The grueling task of helping craft the City’s budget behind, residents, business owners, elected representatives and others gathered at the Hotel Orrington on Feb. 26 to hear Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl’s first State of the City Address and see three of their own honored with awards for supporting the arts in Evanston.
Mayor Tisdahl enumerated the challenges facing most municipalities across the country in the wake of the continuing economic downturn as well as those specific to Evanston. She described how Evanston City staff and aldermen are addressing these problems then turned to positive news about the City.
Local Economic Challenges Created at the National Level
The last year was a tough one across the nation, said Mayor Tisdahl but added, “The state of a city cannot be judged merely by whether or not we have problems … but the issue is how we work to resolve those problems. … [The year] 2009 marked a year in which the economic woes of the nation were reflected in the budget crisis facing the City of Evanston. It has been decades since we have faced lower property values, lower sales and business revenues and higher unemployment all at the same time. … The state of the city is similar to the state of cities across the United States. President Obama, Secretary Timothy Geitner and Larry Summers all told mayors attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors the same thing: ‘Your job is extremely difficult. You have to take all our solutions to the problems created by the Great Recession and make them work.’” Yet, said the mayor, “I’m here to say, ‘Government works.’”
The City received $18 million in federal funds to help address the problems caused by foreclosures here. Praising the work of the City’s Community Development Department in drafting the application for the funds, Mayor Tisdahl said, “Dennis Marino, Sarah Flax and the entire Community Development staff should be household names.”
Mayor Tisdahl recounted the financial problems stemming from the past year’s budget and recounted the long process – replete with community input – for the budget for the present fiscal year, which began on March 1.
“Our City Manager [Wally Bobkiewicz] instituted a new public budget process that solicited innovative solutions from City staff, Evanston residents and businesses to balance our budget. This process has resulted in some tough decisions regarding longstanding City programs, staff reductions, salary freezes and more. All of these decisions were necessary to deliver a budget with no property tax increases. … It is not possible to cut $9,500,000 from Evanston’s budget without the possibility of unintended consequences. We know that we may have to wait longer for everything from building permits to rental ice skates. If any critical services are impacted, we have money in reserves and will act quickly to solve the problem.”
Relations with Northwestern University are a recurring topic for the state of the city address, Mayor Tisdahl said, adding, “With a new president of Northwestern University, a new city manager, a new city council and a new mayor, there is a new opportunity to create a model for town/gown relations, and we are all too smart to let this get away from us. There will always be problems when residents and students live in close proximity. Lifestyles are different, waking and sleeping hours are different. The challenge is not to avoid problems, though that would be nice, and some can be avoided, but the real challenge is to be able to resolve them with good will on both sides. And that can be done.”
Accomplishments of 2009
Mayor Tisdahl spoke of some victories for the community as a whole. “In April, Business Week Magazine and Forbes Magazine praised Evanston’s remarkable labor pool of talent, the existence of a thriving business community and our quality of life. Business Week had us listed in their top 50 and Forbes put us in the top 25. The Chamber works hard to tell Evanston’s story and the Chamber does it well.”
Economic development in the past year was slowed in Evanston as elsewhere, Mayor Tisdahl said, but added, “New development by The Mather has led to new state-of-the-art senior housing with a second building already under construction. New restaurants have continued to open despite the severe economy.” She said the City adopted a “new economic development strategy in focusing on business retention and attraction, working closely with partners throughout the City.”
Sustainability, Water, Health and Safety
As a signatory of the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, the City continues to work toward sustainability throughout Evanston, Mayor Tisdahl said. The City received $750,000 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to switch to more efficient lighting in several City facilities, implement a recycling program throughout the City’s commercial districts, weatherize up to 60 low- and moderate- income units and to install the City’s first municipal solar photovoltaic and solar thermal systems at the water plant and two fire stations.
City Council adopted a green building ordinance for commercial, multifamily and City buildings and passed a more stringent energy code. The City converted residential customers from 18-gallon recycling containers to 65- and 95-gallon containers.
The City hopes to become a wholesale supplier of water for several Chicago-area communities, Mayor Tisdahl said, adding that several communities “expressed interest in pursuing this endeavor. For obvious business reasons, we are going to spend very little time publicly discussing our business plans and lots of time enacting them.”
For the most part, the City dodged the H1N1 virus, and Mayor Tisdahl thanked Health Department Director Evonda Thomas and her staff for overseeing the vaccination of nearly 12,000 residents against the virus – “a huge accomplishment in such a short amount of time, showing that our Health Department is prepared to meet the health needs of our community in an emergency situation.”
Mayor Tisdahl acknowledged the “outstandingly courageous work” of the City’s police officers and firefighters. “Saving the best news for the last,” she said, “thanks to the efforts of the Evanston Police Department under the leadership of Chief Richard Eddington the City has experienced a 13.4 percent decrease in serious crime in Evanston in 2009.”
In sum, the mayor said, “The City that we all love is doing well.”
About 250 persons attended the event, including Randy Usen, president of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the event; former U.S. Senator Carole Mosely Braun; State Senator Jeff Schoenberg, State Representative-elect Robyn Gabel; Judge-elect Steve Bernstein; former mayors Jay Lytle and Lorraine Morton; Ed Futa, general secretary of Rotary International; Township Assessor Bonnie Wilson; City Clerk Rodney Greene; City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz; Evanston aldermen Judy Fiske, Donald Wilson, Delores Holmes, Mark Tendam, Jane Grover and Coleen Burrus; District 202 Superintendent Dr. Eric Witherspoon and District 202 Board member Gretchen Livingston; District 65 School Board member Jerome Summers; J. P. Gallagher, president of Evanston Hospital; and Dr. Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, who left and returned to a trustees meeting to attend the event.