Kayakers, sailors and canoeists descended upon the Aug. 10 City Council in support of a proposal to rebuild the boat racks at Dempster Street Beach. Despite objections and concerns over the timing of the City’s request and the state of the City’s current fiscal year budget, Council voted to approve the requested funds, and the new boat racks are on the way.

Initially, the City’s budget and the Lakefront Master Plan provided for the rehabilitation and repair of the boat racks for $100,000. But Doug Gaynor, superintendent of Parks/Forestry and Recreation for the City, said consultants who looked at the dilapidated boat racks currently in place determined that they could not be refurbished. “It would cost the same as it would to replace it, because of labor costs,” said Mr. Gaynor.

Evanston residents who use the boat racks and at least one from Chicago obviously agreed. One after another stepped to the lectern to tell the Council about both their appreciation for the current boat rack and its sorry state. The overwhelming message: “Rebuild it, and we’ll pay to use it.” The boat racks generate income for the City, currently about $75,000 a year, Mr. Gaynor said, and reconstructed racks with space for more boats could generate more than $33,000 additional funds – an amount calculated on the spot by Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne.

Rebuilding, however, will cost close to four times the amount budgeted for refurbishment, bumping the total cost from $100,000 to more than $392,000 according to the funding request. Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, seized on the budgetary issue. “Why in the context of this immediate budget crisis, when we’re $3 million in the red right now? …We need to make up this shortfall right now, and this might be a good place to start.” Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, agreed, suggesting that the Council wait until the next capital budget meeting to address the boat racks because the City might have “more pressing needs.”

Ald. Jean-Baptiste also attacked the timing of the request. “When did you discover [that refurbishment would not work]?”

When Mr. Gaynor responded that the City knew last fall, Ald. Jean-Baptiste told him, “Let us know ahead of time. Now is a different time. … My suggestion would be that we reconsider our options.” The alderman expressed “disgust” at the notion that, although roughly 18 months ago City staff thought $100,000 would be sufficient, they learned in November that much more would be needed but nonetheless waited until just days before the revised request went before Council to reveal the increase.

City Manager Walter Bobkeiwicz, participating in his first Council meeting, apologized for City staff’s failure to notify Council of the increased cost earlier.

Saying in conclusion that he was “not comfortable with the advice that I’ve gotten,” Ald. Jean-Baptiste moved to hold the item in committee rather than present it to the Council, to give the new City Manager a chance to study the matter. Ald. Jean-Baptiste was quickly joined by Ald. Fiske. Under Council rules, when a motion to hold an item is seconded, the item will be held – unless two thirds of Council votes to override the hold. In a rare procedural move, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, moved to override the hold.

Ald. Rainey asked City Manager Bobkiewicz if he had in fact studied this matter. Again noting that “City Staff could have handled this differently,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said he had indeed looked at the proposal, and “because it does bring in revenue, I think it makes sense. I recommend we move forward.”

Hearing that, Ald. Jean-Baptiste withdrew his motion to hold, rendering moot his motion to hold the matter for further review by the City Manager.

But the debate did not stop. Ald Fiske’s, “I urge you to exercise some fiscal responsibility,” was answered by Ninth Ward Alderman Coleen Burrus’s, “It’s not irresponsible. It’s extremely responsible,” because of the revenue-generating nature of the project.

The vote was 7-2, with Alds. Fiske and Jean-Baptiste voting no. According to Mr. Gaynor’s memo, construction will begin in September and should be completed in December. Evanston residents and lakefront visitors should look for the new, improved boat racks and lockers to be ready for use next spring.