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Community safety and a regional/state/federal agenda – the first two of the 12 goals adopted last month by City Council – were discussed, refined and solidified at the Oct. 12 Council meeting.
At a meeting on Oct. 19 Council discusssed capital improvement but did not set firm goals. At the Oct. 26 City Council meeting, economic development and efficiency and effectiveness of City services were the topics for dicussions of Council goals.
Safety, as the discussion on Sept. 21 suggested, is an issue wider than the protections afforded by the police and fire departments; it encompasses the well-being of neighborhoods and the community as a whole.
During the Oct. 12 discussion on safety, City Council enumerated the issues they wished the City to address: youth; bicycle and pedestrian safety; crosswalks; community policing; criminal “hot spots”; and gun control.
Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, repeated his concern about “giving a lot of attention to the youth of this community,” particularly, he said, those who have dropped out of high school. “We need to connect the youth – especially those who are falling through the cracks – with resources,” he said.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he was concerned about pedestrian and bicycle safety, as well as about “troubled intersections,” which he and City staff members were already addressing. He said he would prefer “proactive” rather than “draconian” efforts in “educating the public, educating drivers and working with schools to include safety in the curriculum.”
Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said some sidewalks in that ward pose “barriers for people with disabilities” and that he was concerned about safe street-crossings, particularly for school children.
Oakton Street poses several problems, said Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, with speeding traffic and heavy trucks. Pedestrian safety – such as the uneven pavers and bicycles on sidewalks downtown – was a concern expressed by First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said, “We’re trying to generate a little bit of a culture change about how we view pedestrians and the role of drivers. [We need] attentiveness and patience around schools and on sidewalks – and that can be quite an undertaking.” She suggested that the City apply for funding from the “Safe Routes to School” program “to bring some money back to Evanston.”
On the issue of crime in the community, Ald. Grover said, “While we address specifically criminal hot spots, I would like to see a broader view: how those hot spots affect all of Evanston.”
Ald. Burrus said the City should promote neighborhood watch groups and community policing.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said she would add gun control. “It is part of safety, and I intend to be lobbying for that as well.”
Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, who at the Sept. 21 meeting had proposed safety as a goal, said she was “really pleased that everyone sees safety as a community issue.”
Federal/State/Regional Government Affairs Agenda
Placing Evanston issues in the context of state, regional and federal issues, legislation and programs could help the City maintain its autonomy (Evanston is a home-rule community), said City Manger Walter Bobkiewicz in an Oct. 5 memo. It would also help alert the Council to pending legislation about transportation, economic development, public safety, homeland security and the environment.
The “overriding principles,” according to Mr. Bobkiewicz’s Oct. 5 proposal, are that “The City of Evanston believes that cities must be able to control matters within their own jurisdiction. Therefore, the City of Evanston will take positions on proposed legislation, rules and/or regulations that affect local control and [that] support the goals and principles of the City.”
City staff members will “monitor the Northwest Municipal Conference, the Illinois Municipal League, the National League of Cities and the United States Conference of Mayors as well as other sources to identify pending legislation that may impact the City of Evanston,” the memo said. It also proposed that the Mayor would be “authorized to sign correspondence expressing the City’s position on pending legislation consistent with the Government Affairs Agenda and/or other positions approved by the City Council.”
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl urged the Council to approve the agenda and the authorization on Oct. 12, saying, “I would feel much more comfortable in lobbying, knowing I was on the right track.”
Noting that this was a “blanket authorization,” Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “How about if we say, ‘If it has to do with getting money, you should do it,’?”
Alderman unanimously approved the agenda and the authorization. Mayor Tisdahl and Mr. Bobkiewicz traveled last week to both Washington, D.C., and Springfield to meet with the Obama and Quinn administrations.
Capital Improvement Program
When Mr. Bobkiewicz and Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons discussed the City’s capital improvement program on Oct. 19, they proposed that planning be more budget- and funding-source conscious, and that Council play a greater role in identifying priority projects. These proposals were met with some apprehension as the Council awaits the next step.
Mr. Lyons said the City pays for long-term capital improvement projects by issuing bonds that are repaid over up to 20 years. Currently, the City owes more than $174 million in general obligation bonds, with a debt service of more than $10 million last year, collected via the property tax levy.
Mr. Bobkiewicz began by telling the Council that he had reviewed the way the City approaches its Capital Improvement program, and, “I will tell you, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.” Decisions have been “driven by perceived need, not by the ability to pay,” he continued. City Staff set a capital project schedule, Council approved it, and then the City decided how much debt (in the form of bonds) to issue to pay for it, he said.
Mr. Bobkiewicz suggested revisiting that process so that Council evaluate priorities based upon the City’s ability to pay. Priorities, he said, should be based at least in part on the City’s ability to pay for them.
Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said, “You’re suggesting [that we have been] going from perceived needs without regard to financial consequences. You want to go to prioritized needs with financial consequences [in mind],” he said. But he said that at times the City’s needs were such that short-term financial consequences could not always be taken into consideration.
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, similarly said that sometimes deferring a project carries a greater long-term cost in maintenance and higher repair or replacement costs than borrowing and acting right away.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, took a slightly different message from the City Manager’s words, asking, “Are you suggesting that we would be able to argue for some of our priorities?” When told yes, she added, “That would be great.” Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, called the proposed changes “a breath of fresh air.”
Mr. Bobkiewicz and Mr. Lyons said City staff are rethinking capital projects and whether they would be paid from operating costs or issuing bonds. “We have a $90 million operating budget,” Mr. Lyons said. Many projects can be paid for out of the operating budget, or a mix of operating budget and debt, he noted.
“Large projects should be bonded. But if we spend $4.2 million on [resurfacing and improving] roads every year, then we shouldn’t borrow for it [but should pay for it out of the operating budget],” Mr. Loyons said. Staff mebers indicated that they would return to Council with a list of needed capital projects during budget season.
Although City Council members indicated at the Sept. 23 meeting that economic development was of primary importance, at the Oct. 26 meeting, they accepted without comment the recommendations of the City’s Economic Development Committee that the City pursue its economic development policy in four areas: business attraction, business retention, marketing/branding and business expansion.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said he thought previous policies and decisions were reactive, saying, “Many times the City Council has been reactive [to situations] rather than setting an agenda.” He suggested that the City identify possible problems and strategies to fix them; define partners to help address the set goals and establish a work plan that has “time frames, measurable results and responsible parties.”
The potential partners mentioned in a worksheet Mr. Bobkiewicz presented to the Economic Development Committee on Oct. 21 are Northwestern University, St. Francis Hospital, Evanston Hospital, Rotary International, Evmark, the North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau and Evanston Community Development Corporation.
City staff members will provide those partners with the City’s goals and information about strategies and implementation and seek their input. Staff will return to the City Council early next month with that information, Mr. Bobkiewicz said.
Efficiency and Effectiveness of City Services
During the discussion of the goal of improving City service, which is intended to make it easier for residents and businesses to do business with the City of Evanston, Council members presented a wish-list about the delivery of City services
Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said she would like the City to look to other municipalities for economies of scale and for best practices to create benchmarks for employee performance.
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the City should “train people who take phone calls not to get off the phone until the caller has been helped or sent in the right direction.” She said calls should be logged or charted.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said she would like to see a “feedback mechanism” such as a customer-satisfaction survey for citizens to react to their interactions with City staff. “We could even tie this into performance evaluation,” she said.
Referring to a book she is reading, “The Cost of Bad Behavior,” Ald. Grover said she would like to see civility incorporated into the City’s culture.
Fourth Ward Alderman Donald Wilson said he would like to know the cost of City services – “the cost-efficiency of performing City services.”
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked for two things: having photographs of City employees posted on the website and making the City Code portion of the website more user-friendly.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said, “I hope we can look at ways to reward people who do a good job when people call the City”
As with Council input on other goals, these requests will be compiled by City staff and returned, probably next month, for further clarification.