At its Oct. 6 meeting, City Council’s Rules Committee, composed of all nine aldermen and the Mayor, received a report from City staff outlining the progress Evanston made toward reaching its stated City goals. The report showed progress across the board but one goal was necessarily unsettled.
Financial policy and debt service, a 2014 goal, was the most unsettled for two reasons. First, with budget season just now approaching, altered policies have not yet been put into practice. Second, the looming capital project anticipated to cost in the $18 million range, the Robert Crown Center renovation, awaits. As a result, Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons said there is “no need to update [this goal] until 2016, assuming Robert Crown goes forward.”
One policy change is moving to a fund reserve sufficient to cover not one month of operations, as is the current policy, but two months. Also, the City seeks to continue to limit capital debt – debt created when the City issues long-term bonds to cover large capital expenses such as the Robert Crown Center project – and proceed on more pay-as-you-go schedule. Until recently the City used bonded debt to pay for expenses that were more routine than “capital” such as street resurfacing. In the last two years, however, smaller capital projects have been funded from the General Fund, the City’s main operating fund.
It will take a full budget season, maybe more, for Council to learn whether the altered policy, requiring budget cuts or increased revenue in order to build up reserves and pay for expenses that in the past was covered by borrowed money. Mr. Bobkiewicz said the proposed 2015 budget will be released on Oct. 10 on the City’s website. It is expected to contain budget cuts in most City departments to allow for the accumulation of reserves and pay-as-you-go capital projects without general revenue tax hikes.
“The goal is to present a flat levy for pension, debt service and operations,” said Mr. Lyons. The City is looking to add “less unabated GO [general obligation bond] debt than in 2014, even though the Crown design is included,” he added. One way to accomplish this is to allow the City’s parking fund, flush with cash from meters and parking garage revenue, to pay some street resurfacing costs. Portions of streets served by parking meters generate revenue from pavement next to those meters, he said, allowing the parking fund to pay for that pavement.
As for the Crown Center itself, Mr. Lyons said, “I think Council will be excited about some of the [proposed] designs” when they are revealed within the next few weeks. The “design-build” request for proposal efforts did not produce the “unique ideas” that the committee process has produced, he said. The plans will call for a modest expansion in gym space while keeping current amenities.
Streets and Facilities
Council’s streets and facilities 2014 goals focused on street condition first and foremost, using a 0-65 “surface condition” scale to rate all streets. The City’s goal was to address all streets rated poor (40-50) and very poor (under 40) within three years.
“After 2015, all streets rated less than 40 or very poor will be resurfaced. Recommendations for 2016 and beyond will focus on streets between 40 and 50,” said Public Works Director Suzette Robinson in her presentation to Council. Streets are resurfaced under two City programs – the Capital Improvement Program and the Motor Fuel Tax program. Ms. Robinson said thousands of “square yards” of street surface have been resurfaced, including some in every ward. Efforts are made to replace water mains while resurfacing in order to reduce impact and complete two projects at once.
Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, asked for a map showing streets resurfaced and slated for resurfacing, since the presentation did not include a map.
Evanston is “on pace to exceed last year’s new businesses” opening, said Johanna Nyden, the City’s Economic Development Division Manager. New businesses have announced more than 300 new jobs, many in the new restaurants, she said.
“Thanks to Northwestern, there has been quite a bit of commercial construction activity” in the City, Ms. Nyden said – more than $150 million. Office vacancy sits at 8.7% when the City would like to see between 5 and 7%, she said, citing the 1007 Church St. building, at Church Street and Oak Avenue, as a large contributor to the vacancy figure. Retail vacancy is a more troubling 9.3%, according to her report, though still not what staff considers high. She said the Dempster-Dodge Shopping Center, recently sold, should result in a significant decrease in that number, as space there is leased.
Both former Dominick’s grocery store spaces in Evanston are now leased to new tenants, she said, removing Evanston from the list of communities staring at Dominick’s shells.
Other City activities included $2.9 million to the Main/Chicago developer for a single floor of office space in a proposed new building there, Ms. Nyden said.
The City’s Director of Health, Evonda Thomas-Smith, said the City is working to correct a “lack of connecting the dots for families,” and “a lack of intentionality in case management.” Absorbing the clients and duties of Evanston Township and providing those services allows for a less siloed approach. She said the department will continue to work to “connect the dots to create some stabilization for at risk families.”
The City continues to replace water mains and sewer lines according to plan, said Dave Stoneback, the City’s Director of Utilities. The goal, he said, is to replace 1% of water mains and sewer mains each year, translating to about 1.5 miles of water main and 1.4 miles of sewer.
This year, the City for the first time experimented with lining water mains rather than replacing them entirely, a process used for sewer lines successfully over the past several years. Lining allows the City to inject an aged water pipe with a cured-in-place epoxy that hardens into a liner. “We have found it successful and much less disruptive,” said Mr. Stoneback, because lining does not require the entire length of the pipe to be dug up and replaced. Lining also costs 35% less than full replacement, he said.
The City met its 1.5-mile water main goal, he said. As for sewers, the City rehabilitated 2.9 miles of sewer pipe, about double its annual goal, Mr. Stoneback said. He expects to meet the goal again in 2015, with water-main replacement tied to street resurfacing.