City Council – the nine aldermen and the mayor – wrangle and agonize about city services and the effect of property taxes on the residents of Evanston. It is troubling, though, to see how, year after year, the struggle comes down to nickel-and-diming over services that for the most part cost less than $100,000 in a budget that is well over $200 million. This year it was the libraries, the elm tree injections and the mental heath budget. In prior years it has been the FAAM program and the summer youth employment program. One is left to wonder why such hot-button items are always the ones on the chopping block. It often feels as though the citizens are being taken hostage: “Give us the taxes or the elm trees will get it.”

These cuts take aim at programs that make the City what it is – they help make Evanston Evanston. Is the budget really so lean that the City needs continually to lean on these programs?

The budget, it is said, defines our values. But more and more it seems to define constituencies, as Council members appear to respond to those who show up to advocate for their own causes, while those who advocate for the less fortunate are apparently one tier removed from “constituency.”

One such example is the proposed 10-percent cut to the City’s mental health funding. These funds go to various small, overworked, under-funded not-for-profit agencies in Evanston that provide mental health and social services to some of our most frail and vulnerable citizens. Not only do the agencies need these City funds as a part of their budget to continue their important work, but also in many cases, the agencies are able to leverage this support to obtain other funding. Agencies can point to the funding from the City’s Mental Health Board as a sign of support from the City in soliciting funds from other organizations. Thus the dollars in support of our most vulnerable citizens – many of whom are too young or too frail to seek support for themselves – go further than perhaps Council members might understand. We urge the Council to keep funding for mental health services at its full level.

A Word About Not-For-Profits

At the same time the Council proposed cutting the funding to the not-for-profit agencies that provide services to many Evanston residents, some aldermen called for not-for-profits “insofar as they are able” to contribute to the City coffers.

There is no question that the request includes Northwestern University, Evanston Hospital and St. Francis Hospital.

Like every issue, this one has several layers. One is that Evanston is mandated by state law to subsidize these institutions by absorbing their property tax, with the understanding that they, as educational or charitable institutions, give back to the community at large.

We believe that, at heart, most people here recognize the important contributions that the university and both hospitals make to this community; there is cachet to be home to one of the greatest academic institutions in the country, and the hospitals provide vital health care to the community. At least one of them is legendary for its compassion toward the poor.

We also realize that many people here think the University and the hospitals could do more. Perhaps this is true, but we need to be able to show them a reason for this, beyond the fact that they have the money and the land and the tax-exemption. They need to be shown something concrete. We suggest that the City’s $141 million shortfall in the police and firefighters’ pension funds is concrete enough to warrant contributions from Northwestern and at least one of the hospitals.

As some of these institutions become more and more like “for-profit” institutions, racking up millions of dollars in net revenues through their operations and investments, the justification for their exemptions becomes questionable.