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Water sales to other communities and expanded economic development here in town will be key to Evanston’s future, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told members of City Council on Oct. 15. Council members’ questions, however, focused more on the near term – crafting the budget for fiscal year 2012.

The budget contains a 7.91 percent increase over last year’s property tax levy. The City’s portion of the property tax bill is about 20 percent.

Council members did request further information about several proposed items in the budget:

•Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, requested a projected comparison of whether an increase in parking rates would bring more revenues to the City than would the proposed $5 increase in parking fines.

•Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, requested a memo about the City-owned property at 1817 Church St. For several years the City has sought proposals for a developer to create a museum or cultural center reflective of the African American cultural heritage in that area. A few months ago, however, an association of local contractors notified the City that they would like to set up offices there.

Water Sales and Economic Development: Keys To Future Revenues

Economic development is a major key to improving Evanston’s economic vitality, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said at the beginning of Oct. 15 City Council meeting. He said, “I believe the single most important thing is not only to be reactive [to economic development proposals] but also to be proactive to attract and retain businesses here. I believe if we are proactive we will have money to bring in to pay for the quality-of-life services [the community wants].”

In adjusting the fees residents will have to pay next year, Mr. Bobkiewicz described the balancing act among cuts in services, increases in fees and quality of life. “There is no single magic number [that is the right charge] for fees. … [But] you can’t cut back on so many services that you lose the sense of who we are in Evanston, the sense of place,” he said.

The City Manager also referred to a subject discussed in several meetings over the past two years: selling water to other communities. Since the City of Chicago proposes to increase its water rates, Mr. Bobkiewicz said he believes the City of Evanston can take advantage of that and attract some of Chicago’s water customers.

Municipalities that use Lake Michigan water have a certain allocation for usage. Most charge residents and businesses both a pumping fee and a distribution fee for water – even if there is only one charge on the bill. Evanston’s pumping charges are competitive at present, and the City has been in negotiations with other municipalities in the Northwest Water Commission to pump their water.

Asked how long it might take before Evanston could take on additional pumping, Mr. Bobkiewicz responded by email that the City at present has “excess capacity to provide water to two to- hree neighboring communities (depending on the size of the community) without increasing the size/capacity of the plant.”

Associated distribution costs would depend on the ownership of water mains, pumps and the like, he added. He also said the City has already begun and will continue discussions with “other municipalities, water commissions and joint action water agencies in the suburban market … based on this new round of potential Chicago rate increases.” Negotiations will be the next step, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, adding, “Given that Chicago contracts are usually 10 years in duration, this negotiation can be started in the next few months but certainly not finished in that time frame.”

Getting to the Bottom Line on the City⁳

After the Oct. 15 City Council meeting some residents raised a question about the amount of the proposed increase in the City’s portion of the property tax. The full amount of the proposed property tax increase to cover all City funds, they said, is closer to 8 percent than only the 3 percent increase proposed for the General Fund.

The City’s budget documents refer to a 3 percent increase in the property tax levy to be used for the General Fund and in other spots refer to a 4.91 percent increase for debt service and police and firefighters pension fund contributions. The budget documents do not show the combined total of the proposed tax increase.

By email, the RoundTable asked Mr. Bobkiewicz and Mr. Lyons several questions about what the proposed total increase in property taxes for fiscal year 2012 is.

After a series of emails, Mr. Lyons said the proposed increase in the City’s portion of the property tax in the City Manager’s tentative budget is in fact 7.9 percent: “”4.91% for Debt Service and Pensions, plus 3.0% for General Fund equals 7.91%. Based on the most recent actual levy data from previous years, the City makes up 19.6% of the total tax bill, making this 7.91% increase on the City portion an estimated 1.55% increase to the total tax bill.””

City Council has the ultimate authority over the budget. By law City Council must pass a balanced budget before Jan. 1, 2012, the beginning of the next fiscal year.