DIXON — A strategic plan for financial recovery is on the agenda for Dixon city officials, whose goal is to develop a vision by 2014.
Director of Public Works Shawn Ortgiesen said the process will address decisions on how to spend down the city’s $12 million debt and the plan for neglected infrastructure projects.
The planning comes in the wake of former Comptroller Rita Crundwell’s arrest in April for taking nearly $54 million from the city since 1990.
The City Council should have a list of strategic planners to choose from by next month and will decide the schedule for planning from there, Ortgiesen said. It could take a year to develop what will be an in-depth, multi-year forecast, he said.
The city’s finances went from a surplus of funds, with the ability to pay for city improvements, to survival mode, all while Crundwell enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. As a result, operating funds plummeted from $10.6 million in 2002 to a debt of $19.7 million at the time of Crundwell’s arrest – a $30 million swing in one decade.
The general fund, which pays for most operations, including police, fire and roads, had sunk to $5.7 million in the hole. Loans were obtained to pay bills, and that debt climbed to more than $12 million. The City Council was forced to borrow off anticipated tax collections for the third year in a row.
As the dust settles and the next fiscal year’s budget approaches in April, there’s reason to be optimistic, said Paula Meyer, the city’s new finance director.
While the city will not be out of the hole – even with a cash flow of more than $3 million since Crundwell was removed and the anticipated millions from Crundwell’s sold assets or possible litigation – change is going on at City Hall to not only make sure a theft doesn’t happen again, but to ensure Dixon is proactive with its finances.
The city will have to spend when money is available, Meyer told the City Council.
The big move will be the strategic plan, which will involve input from the City Council, city employees, and the public. The goal is to forecast all city expenses for the next 2 to 3 years, so that when money becomes available, the city will have a clear path to where it goes.
“We’re hoping the community comes together and we figure out what’s best,” Ortgiesen said. “We’ll look at what’s needed from the city’s standpoint, to the number of employees, equipment, infrastructure, to what’s the best use of our resources as a whole from every aspect of the city. This will give City Council members a broad scope moving forward.”
Meanwhile, Ortgiesen said, large projects can be done on an as-needed basis until the planning is complete.
Along with developing a strategic plan, the city will convert its accounting system to new software called Civics Clarity, launching Jan. 1. For the first time, payroll and accounts payable will be conducted in-house.
This software allows city officials to view the budget in more detail on a daily basis. Most department heads have had to keep tabs on their own budget, but could not see the overall picture until the month’s end.
City Hall staff also will work as a team to form a finance office, providing more checks and balances for how the city manages its budget. The changes include the hiring of accounting technician Becky Fredericks.
While Ortgiesen admits it should not have taken a multimillion-dollar theft to change practices at City Hall, he believes the city is growing stronger in the wake of it.
He pointed to more transparency on the city’s website, www.discoverdixon.org, where people can view a citizen’s information center, which contains budgets, City Council meeting minutes, and other documents.
Bringing in consultants Stan Helgerson and Dave Richardson helped the City Council approve a tax levy that will reduce the debt in the general fund without increasing taxes. That was done by spending down a surplus in the city’s Illinois Municipal Retirement and Social Security funds over the course of 5 years in a plan to bring the general fund in the black by about $1 million.
Ortgiesen also said sideletter agreements were made with the city’s four bargaining units to reach fair agreements when their contracts expire on May 1. City employees are on a salary freeze and have not had a multi-year agreement in the past 3 years because of tighter budgets.
“It’s going to be an exciting time, because we are going to start doing the things to make us a proactive city,” Ortgiesen said. “We haven’t had any long-term plan in place for infrastructure, for streets. This is an opportunity. That’s how we’re looking at it.”
Still, Richardson said the financial scars will take patience from the City Council as it puts together spending plans with a focus on creating stability without getting too far ahead of itself.
“The City of Dixon has a few more challenges than other cities,” Richardson said. “However, [Stan and I] believe that with the new financial oversight structure in place, the city should be able to navigate these challenging times without the need for further budgets cuts. We believe current staffing levels are sustainable.”