City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz calls for a dialogue on all issues facing the City.

Even after years of scrimping, scraping and paring, it appears that projected expenditures in the City’s budget for the next fiscal year will again outpace projected revenues. Although the budget process for fiscal year 2012 is just beginning – and City Council has the ultimate authority to approve the budget – there is already a projected gap of about $1.5 million between revenues and expenses in next year’s General Fund (the City’s main operating budget), said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.

Falling Short

But that is not the full extent of the projected shortfall: Mr. Bobkiewicz would like to use $2 million of operating expenses for capital projects. “We need to spend operating dollars on [capital] improvements,” he said. By using operating funds rather than issuing bonds to pay for capital projects, the City can keep a lower debt-to-asset ratio, a measure that helps its bond rating. Conversely, doing this means that there would be $2 million less to spend for operating expenses in fiscal year 2012. Mr. Bobkiewicz says he hopes it will continue.

An intensive outreach is planned for next week, said Mr. Bobkiewicz, to “engage all Evanston residents in finding solutions to these issues. Called “Engage Evanston,” the effort seeks to engage as many Evanstonians as possible in a dialogue “on all issues facing the City,” he said. All next week residents are invited to submit “items we should consider while developing our 2012 budget priorities” by mail (to City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., 60201), telephone (311), email info@cityofevanston.org, in person or on Facebook or Twitter. Residents may also meet City staff – and be asked a few questions about City services – as they go about their daily lives.

The City will compile these ideas and compare them with information gathered from a review of all City services. The review, requested by the Mayor’s Budget Committee that met several times last year, will include “an evaluation of each service, the costs and revenues associated with each service and how each service helps implement the goals of the City’s strategic plan, said Mr. Bobkiewicz. Ideas collected in the 2010 budget process will be included. City staff will present the sifted, sorted, compared and compiled information at a special City Council meeting scheduled for May 16.

Wider Net, More Information

The City has held budget workshops for several years that allowed citizen input, but Mr. Bobkiewicz says this effort will be different, because it involves more in-depth processes. First, ideas will be collected in many ways for the May 16 meeting. These can be ideas for revenue enhancements or expenditures or can simply be a statement that “The City does this well,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz.

Second, the sifting process will be more organized, and in August staff will present options (at least some generated from residents’ ideas) for balancing the budget. Finally, a “quality of life” aspect may be injected into these evaluations, as City Council members will evaluate not only the expense and revenues of City services but will also be asked to assess them against the goals of the strategic plan of making Evanston the most livable city in America.

Details about these evaluations are hazy, though, and Mr. Bobkiewicz has said only that staff evaluations of services and how they relate to Council goals and the strategic plan would be presented as a “numeric score.” Mr. Bobkiewicz did not say how much staff time these evaluations and compilations would take, but he did say the preliminary work would be done in-house. A consultant, he said, might be hired for the processes in the fall, “to make sure people feel like they’re heard. … This is a difficult process, and there is probably a need for a consultant.”

Despite the likelihood of an arduous and potentially contentious budget season, Mr. Bobkiewicz appears to remain optimistic about the residents of Evanston. “What can we do that is better and smarter? People in Evanston are really smart.” A dialogue, he adds, “can’t be done in a vacuum. We’ll be out there – at the grocery stores, the Farmers’ Market and other community events to find out what people want.”