Sketch of the fine arts district proposed by architect Mike Vasilko. It would be located on lakefill that would be created east of Dawes Park.

The Citizens Budget Committee has recommended cutting the number of City employees or asking for more give-backs from them, closing both branch libraries and one fire station and moving the Township offices back to the Civic Center. Online voting open to all Evanston residents resulted in similar recommendations. This input is to help City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and his staff address the projected $8 million shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget.

At the last deliberative meeting of the citizens’ budget committee, held on Nov. 30, the nearly 30 participants threshed out eight priorities to recommend to City Council. Winnowing these suggestions from the more than 100 (some duplicative or overlapping) they had formulated in the small-group process of previous meetings, the members cast their votes by placing stickers next to the recommendations they favored in four “option” areas: improved efficiencies; service-level changes; cost containment; other innovations; and general revenue strategies.

On Dec. 7, facilitator Lynne Montai presented the vote tallies to the City Council. Thirty-three persons had voted in the final workshop, and 1,003 online votes were recorded. One thousand forty-three votes were cast; City staff said they found that 42 persons had voted more than once.

The committee found consensus on the following recommendations: 

Personnel: Staff cuts, reduction of hours, 27 votes

Solid Waste/Recycling/Yard Waste: Changes in service, charges, etc., 16 votes 

Township: Closing the Township office, now located on Dodge Avenue, and moving the Township operations back to the Civic Center, 15 votes 

Water: Selling water to more communities, 11 votes 

Library: Closing the branch libraries (and selling the North Branch property), 10 votes 

Parking: Offering reduced-price parking passes to employees of downtown businesses to park on the upper levels of parking garages, leaving the lower levels to business patrons, 8 votes 

Life Safety: Closing one fire station, 7 votes 

Lakefront: Establishing or developing a fine-arts district, to be operated by the City, at the lakefront, 5 votes 

Other recommendations received four votes or fewer. 

Online voters favored many of the same things: reducing personnel costs, relocating the Township offices to the Civic Center, making changes to solid-waste disposal, selling water to other communities, consolidating social service agencies to avoid duplication of services, and increasing City employees’ contributions to their benefits.

John Zbesko, who participated in all the budget workshops, told the RoundTable he felt that his voice had been heard. He added, “I’m glad to see that the polling results of the participants [in the Citizens’ Budget Committee] were very similar to [those of the] online polling.’”

Comment from Residents and Aldermen

During citizen comment on Dec. 7, Donna Gerson, a member of the Evanston Library Friends South Branch, spoke against closing the branch libraries. “The South Branch is located in the densest part of the City. … It has an intimate atmosphere, a different clientele [and staff that] nurtures the users of the library. It is very important to older people, mothers of young children and students at Park, Lincoln, Washington and Nichols schools.” She said library use is up this year; the South Branch has seen a 40 percent increase in use from September 2008 to September 2009. “The South Branch is 90 years old,” Ms. Gerson said. “Literacy, culture and our own history are embodied in these branches.”

Mike Vasilko, an architect and a member of the Citizens Budget Committee, described his proposal to create a fine-arts district on what would be new lakefill east of Dawes Park. “The primary goal would be to create an Evanston-owned, year-round district to expand Evanston’s cultural heritage and promote Evanston as a destination for the performing arts,” he said.

The proposal, Mr. Vasilko said separately to the RoundTable, “is intended as a long-term financial solution to Evanston’s annual budget problems, the police and firemen’s pension-fund problems, and a substitute for ever-increasing property taxes. No other long-term solutions have been put up for discussion. As a resident of Evanston, I have no vested interest in this kind of development other than to offer a viable option to serious budget and tax problems.”

The center, built on proposed lakefill that would curve south and then back west toward the shoreline, would share the new peninsula with a marina, a performing arts center, a “mini McCormick Place” (with a capacity of about 3,500), a marine-life habitat, restaurants and below-grade parking. Access would be by Church (to the lake) and Davis (to downtown). The footprint, Mr. Vasilko said, would be about 900,000 square feet.

In a separate interview, Mr. Vasilko told the RoundTable that Daniel Burnham, who lived at one time in Evanston, had drawn plans for small man-made islands off Lighthouse Beach at the end of Central Street.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said, “At our Nov. 12 meeting [about] the lakefront we discussed the lakefront master plan, and we affirmed that we would follow the lakefront plan.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, disagreed, saying, “Our decision was that we would not foreclose any option that might be viable.”

Resident Jeff Smith said he thought additional lakefill harm to the nearby shores by interfering with the curents. Further, he said, creating lakefill “could be a [violation]” of the public trust doctrine.”

Referring to the proposal to close one fire station, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl asked, “What information did you have that the community would be safe if we closed a fire station?” Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “We did provide some feedback, which [Council members] have.”

In a separate interview, Dick Peach, president of Keep vanston Beautiful, Inc., and member of Citizens for Greeener Evanston, told the RoundTable he believes the Great Lakes Compact, signed into law in 2008, will prevent Evanston from selling water to more communities.

“The compact prevents selling water outside the Lake Michigan basin,” he said, “and that boundary is Ridge Avenue. It was extended to McCormick Boulevard to include all of Evanston,” he said.

Next Steps

Because the tentative budget for 2010/11 will contain “a significant number of layoffs,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said, he plans to present it to the City Council on Dec. 18. The budget schedule is as follows:

Jan. 9, 8:30 a.m., budget workshop

Jan. 23, budget workshop if needed

Feb. 1, public hearing on the budget

Feb. 3, optional budget workshop

Feb. 8, budget presented to Council for adoption

Feb. 22, alternate date for Council to adopt the budget