Wednesday, December 13, 2017 || By Michael Romain || OPINION || @maywoodnews
Featured image: A screenshot of a page from a typical Maywood budget document. Compare Maywood’s budget presentation to nearby towns like Oak Park and River Forest.
The Dec. 5 public hearing on Maywood’s 2017 tax levy, where village officials heard just a fraction of the collective heartache felt by residents, just reinforces the need for the village to inject long-term strategy, values, goals and expectations into the budget-making process.
As longtime resident Gloria Clay said during that hearing, residents are, indeed, “very tired” of paying so much for what often seems so little in return.
Good things are happening at the margins — the argument so often lodged by village officials — is simply not a potent enough antidote to the collective exhaustion.
So while it is right to point out how counterproductive it is for residents to constantly beat up on their hometown, it is also not a sufficient response to their valid concerns. Nor is pointing out, albeit rightly, that some of those concerns may not be factual.
And while it’s true that a lot of progress has taken place in the village over the last two years, that, too, is an insufficient remedy to a collective malady that was decades, and generations, in the making (and the result of an ever-growing heap of systemic injustice, individual error and benign neglect).
In response to residents’ complaints on Dec. 5, some board members touted their personal attempts to deliver the goods in the form of development opportunities and new homeowners. That, alas, is also not a good enough response.
What was not said by board members during that public hearing is what residents, it seems to me, most want from elected officials — and what Maywood resident Cathy Sorensen articulated so cogently (“You have to explain where we’re at and where we’re going,” she said).
What is the depth of board members’ understanding of where we are? What are their collective short, intermediate and long-term goals for Maywood and what are they doing, collectively, to realize them?
Yes, it’s true, that citizens (not just in Maywood, but everywhere) often rage blindly, without solid facts and proper context. Cynicism is rampant. Bad faith is everywhere. Hardly anyone, it seems, believes government, big or small, can be a force for doing well.
This, however, doesn’t give elected officials license to relieve themselves of the responsibility of managing the public’s expectations and working to create an informed citizenry. Yes, accountability is a two-way street, but village officials have to oversee the creation and maintenance of that street in the first place.
And one of the best ways of building accountability is through the budget process. In Maywood, however, that’s precisely the area where elected officials, who have the fiduciary responsibility of safeguarding taxpayer dollars, are weakest.
Questions that need to be asked and answered
I challenge a reader to go up to any sitting board member and ask them what the board’s long-term strategic goals in key quality of life areas like public safety, public works and economic development are. What is the board’s collective vision for Maywood one, three, five and 10 years from now? And what is the strategy for realizing that vision?
Ask them what financial information, such as sales, income and property tax revenue trends, did they base their decision for this year’s levy on? Why 3 percent rather than no percent or 1 percent or 2 percent or 4 percent or 5 percent (other than their gut feeling that people are being taxed enough already)?
Ask them what easily accessible, clearly defined planning tools, such as a five-year capital improvement program or a long-term strategic plan, can they reference when trying to attract prospective developers (and I don’t mean the village’s comprehensive plan, which is often confused for a strategic plan)?
What means do they have of regularly tracking the progress of various village departments and department heads? And if such means exist, do they use them to inform the village’s budgetary needs? What best practices are they utilizing during the budget process?
For which village programs or departments have there been budgetary increases and by how much? Why are those increases necessary?
Ask them how your tax bill might be affected by this most recent levy (assuming that equalized assessed values were the same as last year’s)? What kind of increase or decrease in equalized assessed values do they anticipate? How much of that increase is because of new property?
What are their ideas for reducing the property tax burden on average homeowners and business owners in the village?
How have board members tried getting taxpayers and other stakeholders to become part of the budget process, so that the values and goals of the entire community are reflected in the budget and citizens are brought into the process of holding village employees accountable?
I’ve been covering the Maywood budget process since 2013 and each year since then, I have never heard any of these questions answered or even grappled with. I can count on a single hand how many board members have even confronted these issues at the margins, let alone proposed dealing with them in any formal and systematic way.
A few ways forward
Authorizing a budget is perhaps the single most important responsibility of board members and the attention they give to this task should be commensurate with its importance.
The Maywood Board of Trustees should take a look at the best practices and due diligence of nearby municipalities like Oak Park and River Forest, whose budget documents have won Distinguished Budget Presentation Awards from the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada.
Those villages’ budget documents are easily accessible online for citizens, business owners and prospective developers; they tell a story about where those municipalities were and where they’re going; they outline the vision, goals and expectations of their respective boards; they have criteria for measuring the effectiveness of their employees; they include budget calendars and timelines, in addition to explanations of the budget process; they include financial forecasts and trends that help guide board members’ fiscal decision-making; they include those villages’ financial and investment policies; and much, much more.
A screenshot of pages in River Forest’s 2018 budget, which details the board’s 2018 objectives, long-term strategic goals, performance measures and status updates. Maywood’s board needs to set, and clearly articulate, similar goals and measures for itself.
Maywood board members should even take the short trip over to Proviso Township High School District 209’s administrative building and ask Dr. Jesse Rodriguez, who for roughly an hour during a community breakfast earlier this month, outlined much of what I listed above for his own taxing district. He stated his vision for the district, laid out the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and talked about criteria for measuring his and his team’s effectiveness.
Rodriguez also mentioned the district’s long-term capital improvement plan. If the high schools have a long-term capital improvement plan, so should Maywood — and not just for individual TIF zones, but for the village as a whole. And the document should be readable and easily accessible online so that residents know the village’s long-term plan for fixing their streets and alleys and sewers.
They should also read this short primer by consultant Lee Merkhofer on the values-based budgeting process that enables local governments to “adopt best-practice methods for prioritizing projects” (click here).
I’ve sat through budget-related board conversations in Maywood where trustees, while discussing whether or not to create an additional paid position, have complained about not having a clear understanding of already existing positions in the village.
If Maywood had followed the practice of Oak Park and River Forest of listing, by department, every single one of their budgeted positions, that would not have been an issue. The information necessary to decide on whether or not to create an additional position would have been a few clicks away.
Oak Park’s budget document, in particular, includes departmental summaries that feature a full explanation of departmental functions, a list of the previous year’s accomplishments and a work plan for the year ahead. Moreover, each department’s budget is broken down by line item.
Oak Park’s and River Forest’s budget documents are things of beauty compared to Maywood’s sparse, at times barely legible, budget document. A budget — from the process of putting it together to how it is presented and eventually obtained by those who want to learn from it — is a window into a town’s soul.
I would challenge you to look for a relatively recent Maywood budget document online, read it for a few minutes and tell yourself if that document reflects a village that “is on the move.” Ask yourself whether or not, by reading it, you can ascertain what the vision, goals and strategy of Maywood’s elected officials are. Ask yourself whether or not you know, by reading that document, what it is that the village is working on or what it prioritizes.
This, of course, is about more than pretty presentation. Maywood needs to drastically overhaul how it makes decisions about spending taxpayer money — period.
Too much of the financial decision-making that happens in Maywood — from authorizing budgets to making large purchases to awarding contracts — is based on the whims of individuals who don’t base their decisions on best practices or due diligence or effective process or on a vision for Maywood’s future that is shared by a critical mass of residents.
Residents are angry because they can’t see progress, most of which the village doesn’t effectively communicate in any systematic way.
A budget document similar to Oak Park’s or River Forest’s would be a simple, low-cost method of bridging (at least some) of that communication gap.
If Maywood does nothing else this upcoming fiscal year, I urge officials to at least ascertain a vision statement and a list of village-wide goals to include in its upcoming budget.
Create a budget calendar that jumpstarts board conversations about the budget much earlier in the year and require that each department head present a report during a public meeting on their department’s budgetary needs, accomplishments and upcoming year objectives. And include these departmental reports in the finalized budget document.
I’m not arguing for Maywood to try to be Oak Park and River Forest. I’m arguing for the village to implement best practices that have worked in other places. Taxpayers are fed up with village officials taking their money for granted. I’m arguing for village officials to get serious.
I’m arguing for village officials to replace the often rushed, uninformed way that they currently make major financial decisions with a process that is clearly definable, inclusive, transparent and values-driven.
“What are you all doing?” one resident asked during the Dec. 5 tax levy hearing. He’s not the only resident who wants to know. It’s high time that the village shows them. VFP
Scroll through River Forest’s FY 2018 budget below
Scroll through Oak Park’s 2017 budget
Maywood’s 2013-14 budget