With only one change proposed from Council floor, aldermen approved a $191 million budget for the City’s next fiscal year, which begins March 1 and ends Dec. 31 of next year.

The Budget

The budget contains a 3 percent increase in the City’s portion of the property tax, which will be directed toward offsetting the unfunded liabilities in the police and fire pension funds, estimated to be about $176 million as of March 1 of this year. The City’s portion is about 20 percent of the overall property tax bill. Layoffs and service reductions helped offset a projected $3 million deficit, and the budget is balanced, as is mandated by state law.

Another major increase will be felt in the water bill, as the rate will increase by 10 percent as of Jan. 1, 2011. A one-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax will essentially be optional, as residents do not have to purchase gasoline in Evanston. However, the tax is essentially the same in Skokie, a penny per gallon higher in Chicago, and just a penny per gallon lower in Wilmette.

Next year’s operating costs – when smoothed out over a 10-month fiscal year – are about even with last year’s. The cost of health-care coverage has increased, as did the required contributions to the police and firefighters pension funds, but the equivalent of 12 full-time-equivalent positions was eliminated. Department directors and manager received a two-percent salary increase, a partial restoration of the five-percent salary cut they sustained last year. 

The budget process began in October, and the budget was approved on Nov. 22, even though it will not go into effect until March 1 of next year. Even with a foreshortened battlefield, skirmishes arose about funding for mental health services, library branches, trees and a 3-1-1 call center that would replace the present switchboard operations at the Civic Center. Treaties, if not truces, eventuated on all these matters.

Mental Health Board
     Funding Stable

Funding for social services through the Mental Health Board remains at last year’s level, $684,000.

Social service agencies in Evanston and elsewhere have suffered dramatic losses of funding over the past few years, as revenues from the state have dried up or been delayed.

Representatives of local social service agencies who spoke against a proposed cut in City allocations said they are often able to leverage local funds – which represent local support – to obtain other funding.

Trees, Not Funding, Will Be  Trimmed

Proposals to cut the budget for trimming trees, planting trees and inoculating elm trees against Dutch elm disease were defeated, as City Council members appeared to be persuaded by residents who said the cost of cutting those services would exceed the cost of paying for them.

The cost of removing a diseased or dead elm tree can be upwards of $2,000, whereas the cost of inoculating trees – shown to be more than 99 percent effective on elm trees here – is substantially less.

Similarly, the cost of trimming trees on the present six-year cycle was said to be more than offset by the cost of cleaning up fallen branches and other damage caused by untrimmed trees.

Virginia Mann and Mimi Peterson, co-founders of the citizens group To Rescue Evanston Elms (T.R.E.E.) urged  the City Council to protect the trees as City assets and infrastructure.

They and others found a sympathetic ear in Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne, who at the last minute was able to secure funding to inoculate all public elm trees with a diameter greater than 10 inches.

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, noted at an earlier meeting that savings would be garnered from inoculating elm trees rather than removing diseased or dead ones.

He said he hoped the savings would generate enough money for “a tree fund – a sacred tree fund.”

Library Branches

If the tug-of-war between the Library Board and the City officials may be likened to a chess game, this budget process may have ended in a stalemate.

Library Board trustees say they plan to pursue their endgame of expanding library services to reach as many Evanstonians as possible.

Aldermen appeared to offer strategic help by voting to allow the trustees to make their own allocations of funding rather than micromanage them. Seventh Ward Alderman Jane Grover said the move affirms the Council’s trust in the board members.

Again this year, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz recommended closing the North and South branch libraries, and again this year there was a passionate outpouring of resistance from supporters of branch libraries.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said his recommended allocation for the Evanston Public Library included a half-year’s funding for the branches but that he preferred to see that money spend on collections – books, periodicals, etc.

In August the Library Board voted to follow the state’s local library act and become an autonomous board that can decide on its own funding and allocations.

The Library Board will have to make allocations from the amount approved by the City Council – a smaller amount than it requested, but the members appeared to be up to the task.

In a letter to the City Council last week, the Library Board signaled its intention to “move forward, to be fiscally responsible while being responsive and visionary in serving our community’s library needs. … We are re-envisioning library services for Evanston; we are dedicated to improved neighborhood services for all residents and we are committed to being resourceful in our planning.

Also in the budget is City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz’s 3-1-1 call center, which residents can call for help with most non-emergency but City-related problems. One alderman said she supported the program, because it would keep her from having to apologize, as she often does now, to residents whose requests were unheeded.

The call center, which would operate from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, would replace the present switchboard operation by having a person rather than a recording answer the call and respond to the question. It would not replace the present 9-1-1 emergency-call center.

The nearly $700,000 cost would be paid for through layoffs of City employees and consolidation of workloads.

Joe McRae, assistant to the City Manager, who has been working on the project for several months, said he has compiled a list of 800 frequently asked questions and answers to them for the call-center operators. Each call would be assigned a number, and when a question was not answered immediately, a caller could follow up on line or in person by referring to that number, he said.

“In the 14 months I’ve been City Manager of the City of Evanston, the 3-1-1 call center is the single most important thing [I’ve done],” Mr. Bobkiewicz told the Council on Nov. 16. “We anticipate about 150,000 calls – about two per resident – each year.”

Some aldermen at the City Council’s two budget deliberations appeared to favor the proposal, because, they said, it would improve the delivery of City services and provide information about how the City accomplished this. Some who said they opposed implementing the call center cited concerns about the cost; others said they did not think it would solve the problem of poor delivery of City services.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she was concerned about the cost of the system and “concerned that some of my constituents are going to get a little bit lost. … I would prefer to take a year to get some data and then implement [the call center].”

Mr. McRae said City staff members have been collecting data for more than six months but with the present system, tracking is limited. “We get about 130 calls a day at the Civic Center,” he said.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he was “not opposed to unveiling [the call center]” but said the “system is broken. … We’re not investing in improving services; we’re investing in taking more calls.” The problem, he said, is not getting the services provided, not in the volume of calls. “Where’s the level of management that makes sure service is provided?” he asked.

“That’s the beauty of the system,” Mr. Bobkiewicz responded. “Council will have service-level agreements [stating what comprises adequate service, such as a stated number of hours to fill a pothole] and will have documents showing the requests and the results of the calls.”

Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said she thought the call center was “an awesome idea, but you haven’t done a good job of telling how much it will save us – in [money], citizen frustration, etc.”

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said, “I think this will be a big payoff for Evanston residents. … We’ll also do program reviews and [the call center] will give us a lot of data on services the City provides – we’ll get information on how our residents are being served.”

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said she appreciated the after-work hours of operation. “When something happens after about 5:30, there’s no one to call but the police,” she said. Third Ward alderman Melissa Wynne said, similarly, that when she sees a problem after normal business hours, she calls the pertinent department and leaves a message.

“I’m already a supporter of this system,” Ald. Wynne said, adding that with the new call center she would never “have to say ‘I’m sorry’” to residents whose calls had not been answered or concerns addressed.

Civic Center Space Running Out

Although one recurrent suggestion in the citizen budget input sessions was leasing space in the Civic Center, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told City Council members last week that there may not be much room for additional tenants in the future. As it now stands, there are occasional vacant offices on all four floors, he said.

What space there is may be taken up in the next months by a federally qualified health care center (FQHC) and potentially by the Evanston Community Media Center. The Evanston branch of the Illinois Department of Employment Security will have to vacate its Oak Avenue location next month, and City officials said they were hoping to bring those offices to the Civic Center. However, reportedly the office will leave Evanston entirely, perhaps as early as Dec. 1.