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After a series of last-minute switches to avoid creating a fifth unpaid holiday for City staff, at the Feb. 22 City Council meeting, aldermen approved a balanced budget together with a scaled-down capital improvement program for the upcoming fiscal year, which began March 1. The vote was 8-1, with Ninth Ward Alderman Coleen Burrus voting “nay.” Ald. Burrus said she felt the budget projections were inaccurate and the process had been hijacked by special interests. Other aldermen said they felt the process, though painful, had gone well, because it had led to a balanced budget without tearing the community apart.

The $234 million budget includes payments of $6.3 million to the firefighters pension fund and $7.8 million to the police officers pension fund.

Revenues for the General Fund, the City’s main operating budget, are projected at $86,873,900 – about $2.8 million more than in projections last fall. Expenditures are projected at $86,578,966, leaving – if the projections are accurate – around $300,000 as “ending surplus,” presumably to be earmarked for reserves. Fifty positions will be eliminated, impacting 36 persons. Council also approved a $7 million capital improvement program, with the specific projects to be decided later.

Concern about proposed cuts in the building department, remorse over some proposed pay cuts and continued tension over the six-month reprieve for the branch libraries dominated discussions at both the Feb. 20 and Feb. 22 Council meetings.

A See-Saw of Cuts and Add-Backs

The proposal to cut three staff members from the building department – one inspector, one architect and a veteran executive secretary – evoked several questions from Council members, but there was not enough support among the aldermen to restore the positions.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl asked how the proposed elimination of an architect and a structural inspector would impact the City’s upcoming $18 million project involving federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds.

City Manager Walter Bobkiewicz and Community Development Director Lehman Walker said they believed the impact would be minimal. Mr. Walker said there were other architects and inspectors on staff, and City inspectors will be trained to do work required by the City and the department.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said the City “hire[s] outsiders to do inspections, and the reasons have always been that we have no time to do them ourselves, we have no people to do them and the people we have do not have the proper qualifications. … I’m very concerned about the losses in the building department. … I just think we’re having a knee-jerk reaction to the downturn.” She also said she thought the cuts would “diminish the professionalism of the department.”

Ald. Burrus said she was concerned about the elimination of those positions, “especially with the [recent implementation of the] green-building ordinance and the new energy code.”

Mr. Walker said, “No one wants to be in this position, but it would be irresponsible of me to say that we need the same level of staffing we needed in better economic times.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, questioned Mr. Walker about how he arrived at the decision to fire the secretary who was the most senior in the department, saying, “I am not sure we are being fair.”

Mr. Walker said he does not need a secretary because he does his own work. Mr. Bobkiewicz said the position eliminated was the only “at-will,” that is, non-union, one. “Six of the [seven clerical positions] are subject to collective-bargaining rules. We decided to cut the at-will position rather than a union position.”

Aldermen supported the proposed cuts to the fleet services division, even as they acknowledged that the City’s fleet of vehicles and other equipment is old. Suzette Eggleston, interim director of public works, said the switch in pickups – with City crews picking up recycling and Groot picking up refuse – would allow some vehicles to be retired. Other consolidations in duties, she said, would keep the City’s fleet functioning well.

On the motion of Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, aldermen decided not to cut two members from the forestry division staff. “These people get dirty to make our City look beautiful,” she said.

Aldermen also decided not to approve the proposed 5 percent cuts to the salaries of managers and directors. Ald. Holmes said, “After all these cuts, I’m afraid people will think we don’t value our employees.” They were able to find the money to offset this add-back in the allocation for staff training.

Did Someone Say ‘Branch Libraries?’

The two branch libraries apparently continue to be a tinderbox. At the Feb. 20 City Council meeting, some aldermen appeared ready to fight again to try to close the libraries immediately, even though Council had granted them a six-month reprieve just days before. Several aldermen, though, expressed disappointment that the Library Board had decided not to spend on the branches the annual interest from its endowment, about $130,000.

The question then arose as to what will happen when the six-month reprieve expires. Ald. Rainey expressed fears that the two organizations working on obtaining funding for the branches – branchLove and the library board’s task force – will come with hope and promises but insufficient funds. Several aldermen said they will not approve funding for the branch libraries after the six months has elapsed.

A Few Uncertainties

Some uncertainties apparently will remain. Contract negotiations with some employee unions are ongoing, City officials say, as are discussions with both school districts about liaison police officers. Two police officers are assigned to School District 65’s middle schools and one to Evanston Township High School. The City has requested that School District 65 and School District 202 absorb the $290,000 needed to pay the school liaison officers.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said the City could share tax-increment financing district (TIF) funds with the school districts, which they could use to pay for the police officers. He said, though, “Nothing is in writing.”

There appeared to be a consensus among Council members that if the school districts will not pay for the police officers, the City will not pay for them either.

Mr. Bobkiewicz asked for 60 days to find a solution for that problem.

Capital Improvement Program

The capital improvement program (CIP) has traditionally been a rolling five-year program, with one year of funding approved and the funding requests for the subsequent four years serving as planning and policy guidelines, said Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons.

Mr. Bobkiewicz proposed limiting the amount of debt secured by the issuance of general obligation (GO) bonds, saying it is important not to add to the City’s debt. He and Mr. Lyons proposed curtailing nearly all projects paid through GO bonds and concentrating on those projects paid with other funding – state or federal money or motor-fuel tax (remitted to the City by the state).

Mr. Lyons presented a list of projects prioritized in three tiers. Some aldermen objected to the placement of projects in their ward and said they wanted “geographical equity” in next year’s capital projects. Because of the lateness of the hour, they decided to approve the amount of capital spending for next year – about $7 million – and to discuss specific projects at a later date.

Fee Increases in Solid Waste Disposal

Residents who use the standard 95-gallon refuse carts for their trash disposal can expect to see a $4-per-month increase, beginning next month. The charge, which will continue to be reflected on the water/sewer bill, will increase from $6.95 per month to $10.95 per month for emptying these large carts. An additional $2.50 per month is charged for emptying a second cart.

Suzette Eggleston, interim director of public works for the City, said the City allows some leeway in collecting refuse from households with the large carts: One extra bag will be picked up without an additional charge, she said. Residents with smaller amounts of weekly refuse may request smaller, 65-gallon carts from the City.

The charge for emptying the smaller carts will remain at $6.95 per month. However, Ms. Eggleston said, residents whose refuse does not fit into the smaller cart will be charged an additional $25 each time for picking up extra garbage.

Yard-waste stickers will return with the spring. The City will pick up yard waste only from yard-waste containers or from bags with City stickers on them. These stickers, at $1.75 each, will be available at CVS and the Civic Center, said Ms. Eggleston, and perhaps other locations as well.

Those who do not wish to purchase the yard-waste bags and stickers may purchase a recycling cart from the City and use that for weekly yard-waste pickup, paying an annual fee of $25.

The City projects it will receive $500,000 from the increased refuse charges and $950,000 in charges for yard-waste pickups. Under questioning from some of the aldermen, Ms. Eggleston said she believes these projections are realistic and perhaps conservative.

Some Budget Highlights

Some aspects of the City’s budget for fiscal year 2010-11 that was approved on Feb. 22 are as follows:

• No increase in the City’s portion of the property tax

• 50 positions eliminated, impacting 36 persons

• No cost-of-living increases

• 5 percent increase in employee contributions for health-care costs

• Four unpaid holidays for non-life-safety employees

• Ecology Center open, six-month reprieve for branch libraries

• Fees increased for weekly pickups of 95-gallon garbage carts

• For yard-waste disposal, residents must either purchase yard-waste stickers at $1.75 each or use rolling yard-waste carts

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz has said he would like to have the City’s fiscal year begin on Jan. 1 rather than on March 1, as is the current practice.