Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

Almost seven months before City Council will likely approve the budget for fiscal year 2012, projections show a $1.4 million shortfall in operating expenses. Add to that gap another $2 million that City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz would like to transfer from operations for capital expenditures, and residents could be asked to plug a $3.4 million gap by enduring either an increase in taxes or a decrease in City services, or a combination of these.

It appeared at the March 22 special City Council meeting that Council members may prefer to limit or eliminate services rather than increase taxes or fees to maintain them. Yet, the City may increase property taxes to help fund the police and firefighters pension funds.

Citizens’ Concerns

On the table, in addition to the possible tax increases and service cuts, is the future of some of the City’s buildings. At the Jan. 17 City Council meeting, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, the capital improvements approved by City Council for the Noyes Cultural Arts, the Ecology Center, the Animal Shelter, and the lakefront fog/signal houses renovation “all ‘beg the question of additional future uses.’ … Council should feel ‘comfortable’ about these buildings and what the City will do with them before borrowing money to complete such projects, he said, adding that Council should ask what the future holds, what programming goes on now, and what could go on. ‘What is the future of the Noyes Cultural Arts Center?’ he asked.”

Several speakers at the March 22 Council meeting spoke of the importance of the Noyes Cultural Arts Center to the arts community and to the Evanston community in general.

Richard Halstead, whose Halstead Portrait and Figure Art studio is housed at Noyes, noted the community outreach activities performed by each of the tenants of Noyes. While budgets are focused on the bottom line, he said, it is difficult to place a “dollar value on a service that is not being paid for.”

Laura Simpson said, “[If you are] cutting the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Robert Crown and the Evanston Arts Center, you are cutting the values of the community. … Don’t think of these as buildings and things you have to pay money for; think of them as the vibrant magnetic pole that draws people to your community.”

JoAnn Pinsky said, “We measure a society by its art.”

Evie Russell said she had collected 300 signatures on a petition not to close the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.

Lonnie Wilson said, “When you cut programs, you can hurt people. This is short-sighted, because then you have to pay police more to arrest them.”

Lori Keenan, a member of the Evanston Public Library Friends, said she had participated in budget sessions last year and that, “within 24 hours” of a citizens’ vote at a budget meeting that overwhelmingly favored keeping the library branches open, the City Manager said he would close them. “I warn you tonight that when you are making priorities on these, things are already in motion. … This community has different priorities than the Council and the City Manager.”

Projections and Capital Needs

Mr. Bobkiewicz presented projections of expenses and revenues for fiscal year 2012, which assumed a “2 percent growth in major revenue sources” but showed that would still leave the $1.4 million shortfall to, as he said, “maintain the status quo.”

Revenue and expenditure comparisons between fiscal year 2012 and previous fiscal years presented by the City were not immediately comparable, because the present fiscal year, 2011, has only 10 months, while the others were full 12-month years. The change was approved by Council last year in order to have the fiscal year coincide with the calendar year.

While many of the revenue projections showed a slight increase in fiscal year 2012 over this year, Mr. Bobkiewicz warned that revenue from the state could be substantially less – perhaps by 30 percent – than projected.

On the expenditure side, City assumptions included a .25 percent increase in Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) contributions, a .75 percent increase in costs for health insurance, a 1 percent “general salary growth” and 2 percent increases in fixed and personnel costs.

A slide show of cracked pavement, rusting vehicles, dilapidating playground equipment, and deteriorated and deteriorating duct work, concrete beams and basketball courts demonstrated the need for capital improvements throughout the community.

Next Steps; Priority Budgeting,
Community Innovation

There was little Council discussion, but alderman approved a tentative timetable for the budget process for fiscal year 2012: Staff will perform a “community services comparison,” to see what services are offered by comparable cities in the Chicago area and around the country.

The City will seek input from City Council and from residents in the next few months, both online and at meetings. Mr. Bobkiewicz says he would like to implement priority-based budgeting, that is, have budget decisions be aligned with the Council goals of [attaining] economic viability, [promoting] environmental sustainability and strengthening community.

Mr. Bobkiewicz’s presentation concluded with collective ways to solve this year’s budget problems: priority budgeting and innovation.

A taste of this will come in an online community survey in April that will allow residents to allocate $100 among various aspects of community life, such as safety, strong neighborhoods, economic vitality, culture, stewardship of the environment and effective transportation and mobility.

Also in the works are a community planning session in late April or early May, an update to the Council at its May 16 meeting, refining of priorities and estimates and recommendations for reducing or eliminating programs in August, and community budget meetings in September. Mr. Bobkiewicz proposes to submit the proposed fiscal year 2012 budget to Council on Oct. 7.