New year needs budget decisions by council

By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK — Whichever solution city officials pursue to resolve a looming financial crisis, Lincoln Park City Manager Greg Capote said the decisions need to be made soon.

“The city could run out of cash by April,” Capote said. “There’s no secret budget fairy that will come save us. “

The financial crisis dominated the council’s final meeting of 2012 in December and will take center stage at the next few sessions as several avenues of addressing the deficit are explored.

The problems are both immediate and long term. Next year the council will need to address an estimated $2.4 million budget deficit, and recent attempts to shore up the general fund with a voter-approved millage increase failed during the November election.

A financial audit presentation earlier this month by accounting firm Plante & Moran explained the looming deficit and potential cost-saving measures ranging from layoffs to an elimination of the Downtown Development Authority.

Capote said that options were put before council, which will have to soon make decisions.

“We have their suggestions,” Capote said, “raising fees, a promotional tax, ideas about turning the lights off or establishing a special assessment district.”

Some suggestions — transferring expenses from one department to another in an effort to streamline costs — require council approval, others need voter approval.

Among other possibilities, a study period prior to the Jan. 7 council meeting will feature prospects of either eliminating the Downtown Development Authority or seeking financial input from the agency. Capote said that such a move might not be practical.

“That becomes a matter of interpretation and subjectivity,” Capote said. “It’s something the council and public ultimately will have to decide. If you have a bond issue you have to go to the public for a vote.”

Short- or long-term, Capote said that the city no longer has the luxury or time to implement solutions, and that the closed-door discussions in recent months with municipal labor unions are hoped to result in concessions that could save city jobs: Layoffs seem likely, although Mayor Patricia Diaz Krause said that cutting positions would represent a “last resort.”

Diaz Krause and Capote said they would prefer to find ways to improve the city’s revenue stream, but efforts toward that goal have fallen short and — the Plante Moran audit indicated — were not an answer to immediate problems. Development deals, a potential Wal-Mart project, and gradual downtown revitalization would not address the current budget shortfall.

As 2012 drew to a close, Capote said the city hall environment was one of “relative calm,” and that officials were again reviewing budgets, employee options, potential state funding and other solutions to multiple problems.

“It’s been building for a period of time,” Capote said. “We’re having a relative calm at the moment, going through the budget and looking at other options.” The one certainty Capote understood was that the city may be running out of time.

“We need to do this,” Capote said. “These things need to be done ASAP.”

(James Mitchell can be reached at jmitchell@bewickpublications.com.)