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A survey designed to gauge whether police officers and firefighters would like to live in Evanston – and what incentives it would take to get them here – showed that only about 24 percent of police officers and about 36 percent of firefighters would like to live where they work. The main reasons they do not, or do not want to, live here appeared to surprise no one on City Council when the results were presented: the cost of housing and the tax burden.
Alderman Delores Holmes, Fifth Ward, speaking at the Rules Committee meeting on March 4, said that she has been trying to encourage residency since she became an alderman. The survey was an outgrowth of that effort.
Responses were collected from 120 police officers and 76 firefighters – a robust response rate that showed a willingness on the part of safety officers to be candid and open with the City, said both City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and Seventh Ward Alderman Jane Grover. The candid responses, however, when set forth in open and anonymous comments, did not always sit well with Council.
Police officers cited a reluctance to live in close proximity to those they arrested, a sentiment the Committee understood. Several members were less sympathetic, however, to comments that criticized Evanston’s schools as “poor” or “unsafe.” Alderman Holmes called such comments “discouraging.”
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, pointed out that the negative comments, some of which directly criticized the City Council and City Manager, represented only a small minority of the nearly 200 responses. If someone were to stand outside a grocery store and ask 100 shoppers for opinions, he said, “three or four would have horrible things to say” about the City and the schools.
Police Chief Richard Eddington, speaking to reporters at a news conference March 8, reiterated Ald. Wilson’s point, saying only a small number of responses were critical.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, was not so forgiving.
“I feel like I support the Evanston Police Department 150 percent,” she said, adding that she resented any suggestion otherwise. She said she found it a “little insulting that no one came from the Evanston Police Department” to address the committee about the survey results. Union Local President Matt Smith of the Fire Department was on hand to answer questions.
The few negative comments seemed to overwhelm the Committee and outshine the positive news in the survey: A significant portion of Evanston’s public safety officers said they would like to live in Evanston if possible. Some already live here.
Incentives to residency here centered on taxes and property costs: Having interest-free loans and reduced property taxes led the way for police officers (with a lower overall tax load and down-payment assistance also in the mix), while interest-free loans, a reduced tax load and down-payment assistance led the list of incentives that would work for firefighters.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said the City should expand the incentive discussion to all City employees. He said he felt some employees were “a little out of touch with what’s going on here in Evanston” and added staff would “come back with a project” seeking to “greater engage all [City] employees.”
If the surveys are to be believed, with the right incentive mix perhaps a significant number of public safety employees could be encouraged to live where they work.