Evanston Township’s budget appeared before the City Council on June 28 but failed to gain timely approval. State law mandates that a township budget be approved in the first quarter of a fiscal year, said City Attorney Grant Farrar. The City’s fiscal year began on March 1, making the deadline for the township budget July 1.
The Township of Evanston is coterminous with the City of Evanston, and the City’s aldermen serve as Township trustees.
Several aldermen voiced concerns about the lack of detail in the $1.2 million proposed budget. In place of that budget, the Council approved emergency four-month funding for the Township, based on last year’s funding levels. Although some aldermen expressed a desire to separate out the Township Assessor’s budget, such a move was determined to be impossible and the Assessor’s budget will remain at 2009-10 levels as well.
By its home-rule power, the City has assumed the majority of the statutory responsibilities a township can provide, Township Supervisor Patricia Vance said in her executive summary to the budget. Two major functions remain for the Township: distributing general assistance funds and operating the Township Assessor’s office. The Township Supervisor, Ms. Vance, one of two elected Township officials, also acts as treasurer. The second elected official, Township Assessor Bonnie Wilson, runs the assessor’s office.
The proposed budget, first submitted in April, seeks $986,553.00 for the General Assistance fund and $295,752.00 for the Town Fund. In this proposed budget, $484,086.00 of the $1,282,306 total Township budget would go to General Assistance to clients in need. Administrative overhead, pegged at $315,494, and payroll projected at $291,068 make up the next biggest budget items.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, immediately sought clarification regarding an increase of more than $117,000 for programs that have yet to be fully identified. “You’re asking us to levy against the taxpayers $117,586 for programs” that “no one knows how much will cost, which agencies gets what amount, and whether they’re effective,” she said. Ms. Vance was unable to attend the meeting; Rosemary Jean-Paul of the Township said Ms. Vance would decide where the additional assistance funds would go.
“I’m just really disappointed in this budget,” Ald. Rainey said. She also noted another fund of more than $45,000, which, she said, appeared to be a pool of money from which Ms. Vance could fund favored projects.
Seventh Ward Alderman Jane Grover, a member of the Human Services Committee that first addressed the budget in May, said, “I still have a lot of trouble with various aspects of the budget, including $75,000 for legal fees.” Legal fees increased over the past two years because of a lawsuit involving former Township Assessor Sharon Eckersall. A somewhat cantankerous relationship existed between Ms. Eckersall and the previous set City Council. When the Council reduced her budget, Ms. Eckersall fired her deputy assessor, Diane Benjamin, and Ms. Benjamin sued Ms. Eckersall. The lawsuit continues.
Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, asked about the proposed budget of current Township Assessor Bonnie Wilson. In her portion of the budget, Ms. Wilson sought to add a full-time deputy assessor and two part-time employees to help the during re-assessment appeals period. That period is expected to begin this month and to last 30 days after re-assessment notices are received.
Referring to the previous City Council’s action, Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, the Council took some “radical moves” on the last budget and “eliminated a whole line item for deputy assessor” because of concerns with how the assessor’s office was being run under Ms. Eckersall. Essentially, Council cut Assessor Eckersall’s budget by half. “I’m willing to give Assessor Wilson the benefit of the doubt,” said Ald. Jean-Baptiste, and “give her what’s she’s asking for.” He urged the Council to pass at least the Assessor’s portion of the budget, increasing outlays from $83,592 during the last year of Ms. Eckersall’s term to $168.054 for the first year of Ms. Wilson’s term.
Ald. Holmes asked Ms. Wilson if perhaps a part-time deputy assessor might be sufficient. “What do you mean by ‘part time’?” Ms. Wilson responded. “I do really need someone as a deputy assessor… The fact that I have to be there every single day shows me I need another person there.”
Some aldermen favored suspending the rules so that the proposed budget could be considered, but, instead of the required unanimous vote, the motion failed 6-3.
Confusions resulted. “What are the implications? What happens next?” asked Ald. Grover. Mr. Farrar said that Illinois law is silent, providing no guidance should a Township’s trustees fail to timely pass a budget.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz suggested a solution: continuing Township allocations at last year’s levels through the month of July. Effectively, because the fiscal year began March 4, Council would pass a four-month budget at last year’s levels.
Ald. Rainey said the Assessor’s budget could not be adopted separately from the total Township budget, and the Township’s budget could not be adopted without suspending the rules – a motion that had already failed.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl then called a vote on introducing the four-month extension. The introduction was followed by a suspension of the rules regarding the extension and the adoption of the extension. All three votes passed.
Ms. Eckersall, speaking during citizen comment, said that after the Council cut her budget she “had to make due with what I had.” She said that Niles Township employs only two part-time people in their assessors office on a job share basis and “they get by.”
Ald. Rainey asked Ms. Jean-Paul to come back with more detail as to where money was going and said she “strongly encouraged” Ms. Vance to attend the next meeting, when the Township’s full-year proposed budget will be considered.