Category Archives: Fiscal Reform

Should Elected Officials Have to Clock In for Work?

Time for elected pols to watch the clock? (Photo by zoutedrop/cc)


By Emily Miller

This Think Tank post was also published Dec. 29, 2011 by HuffingtonPost.com/Chicago. Emily is the BGA’s Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator. Contact her at emiller@bettergov.org. Follow her on Twitter @EJMill.


There is a saying commonly attributed to the innovative business organization scholar W. Edwards Deming: “In God we trust; all others must bring data.”

This post was first published by Huffingtonpost.com/Chicago.

When it comes to proving they are logging enough time on the job to deserve their taxpayer-funded pensions, DuPage County Board members would do well to recognize they fall into that “all others” category.

A recent Better Government Association investigation found a high rate of absenteeism among some DuPage County Board members, who were not putting in the hours that taxpayers expect and deserve from their public servants. This week, a BGA investigation, featured in the Daily Herald, revealed those same board members passed a resolution certifying that each member was completing 1,000 hours of work per year — a move that keeps them eligible for their public pensions.

Yet despite a state regulation requiring a government body “be prepared to document the time actually required to perform the duties of the office,” no one — not even the board members themselves — were able to vouch for the number of hours they are putting in each week, the BGA discovered.

The BGA investigation begs an important question: should governing bodies require elected officials to prove to taxpayers they are properly qualifying for a public pension?

County rank and file workers punch time cards or fill out time sheets. County elected officials, however, have their board certify when they take office that their position requires 1,000 hours of work per year. No other measures are used to ensure that is actually the case.

Why shouldn’t elected and appointed officials be just as accountable as other full-time employees?

The State of New York thinks they should be.

Since 1976, it has compelled its elected and appointed officials to be more accountable to taxpayers and to the pension system.

An elected or appointed official who participates in the New York state pension system, and doesn’t otherwise fill out a time sheet for their job, must keep track of their work-related activities for a three-month timeframe at the beginning of each term of office.

Work-related activities include meetings and addressing constituent concerns but they do not include time spent performing campaign duties.

Among the elected and appointed officials who must fill out the work activity log are local and county government officials, including county board members and judges.

The work logs are turned into the appropriate governing board, like the city council or county board, who must then vote to certify the log, vouching that the time sheets are accurate reflections of the time spent by the elected official during the three-month period in question. The form then gets turned over to the Comptroller whose office oversees the New York State and Local Retirement System.

That log is kept as proof that the elected position takes the amount of time required to qualify for a public pension. It also provides a three-month snapshot of a public official’s activities for everyone to see.

The New York system has strengths and weaknesses.

Although useful at evaluating how much time an elected official’s position really requires (and whether it should be pension eligible), it only records the officeholder’s first three months on the job.

Once that three-month reporting period is over, officials are back to the honor system to show how they are spending their time on the taxpayers’ payroll.

In Illinois, governing bodies skip the accountability piece all together, going straight to the resolution that claims officials are spending 1,000 hours per year.

Proving that elected officials are putting in the amount of time their positions require is important. Taxpayers have the right to know their elected officials are providing them with the services they’re elected to provide.

Admittedly, public officials often work odd hours, putting in time on weekends, evenings and in emergency situations that make it difficult to clock in and out in a traditional way.

Determining a way to make public officials accountable for their time is a delicate balance between creating an additional layer of paperwork and bureaucracy compared to creating a system that honestly holds elected officials accountable.

At the very least, it’s worth exploring ways to make sure our elected officials follow Demings’ lead and “bring the data.”

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Filed under DuPage County, Fiscal Reform, Transparency

Chicago Inspector General Releases 63 ‘Budget Options,’ Proposes $3 Billion in Savings for 2012

Different year. Different administration. Same story: the city of Chicago has a fiscal mess to clean up.

To that end, Inspector General Joseph Ferguson releases a “Budget Options Report” meant to “support efforts to balance the budget by arming the public and City officials with context, basic data, and analysis needed to inform the tough choices ahead.”

The report includes some 63 options that would purportedly save upwards of $3 billion. Here are a few examples highlighted by the IG’s office:

  • Reducing the ratio of managers to non-supervisory employees in City government to save more than $100,000,000 annually
  • Eliminating all Tax Increment Financing Districts to increase tax revenues to the City’s general fund by an estimated $100 million annually
  • Increasing the work week of all City employees to 40 hours to save approximately $40 million annually
  • Implement Congestion Pricing for vehicular traffic that is estimated to generate an additional annual revenues of $235 million

Here’s the statement from the IG’s office:

September 26, 2011

Focused on meeting its mandate of promoting efficiency and effectiveness in City government, the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (IGO) today released its annual report of Budget Options for the City.

The IGO’s Budget Options report for the 2012 budget provides a total of 44 separate, stand-alone options to cut spending. This year’s report also includes 19 possible revenue generating options, including new or restructured taxes, tolls, and fees. In total, the 63 options detailed in the report provide background for nearly $3 billion in possible savings or new revenue for the City. Each option includes a brief overview of how proponents and opponents might argue each option, as well as a new section that notes important questions and discussion topics for the public and decision makers.

“In last year’s report, we provided data and analysis explaining that Chicago’s budget was fundamentally broken” said Inspector General Joseph Ferguson. “One year later, the situation remains difficult. The new Administration has candidly acknowledged the fiscal mess it inherited and has publicly committed itself to fixing it. This report is meant to support efforts to balance the budget by arming the public and City officials with context, basic data, and analysis needed to inform the tough choices ahead.”

The list of options is not meant to be an exhaustive one, and the inclusion of any option in this report is not, and should not be, construed as an endorsement by the IGO. The IGO intends to use public feedback and official responses to the report in order to provide periodic updates and corrections to this year’s report.

>> To view the online version of the budget options, which will include updates, and post your comments on the options go here.

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Filed under Fiscal Reform, Inspector General, Streamlining Government, TIFs

Daily Herald Op-Ed: Best Practices for Government Use of ‘P-Cards’

The BGA’s Policy & Government Affairs Coordinator, Emily Miller, shines a light on procurement cards, or p-cards, which are taxpayer-financed debit cards issued directly to government employees to make work-related purchases. P-cards are becoming increasingly pervasive and potentially problematic in Illinois government, and in connection with a recent BGA investigation, Miller offers in an Aug. 2 Daily Herald op-ed best practices for p-card usage:

Keeping Tabs on Taxpayer-Backed ‘P-Cards’

By Emily Miller, BGA Policy & Government Affairs Coordinator

Image/Creative Commons

We all know about credit cards and debit cards. Now, meet the “p-card.”

In recent years, use of the p-card — a procurement card issued directly by government to employees to make work-related purchases — has exploded. Nationwide, p-card spending jumped to $17.7 billion in 2006, compared with only $3 billion in 1996, according to the latest data.

Basically, a p-card acts as a taxpayer-financed debit card. The p-card draws funds for purchases directly from designated bank accounts, which are backed by the tax revenues of a school district, suburb or other public body. Only permissible items can be bought with a p-card.

Although the federal bureaucracy is leading the way in p-card distribution, many local governments in Illinois — including Grayslake Elementary District 46, which the Daily Herald and Better Government Association reported Monday — are now issuing them to employees.

This growing popularity is forcing many government providers to rethink how p-cards are being managed.

According to the General Accountability Office, the independent federal watchdog agency, p-card waste, fraud and abuse often come as a result of inadequate program operating procedures and ineffective program oversight.

Common examples include making personal purchases, using the p-card for unauthorized buys such as alcohol or nonessential goods and services, “gold-plated” expenses, subsequent theft of purchased goods, and use of the p-card for goods or services that should be subject to a bidding process.

Without oversight, the waste of taxpayer dollars is virtually unavoidable. To avoid problems, here are some suggested best practices for governing bodies:

  • Develop a comprehensive written p-card policy. This policy will outline what is and is not allowed and should also indicate who is allowed to hold a p-card. That list of employees should be limited to those who need to make purchases in the course of their daily job.
  • Detail disciplinary action. Each government entity should have a written p-card oversight plan that outlines both oversight and disciplinary actions necessary to rectify any misuse.
  • Limit p-card use. Permissible use of the p-card should be limited only to necessary government expenses under a certain dollar amount, though each public body should develop its own specific lists of permissible expenses based on its public duty.
  • Improve communication. Cardholders should be made aware of the policy through an interactive training program that goes beyond just reading and signing the p-card policy.
  • Finally, a mandatory and documented review by a supervisor or approving official, someone other than the cardholder, should occur for all purchases. Using a checklist, the supervisor or reviewing official should:
    • Review an itemized invoice showing everything that was purchased and what was paid for each item.
    • Ensure the purchase serves a legitimate government need specifically permitted in the p-card policy, not a personal or impermissible one.
    • Ensure a transaction has not been split into segments to avoid maximum purchase amounts, or to get around the competitive bidding process.
    • Monitor the items purchased to ensure no excessive or “gold plated” expenses were incurred.
    • Verify that the items ordered were actually received by the public body.
    • Promptly report and attempt to reconcile all financial discrepancies within a set timetable, and help to enforce disciplinary action where appropriate.

Without strong financial internal controls dictating both appropriate use and required oversight of the program, there is nothing to deter erroneous use of p-cards, or to promptly detect and eliminate misuse and abuse.

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Filed under Fiscal Reform, Procurement

The Trouble with TABORs

The Illinois Constitution requires that the Governor present a balanced budget to the General Assembly each year and that the legislature adopt a budget that’s also balanced.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Unfortunately, Illinois has defied that tradition by approving a series of budgets that were technically “balanced” but in reality paved the way toward racking up a record-setting $13 billion-plus deficit. Compounding this problem is the fact that the state has no solid fiscal blueprint for solving the current budget problem or for preventing another crisis from occurring.

This dilemma is sending some state lawmakers scurrying for another way to solve Illinois’ financial crisis.

The newest proposed fix (though it’s an idea that’s been batted around various states for years) is a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR—a craftily worded title that does little to explain the actual contents of the policy. In Illinois, this is being presented as a constitutional amendment that, if passed by both the House and Senate, would appear on the ballot in 2012. If approved by the voters, the amendment would go into effect by 2014.

Essentially, TABORs restrict increases in state spending. Expert opinion varies on whether TABORs in general have any positive impact on the economic stability of a state. The Illinois version has drawn opposition from both traditionally more liberal groups like unions and more conservative groups like the Illinois Policy Institute.

Illinois’ Speaker of the House, Mike Madigan, who personally ushered the measure through committee in Springfield this week, says the measure will restrict state spending by tying any increases to the average annual percent change in per capita personal income, as reported by the US Department of Commerce. Any variation in that amount would have to be presented by the Governor for agreement to the Comptroller and the Treasurer, to be followed by “yes” vote of three-fifths of the General Assembly.

Basically, the idea is that rising and falling revenue from personal incomes taxes should match rising and falling levels of state spending. If the state doesn’t have the money coming in from taxes, it can’t spend the money.

Sounds a lot like the balanced budget our Illinois Constitution already requires, doesn’t it?

According to the Capitol Fax Blog, legislators have indicated their support for the measure because of their past inability to rein in spending.

Holding the line on unneeded spending is a fine idea. So fine, in fact, that it’s part of lawmakers’ constitutionally mandated job description.

Rather than coming up with new spending restrictions that wouldn’t even take effect until 2014, lawmakers would probably be serving the public more responsibly by focusing on ways to efficiently fund essential services while also cutting waste and excess.

Tough and politically unpopular choices have to be made. Our state constitution already requires it.

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Chicago’s Parking Meter Deal a Lesson in ‘Worst Practices’

Chicago's much-maligned parking meter deal could be an example of what not to do (compujeramey/Flickr)

Some major U.S. cities are watching the fallout from Chicago’s controversial parking meter leasing deal and don’t like what they’re seeing.

At a time when more municipalities and agencies are trying to ease heavy debt loads by spinning off publicly owned assets to private enterprises, Chicago’s lease sale to a private venture group is becoming a lesson in “worst practices.”

Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles are rethinking their parking meter deals because of Chicago’s difficulties, according to Bloomberg Business News. Unlike Chicago, these cities are willing to take less money upfront for a parking meter franchise in return for greater control, a shorter lease and greater operating flexibility over the life of a contract.

In 2008, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and the City Council agreed to lease Chicago’s parking meter business for 75 years and in return received $1.15 billion from Chicago Parking Meters LLC, a venture that includes Wall Street investment house Morgan Stanley, Alliance Capital Partners and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

The parking meter pact has come under continuous and heavy fire from critics who claim Mayor Daley rammed the agreement through a less-than-curious City Council. Since then, Daley has used nearly $800 million of the deal’s upfront money to plug budget gaps.

Among the customer complaints: The escalating cost of hourly parking; meters breaking down in cold winter weather and the expansion of meters into the city’s neighborhood business districts, a move that’s angering some small business owners and customers.

The parking meter agreement is also a hot-button issue in the Chicago mayoral campaign now underway.

Mayor Daley has nodded to operational problems with the parking meter sale but says it’s financially sound.

Nonetheless, it appears that other municipal leaders are viewing Chicago’s parking meter sale as a lesson in how not to make a deal.

Do you have concerns about the Chicago’s Parking Meter deal? Contact the BGA at 312.427.8330.

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Controversial Public Pension Vote is Latest Chapter in Illinois’ Dismal Fiscal Saga

A state-by-state look at 2010 budget gaps. (Infographic by GDS Digital/Flickr)

Illinois’ fiscal crisis goes on and on.

The latest installment of this financial tragedy plays out this month as state lawmakers search for a way to meet an estimated $4 billion public pension payment due by yearend.

By any standard that’s a hefty pay out, but it’s an especially tough bill to foot for cash-strapped Illinois, which already owes about $6 billion in unpaid bills, faces a deficit approaching $15 billion, and is buckling under nearly $100 billion in long term pension obligations.

As a result of this fiscal meltdown, lawmakers are forced to consider some tough and equally unattractive options:

OPTION #1: Borrow big money
Later this month the Illinois State Senate will wrestle with the issue of selling state-backed bonds, which essentially act as a loan, to pay the legally required $4 billion pension obligation. Already this plan has been approved by the House and is backed by Gov. Pat Quinn.

But passage is not a slam-dunk in the Senate where a supermajority of 36 votes is needed for approval.

For the most part, few lawmakers relish the idea of tacking more debt on the state’s credit card even though five major employee unions, whose pension funds would receive the bulk of the bond proceeds, strongly support the rescue plan.

Democrats sympathetic to labor favor the borrowing package, but not every Dem in the upper chamber is on board.

Republican lawmakers are more solidly against the measure. They argue it’s irresponsible to add more debt when the state’s already awash in red ink.

Nevertheless, some Republicans have left the door open to the debt offering, provided it is attached to a strategic financial recovery plan that they can live with. The Quinn Administration says it favors “responsible” borrowing, including this controversial bond offering, which will pay out nearly $1 billion in interest before the bonds are retired within 10 years.

But the governor stresses this tactic is only one part of his comprehensive 2011 budget, which also calls for raising the income tax by 1 percent and using those proceeds for education funding.

OPTION #2: Don’t borrow
Not borrowing is also an option. Should lawmakers go that route the state would have to tap its other resources for the $4 billion—most likely taking it out of the estimated $26 billion that makes up the state budget’s general revenue fund.

There are consequences to this “Just say No!” approach, too.

Primarily, it means hollowing out the current budget by diverting $4 billion to pensions. That’s money meant to fund education, public safety, health care, and various other human services.

It would also further penalize the state’s vendors, who are owed nearly $6 billion in back payments and would be forced to wait much longer for their money.

Still, critics of the borrowing plan contend such belt-tightening is long overdue and that scuttling the bond issue would force Gov. Quinn and the General Assembly to get serious about making deep cuts.

The Quinn Administration favors “strategic” cuts—and claims to have already chopped $3 billion from the state budget—but does not favor taking $4 billion out of the budget to meet the 2011 public pension obligations.

There has also been some speculation about the state declaring a “pension holiday,” which would legally relieve the government from making the payment.

In reality, a pension holiday is a gimmick that would do nothing to ease the financial burden of meeting the pension obligation.

What’s more, failure to make the payment this year will boost the state’s public pension obligation another $25 billion over the remaining 35 years of the pension plan, according to figures cited by the Quinn Administration and the Commission on Financial Accounting and Government Forecasting.

OPTION #3: Increase revenues
If the state can’t cut $4 billion to cover pension costs, and it doesn’t want to borrow the money, then another option is to raise revenues—also known as a tax increase.

It’s unlikely that a tax increase will be approved before year-end, especially since House Speaker Michael Madigan, who controls a Democratic majority in the House, has repeatedly said that any tax hike will have to have bi-partisan support.

Another possibility? Expanding casino gambling.

A vote on the bond plan is expected to occur during the veto session, which begins November 16. Right now, no one knows how it will be resolved.

But one thing is certain: This end-of-the-year pension skirmish is just one more chapter in Illinois’ sorry financial story. There’s much more to come, so stayed tuned.

What do you think should be done?
Contact: Illinois State Senate President John Cullerton at: 773.883.0770 or go to www.senatorcullerton.com.

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