural imbalance of the city’s corporate fund, just like the reason given for the Maximus study. The blue ribbon study does not, however, suggest a need for a personnel audit or outline specific personnel cuts except for reductions to police and fire, which are now off the table.

Fast-forward to 2012 and bloated government has become the culprit for all things wrong in society. Unfortunately, the popular call to downsize government also leads to a universally unpopular byproduct: cutting jobs. For that, we have outsourced the hard choices to Maximus, and we wait.

What galls me is the hypocrisy in the silence of many of the aldermen regarding the budget timeline. For years, Mayor Davlin was criticized by certain aldermen for not allowing adequate lead-time in his presentation of the budget. One year, I recall, council members received their budget books in October but still we heard the familiar chorus of discontent. Another year these same aldermen led an excruciating line-by-line review of the entire budget, pontificating on the importance of eliminating waste and cutting incidentals like toner cartridges and office supplies.

But this administration has assured the council there will be plenty of time for substantive review and many aldermen do not appear stressed in the least. One explanation for this is that the gist of the Maximus recommendations are well known on the inside. After all, Maximus certainly could not have completed its work in a vacuum and would have had to rely on data and information provided by top administration officials.

Or perhaps the lack of concern by some aldermen and the administration’s detached demeanor indicates that all are prepared to acquiesce to the Maximus recommendations. Elected officials hate making unpopular decisions, even when warranted, and expert studies often soften the blow. Therefore, the final Maximus study could provide cover for all.

We can be sure of one thing: if the result of the personnel audit and this year’s budget discussions is to downsize local government, we will be disrupting families, affecting livelihoods and impacting city services. Don’t city employees and Springfield taxpayers deserve a rigorous budget debate with careful scrutiny of assumptions, input from stakeholders and thoughtful and serious consideration of numerous options in addition to those provided by Maximus?

Sheila Stocks-Smith is a special projects consultant and adjunct professor at UIS, teaching a class on public policy.
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