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The Mayor’s Task Force Budget Committee, which met regularly over the past nine months, presented its report to City Council on Oct. 11. Among the areas it discussed were City services, tax-exempt properties, economic development, outsourcing and insouring, Evanston Township, employee benefits, pensions, capital expenditures, impact fees, matching revenues with expenses and a re-evaluation of City services.
Mark Sloane, chair of the committee, presented the results and recommendations.
Mr. Sloane said the committee felt it would be important to have a list of services provided by the City. “Going through a 200-page budget, you don’t get an idea of what the services are,” Mr. Sloane said. He added that the committee had “asked staff to compile a list of services provided by the City, but they did not have the time” to do so.
The committee recommended that the City compile a detailed list of service provided by both the City of Evanston and Evanston Township then prioritize them as “core” and “non-core” services then further “bucket” them as high-, medium- and low-priority services.
The committee also suggested considering whether any of these services are mandated by the state or federal government, are duplicated by other agencies, could be privatized or sold or provided regionally. They also suggested that the City look at the number of residents served and the revenue generated by each service. Acknowledging that political will often affects budget decisions, the committee said in its report, “an argument can be made that incrementally reducing overall service quality to avoid a politically difficult decision to either eliminate or fully fund a program reduces the quality of services for a broad range of constituents.”
Economic development should “foster an increase in the tax base, an increase in employment, an increase in the diversity and livability of the City and its business and cultural environment,” said Mr. Sloane.
Important tools in economic development, the committee said are tax-increment financing (TIF) districts, revenue-sharing agreements, zoning flexibility and continued staff responsiveness. These tools, the committee said should be used wisely “to encourage development when it would not occur otherwise and not to enhance development that would occur without incentives” and in a way that would not to “cannibalize any geographic business area or sector.”
The committee also addressed use of and access to the lakefront, which it termed an “underutilized asset.” Their report addressed the division of opinions among members of the Council and elsewhere in Evanston about use of the lakefront: “Although the Lakefront Master Plan states that development on the lakefront is not desirable, some on the committee must point to the fact that our lakefront is unique and provides an additional economic engine to Evanston. … Providing better access to our lakefront [for] all Evanston residents will reduce its underutilization. “
The committee also recommended that an analysis of tax-exempt properties be performed. “Hire someone or dedicate a staff member to study all the properties that do not generate revenue. I suggest that you take a really good look at this – and you do – because the issue comes up every year or so,” Mr. Sloane said. He said the committee also recommended that the City investigate whether all properties zoned R1 and R2 should remain on the tax rolls and that it look at City-owned properties, “to see the best use of those properties – for example, the parking lot next to the Main Library.”
Evanston Township and Other Taxing Districts
“The state of Illinois has the most taxing districts of any state in the country,” Mr. Sloane said. He said the committee felt the City should analyze whether it could absorb the functions of the two other park districts in the City, Lighthouse and Ridgeville, as well as Evanston Township. To do this, the committee suggested that the City work with state and Cook County officials.
Finally, the committee recommended that the City begin a four-year cycle of implementing zero-based budgeting and create a committee to come up with a five-year financial plan. On the budget he said, “Start with two or three departments each year and find out what it takes to build that department.”