Thursday, November 01, 2012

Where Have All the Dollars Gone?

Where have all the gentians gone?
Long time passing …
Where have all the buntings gone?
Long time ago …
Where have all the bureaucrats gone?
Writing each other emails, every one.
When will they ever learn?
When will we learn !?!

We had not expected an eco-shocker to come out of the budget hearings. Oh yes, there were little shocks, like the budget for ecosystem restoration was reduced by 6%. That’s not a good thing certainly, given that un-cared-for forest preserves are deteriorating. And most are still uncared for.

So, yes, we expected to stand before the Commissioners and say, “Thank you, Sir. Oh, praise you for the pittance, Ma’am. And could you possibly give a tiny bit more?”

Indeed, in recent years many things had gotten better. And the promises have been great! Hopes were brighter.

Of course, there was a grass-roots reason for that. Finally, in 2002 we stopped groveling long enough to do an “audit” of what was happening to nature. Then we held a little press conference. There were front-page headlines, actually, and the County Board President (who, though he hardly knew the forest preserves existed, was, by law, also the president of the Forest Preserve District) sat up and took notice. He may not have known forests, but he knew bad headlines. He fired the head of the District, and a incoming regime was responsive and did a lot of good.

One good was the “Restoration Landscape Budget” – small compared to the need – but way bigger than the nothing that had preceded it.

Of course there was the little problem that, despite repeated requests, we couldn’t get any “actuals” on how the funds got spent. And many important projects seemed not to get much help. “Sorry, we’ve run out of funds this year,” was the all too common refrain. Yet it was comforting to know that $23,682,170 had been appropriated and presumably spent to restore good health to our prairies, wetlands and forests. No doubt, it was being spent, effectively, to get the job done. Don’t you think?

Why does money make a difference to nature? If you start with a high quality ecosystem and leave it alone, it degrades (loses plant species, for example) at about 3% per year. The graph below, the one we released to the press in 2002, shows the result:

That huge mass of orange rightly horrified the Commissioners. 68% poor. These lands are worth billions, and people love them, for nature.

Actually, rather than the orange, the more important numbers were in the green and earth tones – the 32% that was pretty good or easily recoverable. That part was degrading fastest. Much of it needed little beyond an occasional burn. But recovery gets more difficult, more expensive and more iffy as the patient declines.

Forty expert volunteer botanists had done the sampling that produced this summary:

So if this was how the ecosystem looked in 2002. How do you suppose it looks in 2012? “About time to re-do the audit,” many people said. Might have been good to do it earlier, but some feared that wouldn’t have been fair test. Ecosystem healing is slow. Yet now, ten years on, after staff increases and $23 million plus in restoration, surely we should see quality on the rise. Oops.

The shocker came in response to two kinds of complaints. First, people who love the preserves took unkindly to reports that the FPD was planning to divert land to conference centers, zip lines and other non-forest-preserve uses. Since that rankled, conservationists protested perhaps more than they otherwise would the 6% decrease in restoration funds. That’s when the FPD finally released the long-requested “actuals.”  

The officials seemed to expect that people would be comforted to know that the increase wasn’t needed, because it “couldn’t be spent” anyway. Just look: less than half the promised funds get spent.

Hello? What?

Emails began flying: “How can it be that we’ve sat through so many meetings and been told that the money was gone this year?” Or: “I’d been told so many times, by people I trusted, the priority I advocated had simply lost out. The money for that year’d been spent.” Or: “How can we tell lying from don’t-care or incompetent?”

Suddenly we were transitioning from: “Where have all the flowers gone?”
To: Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

Some people talked in terms of personal betrayal. But the individuals involved mostly didn’t know the details. This is an institution that keeps some cards close to the vest and the rest in its pockets.

The fundamental, unanswerable charge is that the system didn’t work. A crucial $12 million worth of time-sensitive, critically important treatment was withheld from the stressed wildlife and nature that needed it.

What’s next? A serious overhaul is needed. Couldn’t the budget of this little conservation agency be transparent? Will procedures (or people) be put in place to get the healing work done from now on? Will staff have to measure and be responsible for results? Will conservationists and the public be given reports on where and how the funds were spent?

Doesn’t seem too much to ask. 

55,000 acres of orchids, salamanders, tanagers, oaks and flying squirrels need the answer.


Anonymous said...


Please do not take this as blaming anyone ... but you are on of the board of directors of FOTFP. The FOTFPs should be independently tracking projects, estimating the costs, compiling the numbers, and comparing them with promised budget expenditures. This process is especially important when the government entity in question is not providing information on individual expenditures. If appropriate auditing was happening, I could see a discrepancy of up to 10% occurring, but not the difference you have posted.


Stephen Packard said...

James, I agree with your intent. And I'm sure this will happen in the future. But as for the past. How? Starting in 2002, the Friends demanded "actuals" from the District. They've never provided them. Now that this atrocious scandal is unfolding, the Friends, the Civic Federation, the Better Government Association and others will be able to get the numbers. That's politics at its best. This agency needs transparency.

Anonymous said...

The Stewards know about every capital investment on their site whether a parking lot improvement, a contracted burn, or a renovated picnic area. Even without receiving specific amounts spent from the FPDCC, research could determine typical costs and statistically probable error of those costs for received services, a competitive compensation for employees, and capital investments. If you asked, vendors would likely tell you exactly what they charge. The list of estimated costs could then be added and compared with actual budget figures or collected taxes. Elementary statistics could then be used to determine if the difference was significant enough to warrant further investigation. However, with the discrepancies in your posts you really do not need statistics to see there is a big problem.

As a cost engineer, the above was what I did for a fortune 500 company. It is not nearly as fun or satisfying as working in the field (prairie, savannah, etc). However, if no one is watching the money it tends to mysteriously disappear fast.
Even though the FOTFPs or other government watch dog agencies need to be doing the above auditing, I cannot chastise the FOTFPs for not doing this work back in the early part of the last decade. The simple fact is they did not have the resources at that time. They were occupied with using their small budget and limited staff for advocacy.

This scandal really should not be all that surprising to anyone. Haven’t you ever wondered how the FPDCC can afford to have its employees drive everywhere in F450 pickup trucks even when they are not hauling any equipment. Meanwhile, I had to go out and buy my own herbicide gloves because there was no money for good safety equipment that fit. Just the simple fact that they were not being forthcoming with how tax payer money was being spent is a red flag that is impossible to over look.

The way you change a problem like the above is you tell taxpayers (voters) that xyz amount of money is being spent when the cost for what they are receiving should be much less. Voters begrudgingly let their hard earned money get spent. However, they will be damned before they let their money be wasted.


FrankB said...

I would respectfully disagree, James. The problem is that $12M was spent somewhere, but not for the intended purpose. As a Cook County taxpayer, I can assure you that not a dime of my share of those funds were returned to me. Stewards are not concerned with delving into the cost of picnic ground renovation. They are concerned with saving what little nature has not already been trashed. They are however stuck with dealing with a bureaucracy because a group of concerned individuals can't scrape up anything like $23 milliion. But I agree with you - the scandal is not a surprise. And that is profoundly depressing.

Stephen Packard said...

I very much share the outrage suggested by the last two comments. On the bright side, although this has been going on for years, we now have a new administration that came in with a credible promise of reform. There's a good chance that we'll be able to see actual, effective reform as this scandal is dealt with. I'll report more here as I learn it.

Anonymous said...


Yes, the last decade has been a hard one under the cloud of illegal dealings happening behind closed doors. I respect the current leadership for trying to bring transparency to the process. Before people grab their pitch forks and march towards the office of local politicians, we should remember this has been going on for a long time. We should all judge the current administration by how they handle the situation, not by what happened before they took office. I am not depressed. I am actually excited because now something might finally be done about this problem.


FrankB said...

You are right, Steve. This outrage can be viewed as a huge opportunity for the current administration to set things right.

Anonymous said...

So what do you think of the plans for camping in the Skokie Lagoons? I can't imagine anyone would want to camp where there are so many mosquitoes. : ) Is that where we want money spent and infrastructure placed?

Stephen Packard said...

Many people (myself included) found the District's original camping plan to be very poorly thought through and disappointing. But people have offered constructive suggestions, and the planners have removed most of the worst proposals (convention center, wedding facilities, and new roads were among the them). The current plan is much improved. It's great to offer camping to a metropolitan population - especially kids - most of whom have never had the opportunity.