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More than 150 persons packed the Linden Room of the Levy Center to voice their priorities and concerns about the City’s budget for 2010. At present City officials are projecting a $3.5 million deficit over a 12-month period, so it will be addressed in both fiscal year 2011 and 2012.
So as not to plug the gap entirely with an increase in the City’s portion of the property tax – the City held two citizens budget sessions to gather input about where to cut, what to save and how to get more money.
About two dozen residents attended the first meeting, on Sept. 14, posing questions about income and expenses. Their questions were answers, and their suggestions for reducing the deficit heard at the second meeting.
Supporters of library services and community purchased services (social and mental health services)
Library supporters appeared to comprise the bulk of those who attended the Sept. 29 meeting, as they asked the most questions and proposed the most solutions. Some of the suggestions for enhancing revenues were new, such selling water to Wilmette by “acquiring” its water works and convincing that village to do something else with the facility; some were familiar, such as reducing police personnel and building a lakefront entertainment complex; some wry, such as leasing a portion of the Ecology Center to Starbuck’s.
Two proposals specific to raising money for the libraries were adding an additional tax to tickets for athletic events at Northwestern University and adding a voluntary additional fee to vehicle sticker fees, with the increment to be used to fund library services.
One proposal was to limiting the number of outside consultants; a tandem one was to stop funding feasibility studies for developers. That suggestion was prompted by the City Council’s approval of $50,000 for a feasibility study for rehabbing the former Varsity Theatre into a performing arts center.
A few suggestions for expenditure reductions dealt with streets and sanitation services. One resident objected to the redundancy of warnings about parking after a two-inch snowfall. “I’ve lived here 5 ½ years,” one resident said, “and I don’t understand why Evanston treats a regular snowfall as an emergency.” She said she felt the posted signs were sufficient and that the parking enforcement officer with the bullhorn early on snowy mornings should be eliminated. Other suggestions were to stop the “first-hour-free” program at City parking garages, halt the installation of all traffic-calming installations (speed humps) and stop signs for a year and to stop alley paving “because it increases flooding.”
Attorney and activist Jeff Smith suggested reducing the home-rule sales tax, a tax of up to 1 percent that home-rule communities may impose. At present, Evanston’s home-rule sales tax is 1 percent, and Mr. Smith suggested that a reduction of that amount might attract more shoppers to Evanston, resulting in increased sales-tax revenue.
The City has saved on legal expenses, City officials said, by hiring outside counsel less frequently and having cases handled in house. “Our litigation strategy is much more aggressive than that pursued in the past,” reads a document prepared by the City in answer to a resident’s request. The document also said, “Liability settlement payouts for this fiscal year to-date are currently in-line with the budgeted estimate and are consistent with prior fiscal years.”
In response to several questions by residents at the Sept. 29 meeting, neither City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz nor Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons was able to put a price tag on certain aspects of City services. As the evening wore on, that lack of specificity evoked some frustration, particularly when residents were asked to vote – by placing stickers – on services they would like to keep and revenue enhancements (including tax and fee increases as well as proposed cuts) they favored. Each resident received five stickers for revenue enhancements and five for City services they supported.
By far, library services were the favorites, with support from 53 ersatz voters.
Residents may also vote on these items on the City’s website, www.cityofevanston.org.
When asked whether he would report to the City Council the results of the evening’s voting, Mr. Bobkiewicz hesitated, saying, “I’m looking for direction. Last year residents said they wanted to close libraries.” This year, he said, may be different.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said he would present his tentative budget to City Council next Friday, Oct. 8. Council is expected to approve the budget on Nov. 22. The budget for fiscal year 2011 will not go into effect until March 1 of next year.
In voting for cost reductions and revenue enhancements at the Sept. 29 budget meeting, residents gave these six measures the highest number of votes:
Reduce outside consulting costs: 17
No feasibility studies for outside developers: 14
Increase Northwestern University ticket tax for libraries: 12
Voluntary additional charge on City sticker for library: 10
Sell as much water as possible: 9
In voting for City services at the Sept. 29 budget meeting, residents gave these measures the highest number of votes:
Library Branches: 53
Senior services: 20
Economic Development: 17
Community Purchased Services: 15
Residents may vote on the Sept. 29 topics at the City’s website, www.cityofevanston.org.