Evanston residents have had ample time in the last few weeks to learn about how the City operates and to weigh in on how they believe the City should spend its operating revenues. On Monday night City Council heard recommendations from the Citizens Budget Committee, from other residents and from City staff.
The greatest consensus from the Citizens Budget Committee was that City staff must kick in in some fashion: One suggestion was a 10 percent cut in management; a few others, differently phrased but aiming at the same thing, suggested that City employees make greater contributions to their health-care insurance.
We applaud the great number of citizen and staff hours that have already gone into the budget process for next year, trying to find ways to bridge the projected $8 million chasm between projected revenues and projected expenses. The participants in, as well as the observers of, the process had the opportunity to learn, analyze and think outside the “increase-property-taxes” box.
A lagniappe is that much of the community has been energized by this process. From what we gather, many other residents are talking among themselves about what can be done to sustain our community in the face not only of next year’s projected shortfall but of the systemic problem in our budget – as a community, we want more than we can have.
While we praise the process, we take issue with three of the recommendations of the budget committee: closing one fire station, closing the branch libraries and making the lakefront more commercial.
Evanston is a community of roughly 75,000 people. Its six fire stations (counting the police/fire headquarters at Lake Street and Elmwood Avenue) are spread at reasonable geographic intervals to allow quick response time. Much of our population growth appears to come from multi-story buildings, where a fire or other disaster could require multiple emergency vehicles. In addition, we serve the Northwestern campus, comprised, at least during the day, of about 7,000 individuals. Closing a fire station, we believe, would put too much of the community unacceptably at risk.
Keeping the branch libraries open – this is a perennially hot issue. To listen to some of the criticism of these two gems in our community, one might think they were toxic-waste sites. We understand that the North Branch and South Branch may seem like luxuries – fewer than 5,000 square feet of free community space, offering access to books from all over the Chicagoland area, cultural programs and the comfort of community to so many who are feeling the chill of these economic times.
It is, of course, reasonable to point to the enormous resources of the Main Library – particularly the Teen Loft and the new children’s area. Sometimes the plea to close the branch libraries seems like a parent’s chiding of a child for preferring an old favored toy to a brand new one. But wishing to keep the branches open is in no way a reflection on the Main Library; they are not in competition with each other.
The three libraries – plus the outreach throughout the community – form a constellation that this richly cultural, educated and curious community should keep intact.
Finally, and briefly: The lakefront plan, already adopted by City Council, calls for passive activities there. We hope Council members will continue to regard this precious and beautiful area as a natural resource, not an exploitable “asset.” We do, however, applaud architect Michael Vasilko for his thoughtful idea of an Evanston arts district on new lakefill.
Having cast our vote not to touch the libraries, fire stations or lakefront, we would like to offer a few suggestions about City operations. These are not all original with the RoundTable, and one appears in today’s Traffic Guy column as well.
• Entice the politicians to move their offices from 820 Davis St. to the Civic Center. They are all from Evanston (as, we trust, will be Julie Hamos’s replacement), so there can be “one-stop shopping” at the Civic Center. Investigate whether a wing of the building could be fixed up for their needs. The rent is bound to be cheaper, and taxpayers will benefit in several ways.
• Add five or ten minutes of darkness to our days by turning street lights on a tad later and off earlier.
• Empower the parking enforcement staff to also issue tickets for violations of trash laws for fast food restaurants. These restaurants are supposed to clean up the trash within 250 feet of their places of operation. Also empower the parking enforcement crew to write tickets for obvious property-standards violations, such as overflowing garbage cans, junk in alleys or parkways, etc.
• Offer incentives – such as one additional street cleaning per quarter/season to neighborhoods whose streets, parkways and alleys are clean and free of junk.
We know that these suggestions do not amount to anything near $8 million in savings, but we hope they can serve as condiments to Council’s cost-cutting feast. In any case, we applaud the Council for the courage to make tough decisions that will sustain the community in the coming years.