Budget breakdowns begin

11/20/2013, 4:57 p.m.
Joliet City Council members had their first public opportunity this week to ask questions about the proposed 2014 budget. The ...
Wayne Horne

Joliet City Council members had their first public opportunity this week to ask questions about the proposed 2014 budget. The budget presented this week contained a narrative that is more detailed than the document originally available on the City’s website www.cityofjoliet.info. In last week’s column, I asked why the posted document was weak on explanation. The explanation for the absence of a narrative was that it was not ready at that time. The document available on the website now is the same document being used by the City Council for review.

Unlike two weeks ago when the budget numbers were reviewed, council members had several questions regarding current and future budget issues. Councilman John Gerl questioned the wisdom of using reserve funds to pay the 2014 increase for police and fire pension costs. The last several years have seen the city’s share of pension costs determined by unrealistic investment rates of return. The rate of return used was 7 percent when the actual rate of return was closer to 5.25 percent. The lowering of the investment return rate resulted in an increased pension contribution of $720,000.

Gerl estimated an additional $800,000 would be required for the 2015 budget due to a further reduction in the pension rate of return to 6.75 percent. The question becomes will the ever-increasing pension and benefit costs be sustainable in the future. The City of Chicago and the State of Illinois are facing a financial crisis that cannot be sustained based on their respective future revenue projections. Joliet’s finances are not immune to such a crisis.

City Manager Jim Hock was quick to point out that the proposed budget was a work in progress. He said one of his primary goals was to develop a “strategic plan” that would set priorities for future city projects. Items such as vehicle purchases, particularly for the police department and public works were mentioned. The hiring of additional personnel would also be a part of the plan.

Personnel salaries for management and the potential hiring of an additional eight firefighters also came under scrutiny. Police management personnel, in some positions, are paid less than the officers they supervise. The fire department received a grant last year to hire an additional eight firefighters. The hiring of the eight new firefighters was intended to reduce the high cost of overtime in the department’s ranks. There was little reduction in overtime costs in 2013 in spite of the new hires because retirements reduced the ranks by eight firefighters.

The overtime cost is estimated to be $1.9 million for 2014 exceeding the 2013 budget by $1.2 million. The net result is the same 201 firefighters the department had before the new hires.

Chief Joe Formhals said the new hires would be necessary if overtime was to be reduced. In response to a question from Councilwoman Jan Quillman, the chief said that on average 3.6 firefighters are absent each day due to illness or workman’s compensation claims. Based on responses from the chief, maintaining manpower at fire stations is difficult if not impossible without overtime. Listening to the calm exchange between the chief and council members could be likened to an athlete running in place attempting to achieve the four-minute mile. At the present time the Hock would only commit to hiring one additional firefighter in January.

One last thing… a City Council proclamation was presented to the family of Frank Perconte who died October 24 this year at the age of 96. His service was immortalized in the book and popular movie “Band of Brothers.” As a member of the 101st Airborne, Mr. Perconte also took part in the Battle of the Bulge. Those who endured that encounter forever immortalized the comment by the commander General Anthony McAuliffe. When asked by the German commander to surrender his troops because they were surrounded and cut off from the rest of the American army he replied with one word – “Nuts!” “Airborne” Frank Perconte, you will be missed.

Stay tuned.