Participants in the citizens’ budget process met in small groups with department heads at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center on Nov. 17.

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After the Nov. 17 meeting of the citizens’ budget committee, observers and participants were three-quarters of the way through their commitment to make concrete recommendations to City Council about ways to address the $8 million shortfall looming in the next fiscal year’s budget.

At that meeting, armed with several pages of staff recommendations about garnering efficiencies, the participants spoke with the heads of City departments about the services they provide, as well as possible efficiencies and potential cuts.

A final wrap-up meeting is planned for Nov. 30, and, at a special City Council meeting on Dec. 7, the participants will present their recommendations to the aldermen and the mayor.

Although the number of participants dwindled between the first and second meetings and again between the second and third, the 30-50 persons who remained after some ten hours of meetings appeared to be vigorously involved. And while the number of participants has decreased, there has been a consistent audience of 30 or more observers, including both elected officials and residents.

First Meeting: A Primer on City Government

More than 100 residents turned out at the Levy Center on Nov. 7 to hear about how the City operates. City officials provided an overview of the City’s operations: the purview of each department, sources of revenues and allocation of expenditures and several reasons for the projected shortfall.

The City faces an $8 million shortfall in the fiscal year 2010-11 budget. The series of meetings was convened to seek residents’ input on how to balance the budget with a combination of new revenues, increased taxes and fees and program and services cuts. One City official said, “Everything is on the table.”

Attendance at this meeting was mandatory for residents who wished to participate in subsequent meetings.

Second Meeting: Connecting to the Process

At the second citizens’ budget process meeting, held at Robert Crown Center on Nov. 12, participants assessed the City’s bright spots and its soft spots and offered comments about areas on which it should focus in the future. Some of the areas in which Evanston excels, the five groups found, are its engaged citizenry, social consciousness, diversity, arts and culture, lakefront location, schools and public transportation.

That meeting took the form of a modified SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. Participants weighed in on three areas: where Evanston excels, where it misses the mark, and where it should focus future efforts.

Some of the areas on which the City misses the mark, the groups said, are attracting and retaining businesses, providing transparency in government, acting “regionally” and with “civic hubris” rather than taking into account what other municipalities are doing, prioritizing, fulfilling the promises of its plans and making hard decisions.

Other problems, some participants felt, were “micromanagement” by City Council, failure to listen to citizens, failure to use the recommendations of boards and commissions and failure to adequately capitalize on the volunteerism and intellectual capital of the citizenry.

Among their collective preferences were having a balanced budget that would serve as a blueprint for future balanced budgets, optimizing services, keeping property taxes low, finding new revenue streams and doing more with less.

Some of the participants expressed skepticism about the process.

Vito Brugliera said, “We’ve heard a lot of this before, but what’s going to happen with it?” Bruce Enenbach said, similarly, “We did something like this seven years ago. … Everybody in this room is hoping this will mean something.”

Third Meeting: Rubber to the Road

The heads of the City’s fire, police, health and human services, public works, law, human resources, library, community development and parks/forestry and recreation departments met in small groups with the participants at the Nov. 17 meeting at Fleetwood-Jourdain.

In preparation for the upcoming budget, each department head prepared a hypothetical budget that reduced costs by 5 percent below the current levels, said librarian Mary Johns. Then each prepared a second hypothetical budget with an additional 5 percent reduction.

Although the RoundTable did not hear every question to every department head, a reporter heard at least two say they have prepared data to show Council how further cuts to their departments would impact the residents of Evanston. They also said they would follow Council’s direction about service cuts and layoffs.

The library is one of the few City departments whose budget is on track at this stage in the current fiscal year, City officials have said. Ms. Johns said one reason the library is on track is that it has several open positions. She added that circulation in the Evanston libraries is up about 10 percent, likely because of the economic downturn, and the same is true of most libraries across the country.

“We are Kuwait,” said Richard Muno, in a conversation with Elke Tober-Purze of the City’s law department. He was referring to Evanston’s access to the water of Lake Michigan, which it sells to other municipalities. He suggested – as has Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl – that the City try to renegotiate its water contracts.

Last Steps

Between Dec. 4 and 6, the City has planned a budget-meeting marathon with the media center, said City Manager Walter Bobkiewicz – continual re-broadcasting on cable channel 16 (the City channel) of the four committee meetings, capped by a call-in show on the evening of Dec. 6, for residents to weigh in a final time on the next budget.