DeKALB – Over the years, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on studies conducted by third-party consultants hired by the city of DeKalb with the hopes of spurring economic growth.
The return on these investments, however, is hard to calculate, especially when some of the recommendations from these studies call for multimillion-dollar tax increment financing contributions and annual budget expenditures, money that might be better spent in DeKalb.
DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith said the city needs to be more mindful before deciding to hire a consultant in the future.
“I found that some of the consulting fees and the need for getting a consultant were not necessarily economical or needed,” Smith said. “Going forward, I would hope before we hire a consultant for anything, we ascertain whether we can do that work in-house and whether we have the talent in the community to determine a course of action.”
Smith specifically mentioned a feasibility study on the future of the Egyptian Theatre as an investment that was not well-received by the City Council.
Last year, the city paid $50,000 to Toronto-based Janis A. Barlow and Associates for a feasibility study that proposed an ownership plan for the historic theater in which the city would pay $250,000 a year for operating costs once the theater was upgraded into a regional performing arts center.
If the city decided to renovate the theater, another feasibility study would have been needed to determine the architectural requirements to adapt the theater while preserving its history.
City Manager Anne Marie Gaura said the theater has been of incredible value and benefit to the community as a whole, which required a closer look into making it a greater draw.
“When we did the Egyptian business feasibility, the reason was how we can help the Egyptian be even more successful, whether it’s the governance structure, business model or operational costs,” she said. “When you look at what was in that assessment, it can have an impact on the budget.”
An additional $75,000 was paid to Chicago-based RATIO Architects for a feasibility study on the construction of a science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM, Center in DeKalb. This project would depend on a $4 million TIF investment from the city.
Gaura said the goal of these two plans was to take a proactive approach to economic development and try and get ahead of the planning curve.
“While some may criticize moving forward on analysis, it’s positive that you want to understand something financially before you totally move forward on it,” Gaura said. “The STEAM process is a little slower than some of the other projects we’ve been working on, but we’re still analyzing it.”
With the expiration of the city’s two TIF districts in the next five years, it makes it less likely that these projects will receive funding – unless the City Council decides to draw a new district.
Gaura added that consultant work is not just limited to feasibility studies, as many proposals from third parties have generated positive results, such as a plan to explore new organizational and governance structures for the DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport.
“A lot of these plans are blueprints telling you how to move forward,” Gaura said. “The airport governance study provided us with a blueprint for a governance structure and what to do to make the airport more effective.”
Smith said he thinks the results of the more than $80,000 Camiros study on the revitalization of the Annie Glidden North neighborhood will pay off. This four-phase plan currently is in the middle of four community meetings and discussions between a task force of stakeholders to gain feedback on what residents want to see in this blighted section of DeKalb.
One public criticism that comes up from the use of consultants is why the work performed by third-party planning firms cannot be done in-house by city staff.
Gaura said that although the goal always is to do work internally, expertise often is needed that city staff cannot provide.
With the uncertainty of fiscal 2018 budget talks, Smith said doing more internal assessment could overburden city staff.
“I’ve been asked in many quarters to take a look at the general fund and consider freezing hiring,” Smith said. “Some folks are thinking we should cut [employees], but whenever you do that, we run the risk of overburdening people.”