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Deliberations on the budget will continue tonight, as Monday night’s City Council meeting was continued, rather than adjourned. Of this year’s six “hot-button” issues – the children’s dental clinic, the Ecology Center, Evanston Community Media Center (ECMC), fire department overtime, the library branches and Mental Health Board funding – only a few have been resolved.

After a nearly two-hour public hearing on the budget, aldermen again took up painful deliberations about how to address a projected shortfall of $9.4 million in the 2010-11 budget. They agreed unanimously to keep the children’s dental clinic open, and by a 6-3 vote decided to close the branch libraries. They also directed City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to look for additional ways to keep funding for the fire department’s overtime and asked the City attorney, Grant Farrar, to report on two issues regarding ECMC. The proposed cuts to the Mental Health Board funds and to ECMC may be discussed tonight.

Grueling as the process appears to be, Council members seem willing to go even further than balancing the budget. At the Jan. 23 budget workshop they agreed to cut at least $500,000 more to add to operating reserves. At that meeting, Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said he thought the Council should make additional cuts, because “I’m seeing things getting worse and I think we should be prepared for this.”

The Budget Mess

The tentative budget for fiscal year 2010-11 that Mr. Bobkiewicz presented to City Council contained a projected $9.4 million shortfall between projected revenues and anticipated expenses in the General Fund, the City’s main operating budget. This shortfall followed on a $2.7 million projected shortfall in the present fiscal year’s budget. Beginning in October of last year, City staff made about $1 million in cuts and used about $1.7 in reserves with the idea that the City would be able to meet expenses in the present fiscal year. Reserves at the end of the present fiscal year, Feb. 28, are projected to be about $12 million.

To address the projected 2010-11 shortfall in the General Fund, Mr. Bobkiewicz proposed $7 million in cuts and $2 million in additional revenues. Going further, he also proposed another $1.5 million in cuts. In response to the Council’s direction from the Jan. 23 budget workshop – to keep the Ecology Center funding, to keep the branch libraries open, to rescind some of the proposed cuts to the police summer deployment to keep the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre program manager – Mr. Bobkiewicz proposed cutting 10 more positions, reducing even further the hours of operation at all the libraries and closing the main library on Fridays.

The tentative budget now proposes the elimination of 57 positions, “impacting 46 individuals,” according to a Jan. 29 budget memo from Mr. Bobkiewicz. In addition to the departmental cuts, the tentative budget proposes $1.6 million savings by providing for no cost-of-living pay increases ($950,000); no merit pay for non-union employees ($100,000); a 5 percent increase in employee insurance contributions ($50,000); 5 percent pay cuts for department heads ($50,000); three unpaid holidays for all staff ($540,000); refinancing Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund debt ($150,000).

While cutting many positions, Mr. Bobkiewicz proposes to add a coordinator of regional, state and national governmental affairs, a governmental fellow in City management, a director of development to seek additional funds for the City, and two or possibly three positions in economic development. Council members appear to be holding off on any property tax increase, but City officials have said more than once over the past few months that an increase in the water rate is likely in the upcoming fiscal year.

Libraries, Dental Clinic, Life Safety

Mr. Bobkiewicz’s proposed way to keep the two branch libraries open appeared distasteful – one said “untenable – to nearly all the aldermen. Even so, three aldermen – Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Mark Tendam, 6th Ward; and Jane Grover, 7th Ward – fought to find money to keep the branches open. (See sidebar.)

The proposal to close the children’s dental clinic, saving the City the about $150,000, aroused some concern among Council members. Nearly 2,000 low-income children received dental services from the City last year. Aldermen voted unanimously to restore the funding for the dental clinic. (See sidebar.)

Concerns over community safety were the focus of proposed reductions in overtime in the fire department. Mr. Bobkiewicz said he had a “cordial but professional disagreement” with Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky about the level of staffing necessary for public safety. Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she had spoken with Chief Berkowsky and identified about $160,000 in cuts that would not affect overtime. Most of the Council members agreed that the overtime for fire department personnel be restored. (See sidebar.)

Ecology Center Sustained

The Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Boulevard, was fairly low on the list of proposed cuts, and at the Jan. 23 budget workshop it was taken off the list. Aldermen Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, and Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said they did not support cuts to Ecology Center funding, and there appeared to be little or no opposition to their position. Looking along the dais and then into the crowd on Jan. 23, Mayor Tisdahl said, “The Ecology Center appears to be safe for now, “but it ain’t over till it’s over.”

At the public hearing on Feb. 1, Environment Board president Dick Peach thanked the Council for their “vision in keeping the Ecology Center open” and said the board would enhance its fundraising efforts.

Forestry Cuts

Cuts to the Forestry Division may go even deeper, according to the latest cuts proposed by aldermen and the City Manager. At the Jan. 23 budget workshop, Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, asked about Forestry Division expenses, in particular the cost of planting trees and of injecting elm trees against Dutch elm disease. Expenses for each run about $160,000 per year.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she thought the elm-tree injection should continue, because the cost of removing dead and diseased elms might be greater than the cost of injecting them. She said she was willing to see tree-planting and tree-trimming deferred for one year, and most aldermen followed in agreement.

At the Feb. 1 public hearing, Mimi Peterson objected delaying tree-trimming for even one year. “You have invested $2 million in equipment and trees. … The Forestry Division is the last place you should be looking to cut.”
Concerns Over Media Center Aired

Aldermen are likely to vote tonight on the proposed $200,000 cut in funds for the Evanston Community Media Center, 1285 Hartrey Ave. Several supporters of ECMC asked that all – or even half – of the cuts be restored and that the center, a not-for-profit organization, be given a year to secure additional funding.

While some aldermen appeared to be willing to implement the full $200,000 cut, others proposed cuts of $150,000 and $100,000.

ECMC Executive Director Steve Bartlebaugh offered to accept a $100,000 reduction and said the media center is willing to relocate to a rent-free space (such as the Civic Center) or to Evanston Township High School. Mr. Bobkiewicz said he and Mr. Bartlebaugh had discussed such a move with Dr. Eric Witherspoon, ETHS superintendent, and with William Stafford, chief financial officer of ETHS.

Nearly two years remain on ECMC’s lease of its currrent space, and the cost of relocation would be several hundred thousand dollars, Mr. Bartlebaugh said. Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, asked that a decision on funding be delayed until the City attorney, Grant Farrar, looked at the lease. Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, asked that Mr. Farrar look into the legality of the City’s funding ECMC at all, since it airs, among other programs, religious ones.

Social Services Ever Poorer

The proposed reduction of $200,000 of Mental Health Board funding did not yet make it to the Council dais. Several people spoke at the public hearing and at the budget workshops about the need to keep funding for social services. Marcia Achenbach, chair of the Mental Health Board – describing one example of how drastic the funding cuts would be – said 40 of 110 children in the “Learning Together” program of Childcare Network of Evanston would be dropped from the program. When parents lose childcare, she said, they often lose or have to quit their jobs, devastating the entire family.

“It’s clear to me that this it the most difficult [budget] year ever,” Don Baker, executive director of Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.), told the Council. “This is an incredibly difficult time for the people we serve.” He said the City had continually cut Mental Health Board funding – by 23 percent since 1997. With the new proposed cuts, he said, the cuts would be 41 percent in dollars, or 65 percent when adjusted for inflation.

Those proposed cuts are likely to be discussed tonight, as some aldermen earlier expressed concern about their effect. At the Jan. 23 budget workshop, Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “I suggest that we consider restoring a portion of the proposed cuts. Those are funds that go to individuals with little voice to speak for themselves.”

Next Steps

The City must approve a balanced budget by March 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year. Mr. Bobkiewicz has said he hopes that Council will be able to vote on the budget at the Feb. 8 Council meeting. A vote at that time would allow Council two more weeks to discuss the budget and react to a mayoral veto. Mayor Tisdahl said it is unlikely that she would veto the budget.

Ald. Wilson said, “It’s not the things and places that make the City special – but the people. This is going to be a collective effort – you’re gong to notice lines are longer, response time is slower.”

Whether community safety would be put on the line has been the focus of comments opposing cuts to overtime in the department of fire and life safety services.

On Feb. 1, aldermen directed City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to find other cuts to the fire department budget that would leave the overtime intact.

At present, Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky said, the “average response time for anywhere in Evanston is four minutes. With 26 staff, we have five engines, two trucks, two ambulances and a shift chief.” In the past, when that number fell below 23, other firefighters were called in (and paid overtime) to bring the number up to full staffing. “If we eliminate that overtime,” Chief Berkowsky said, ” a vehicle would have to be placed out of service – we’d shut down a company. Closing a company will have a domino effect – it would add a couple of minutes to response time ad reduce the number of firefighters at a scene.”

He added, “About two times a day we use all our resources – between 7 and 9 a.m. and between 4 and 6 p.m.” He said last year the department had about 8,500 calls for service. “It’s important we do everything right. Everyone [situation] represents potential litigation.”

Chief Berkowsky also said he did not know how a budget reduction such as the one proposed would affect the department’s standing with the Insurance Service Organization, which, he said, “rates us as a fire department.”

Asked about “mutual aid” – in which fire departments from other municipalities respond when extra manpower is needed – Chief Berkowsky said the response time is “seven to nine minutes at the quickest.” He also said that some fire-fighting teams have difficulty getting to Evanston, for one reason because the equipment cannot fit under the viaducts. Communities do not charge each other for the cost of mutual aid, Chief Berkowsky said.

Chief Berkowsky told the Council members, “I think it’s important that I share with you my concerns. [With the proposed cuts,] we would have one vehicle out of service for two-thirds of the year.”

At the Jan. 6 budget workshop Brian Scott, president of the Evanston firefighters union (Firefighters Association EFF Local 742), said he thought the reductions “will have a very negative and significant impact on public safety.” Mr. Scott said the fire department “is already critically understaffed by every industry standard and community comparable, and an additional reduction in staffing will only advance this already unsafe condition.” He said taking an engine or truck out of service may also affect response-time, which in certain situations is critical to saving lives. Mr. Scott said the firefighters recognized the gravity of the City’s current fiscal situation and had offered viable solutions that would not impact public safety.

Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said she had been talking with colleagues in Chicago and was concerned that the proposed cuts to the fire department would not be safe for the community.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said, “We certainly wouldn’t want our community to feel they are unsafe.”

Chief Berkowsky told the Council that he understood this was a “tough” budget year. “In the fire services, any time we have to make a cut, it has to be of personnel. It comes down to response time and having enough personnel to get the job done.”

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said that community safety was “our first priority” in proposing cuts. “Given the large amount of cuts, we were looking for things we could do Citywide. … I asked Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky if there were cuts we could make. … None of the department heads wanted to make any cuts.”

Even though the City Manager defended his position that the community would not be at risk if the overtime were cut, aldermen directed him to find cuts that would not reduce response time.

Branch Libraries Axed

Supporters of the branch libraries who thought they had received a one-year reprieve in which to come up with a funding plan to keep the north and south branches open may have received a shock when aldermen instead voted on Feb. 1 to close them.

It appeared that two things swayed several Council members from their previous inclination to keep the branches open for another year: a proposal by City Manager Walter Bobkiewicz to close the main library on Fridays as a way to keep the branches open, and the insistence by branch library supporters on an independent taxing district rather than a more limited special service area.

Hundreds of persons signed petitions to keep the branch libraries open, under the auspices of the ad-hoc umbrella committee branchlove.com.

Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons said that with an independent taxing district – even if there were no added administrative costs – the “”extent of the tax bill will be the same; the property taxes for the City will be down, but the [tax from the] library district is additional.””

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said, “”For those of us who are concerned about foreclosures and keeping taxes down, a library district does not solve our problem.”” Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne said she opposed the creation of an independent library district “”unless they are willing to take on the remaining debt of the main library.””

The library board passed a resolution in support of branch libraries and created a task force to explore creating a sustainable fund for library services.

Alds. Wynne and Grover asked their colleagues to keep the branches open, noting that the North Branch is an anchor for the business community and saying they thought the motion to close the branches was “”premature.”” Nonetheless, aldermen voted 6-3 to close the branches. They also voted to keep the North Branch, which is owned by the City, vacant for a year so that if the branch supporters secured funding, the branch could be reinstituted there. No decision was made about the South Branch lease, which does not expire for 14 months.

An e-mail to the aldermen from Lori Keenan of branchlove.com said, “”Instead of engaging a vital and active force within the community to do specifically what was asked of us by Wally in the budget, our efforts were thwarted before we ever had a chance to begin.”” She asked the aldermen to reconsider the decision.

 

Dental Clinic Funding Filled

Aldermen seemed to rue the decision by a previous City Council to eliminate health services in the community. They unanimously rejected a proposal by City Manager Walter Bobkiewicz to close the children’s dental clinic as a continuation of that decision. Last year the clinic provided dental services to more than 1,800 low-income children, about half of whom had limited proficiency in English, said Health Department Director Evonda Thomas.

In presenting the proposal to cut the dental clinic, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “”I am proposing to remove ‘human services’ into the new Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services. The Department of Community and Economic Development will oversee the summer youth employment program, allowing the Heath Department to be the health department and focus on wellness. It will be part of community collaboration on health.””

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, who voted in 2006 to eliminate most direct services, said, “”When we closed the services in 2006, we had the idea that services would be picked up, but they were not. Until we really know that these [dental] services can be provided in Evanston, we should not cut them.””

Mayor Tisdahl said her vote in 2007 to eliminate the direct services from the City’s health department was “”the worst”” of her aldermanic career, because no agency stepped in, as she had hoped.

The City recoups some of its expenses for children’s dental services through the state-funded insurance program AllKids, said Ms. Thomas, director of health and human services. However, the state is in financial trouble and is several months behind in remitting payments to agencies and municipalities, said Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons.