Evonda Thomas, left, director of the City’s Health Department, solicits community input on the budget from Coleen Kelly and Rita Pope. City officials spent last week soliciting community input on the 2012 budget.

The news was not new and the sparse crowd was for the most part familiar as City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz repeated the City’s budget projections for fiscal year 2012 and asked for citizen input at a community meeeting held on May 6 at the Civic Center. A projected 2 percent growth in revenue will not be enough to offset projected expenditures, he said, so at this point the City estimates a $1.4 million gap in operating expenses.

In addition, much of Evanston’s public infrastructure – streets, parks and public buildings – are in need of repair, and Mr. Bobkiewicz recommends “paying cash” for some of these repairs.

In other words, rather than issuing bonds to pay for capital projects, as has been the City’s traditional practice, the City would use operating funds to pay some capital costs. He recommends taking $2 million for this purpose in 2012, making a $3.4 projected gap between expenses and revenues in next year’s operating budget.

The rationale for using operating funds – ready money – for some capital projects is to keep the City’s debt-to-asset ratio at a comfortable level. “We have over $100 million of debt,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said, as he presented slides showing some of the City’s deteriorating streets.

Although City Council has the ultimate authority on the budget, and although the budget for 2012 is not likely to be approved until the fall, it is almost certain that there will be a tax increase in that budget to cover the costs of required contributions to the firefighters and police pension funds.

The challenge posed by the City Manager to the community is to come up with an acceptable combination of taxes, fees and cuts to satisfy next year’s needs. He has several proposals: evaluating all City services in terms of cost and revenue; comparing Evanston’s 50-some City-provided services against those of other comparable university communities; and assessing those services, as well as proposals by residents, against both the City’s strategic plan and three of the 13 goals adopted by City Council last year.

Those goals are economic viability, environmental sustainability and the strengthening of the community, he said. City staff will also assess the services in terms of whether there are alternative providers of those services and whether there is opportunity for innovation in the service or the way it is provided.

Mr. Bobkiewicz says he plans the completion of the winnowing process by August, allowing residents and the Council to have another go at it in late summer, with a tentative budget presented to Council on Oct. l.

Engaging Evanston

Over the past week, City staff visited 11 locations throughout the City to solicit citizen input on the budget, a process called “Engage Evanston.” Over the next several weeks the City will continue to receive residents’ ideas, Mr. Bobkiewicz said. “Being faced with budget challenges is not new for the City of Evanston. I wanted to get input from the community now and over the summer,” he told the some 50 residents at the May 6 meeting.

Input at the Meeting

Residents offered both positive and negative comments at the meeting. Some praised the City for offering more information than was presented during last year’s budget cycle; some sought even more.

John Zbesko said he “commended City staff for coming up with new measures” to evaluate services but asked for even more information:. “Chandler-Newberger Community Center runs close to break-even, but some parts of Robert Crown do not.” Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “We haven’t approached it quite as finely in the past.”

Carl Bova had three suggestions. First he requested that the City “identify City-owned property, along with surplus and future needs.” Second, he said the City should consider providing or assessing “multiple-year information on highly variable expenditures, such as snow removal,” and then fund those expenses at a certain percentage each year, to even out the highs and lows.

Third, he said, “Develop a 100-year utilities plan and a 100-year plan for alleys, lighting, street maintenance and the like. Planning for these expenditures can increase the useful life [for such things].”

Responding to Mr. Bobkiewicz’s proposal to compare Evanston with other communities, Ron Fleckman said, “Could we look at cities that are comparable in income and in citizen satisfaction?”

Martha Anderson suggested that the City try to attract a Costco or Wal-Mart store.

Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey said near the end of the meeting that the City has been trying to attract a Wal-Mart store.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said that at the special City Council meeting on May 16, he plans to “provide Council with a subset list of community suggestions and other suggestions, coming up with 35-40 ideas and seeing how viable they are.”

Over the past winter, the League of Women Voters of Evanston reviewed the “impact of citizen participation in the budget process for the City of Evanston.” The study contains feedback from the aldermen about the 2011 budget process as well as recommendations from the League for the 2012 budget process.

Aldermen “stressed the importance of well-informed citizens,” according to the study.

Among the League’s recommendations were that Council and the City Manager keep a broad view in mind as they work through budget details; local organizations with specialized and expert knowledge should be encouraged to provide reports and recommendations to the Council on costs and benefits of current or future services; and that the City also address the issues of deferred maintenance, capital investment and long-term debt in a careful and balanced way.

Central Street Neighbors to Host Forum on City Budget

The Central Street Neighbors Association will host a public forum on the City of Evanston’s 2012 budget from 7 to 9 p.m. on May 19 in the community room of Three Crowns Park, 2323 McDaniel Ave. The forum has been planned to provide for a wide- ranging discussion of the current City budget and to solicit ideas for budget priorities for the next budget year.

In announcing the forum, CSNA president David Staub said, “”The City needs to know what residents think about Evanston’s budget priorities and CSNA is ready to assist in that process.””

CSNA said it will help facilitate communication of suggestions from the meeting to City officials.