Editorial: No easy answers—but a couple of questions—in Elburn’s budget crunch

By on May 7, 2010

Like just about every family, business and unit of government in the state—if not the nation—the village of Elburn has had to try and tighten its belt to navigate through the current, difficult economic climate.

And tighten its belt it has, in many ways.

Over the past several months, village officials have spent a large amount of time looking at virtually every nook and cranny in the budget, both from a revenue and expense perspective.

On the revenue side, the village raised the water and sewer rates, adding a projected $450,000 annually to the village’s finances—although this additional revenue can only be used for water and sewer expense.

Other than that decision, the village has focused more significantly on the expense side.

To control costs, the village implemented a wage freeze for village employees. Recent staff cuts include saving $42,000 after eliminating a secretarial position, as well as some additional savings from the elimination of a part-time Police Department secretarial position and a voluntary reduction in the hours of an administrative assistant.

During the search for savings, officials also considered things like reducing staff-support hours, eliminating life-insurance premiums for village employees and eliminating take-home vehicles for some village employees.

These ideas, some of which would save as little as $14,000 a year individually, might seem small when looking at the bigger picture, yet when combined with other, “smaller” items, can prove significant in terms of cutting costs while the village still faces a budgeted $700,000 deficit for fiscal year 2010-11.

The challenge for the village is, as Village Administrator Erin Willrett said in early April, that if the village makes any additional staff cuts, a reduction in resident services will result.

Add to that a possible reduction in state funding, and the table is set for a cash-strapped time. Thankfully, Elburn has approximately $5 million in a reserve fund designed to be used for emergency infrastructure projects and other unexpected expenses. However, if the village draws from that reserve fund too much or too often, there will be few if any options should an immediate emergency arise.

“God forbid that we have a catastrophe—where is the money going to come from?” Village President Dave Anderson said in mid-April.

Given all of this, village officials should be applauded for considering just about any and every idea to trim from the budget, including the “small-ticket” items like saving an estimated $14,000 per year by eliminating life-insurance premiums for village employees, a measure they decided against.

Yet, if the village’s finances are in such dire straits that officials are worried about funding during emergencies and are considering virtually every “small-ticket” item, why is the village essentially paying more than $190,000 for village administrator duties?

To deal with growth issues, the village created a new staff position in the beginning of 2008—the community development director. In May 2009, that position was changed to assistant village administrator.

After Monday’s annual staff appointments, the three appointed positions include the village administrator ($97,788.58 annual salary), chief of police ($80,817), and superintendent of public works ($78,500). The assistant village administrator’s salary—not an appointed position—is paid $93,343.64 per year.

Given the budget deficit and the months of searching for savings in every nook and cranny in the village’s finances, it strikes us as odd that the village would pay more than $190,000 for village administrator duties, especially given that the second position was originally created to deal with the growth pressures that no longer exist.

Anderson and Willrett have repeatedly referred to this year’s budget as a “bare bones budget,” but is that really the case?

If to be successful, the village administrator requires an assistant that is paid the second-highest salary in the village, is the current administrator the right person for the job? And if so, is there a need for an assistant administrator that makes over $12,000 more than the village police chief?

It appears that the village risks being top heavy, and facing a $700,000 annual deficit while saying any further staff cuts would require a loss of resident services—as well as saying this is a “bare bones budget”—does not make sense.