“Livability” is the theme of the City budget proposed earlier this month by City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, a change from “austerity,” which has been the mantra of the City budget for the past several years.

The proposed budget stands at $225.4 million, excluding inter-fund transfers. It anticipates a 2.2% increase in overall expenditures and is balanced, among other ways, by a 10% increase in the water rate, a new car-rental fee and a 1.2% increase in the City’s portion of the property tax. The City’s portion is about 20% of the overall tax bill.

No layoffs are recommended, and 5.8 full-time-equivalent (FTE) positions have been added. Some of these positions were added to accommodate personnel who migrated to the City when it took over the duties and responsibilities of the Township of Evanston when the township government was dissolved last year.  Over the past year, six additional FTE positions were added, though they were not in the current budget as adopted. 

The memo accompanying the proposed budget recommends resurrecting the Health and Human Services Department – abolished by City Council several years ago – to accommodate the present Health Department and the administration of General Assistance funds and to expand support services to vulnerable residents. The City created two new budget funds: a Human Services Fund to cover all the activities involving the City’s Mental Health Board, which recommends the allocations of funds to local social service agencies and programs, and a General Assistance Fund.

The General Fund, the Debt Service Fund, the firefighters and police pension funds and the newly created General Assistance Fund require no net increase in property taxes.

The Library Board recommended an increase of $718,000 for fiscal year 2105.                                                             

At a City Council meeting on Oct. 20, Mr. Bobkiewicz said that this budget, the sixth he has presented to the Council, “is the best budget that we’ve had.”

Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons added that this budget has no structural deficit.

Expenditures

Projected expenditures in the General Fund, the City’s main operating fund, are about $500,000 above projected revenues.

Personnel Costs: Personnel costs include a 2.6% wage increase for firefighters, police officers and other union City staff members. The proposed increase for non-union City staff is 2.5% in general wages; in addition, they would be included in a 1% merit-adjustment pool.

New staff members are proposed as follows: 1.5 FTE in Parks/Recreation and Community Service; 1 FTE in administrative services and 3.3 at the Library. The number of personnel in the Health and Human Services Department would appear to remain constant, with the addition of a General Assistance specialist and a medical billing clerk and the transfer of 2 FTE vital records staff from the department. The City has decided to stop issuing birth and death certificates.

All departments except the police and fire/life safety were requested to decrease their expenditures by 3% for the 2015 budget. The budget document states that there are no layoffs in the proposed budget and the proposed staffing level for fiscal year 2015 is 816.47 full-time-equivalent positions.

Debt Service: The budget anticipates $13,724,829 in expenditures for debt service. Approximately $1.4 million of that amount will be paid by funds transferred from the General Fund to cover an anticipated shortfall in the Debt Service Fun. The City’s budget memo says this is being done to hold the line on current debt-service costs. The main cost of debt service is the interest paid on bonds, most of them general obligation (GO) bonds issued for capital improvement projects. To help whittle down debt-service costs, the City has been paying for smaller capital projects from the General Fund rather than issuing GO bonds.

Pension Contributions: The City said it will use the 2014 actuarial study prepared by Tepfer Consulting group of Northbrook as a basis for recommending the funding amounts for the police and the firefighters pension funds.

Proposed contributions to the fire and police pension funds total about $15 million – $6,214,928 to the firefighters pension fund and $8,705,207 to the police officers pension fund. In the aggregate, those amounts are $4.3 million above the minimum contribution required by the State of Illinois, according to the budget memo.

Library: This is the third year that the Library Fund appears as a separate budget item. In the first year, the Library trustees decided not to request an increase in the levy. For fiscal year 2015, the Library’s expenditures are projected at $6.6 million, of which about $5.8 million is anticipated from property tax revenues. This represents an increase of $718,719 over last year.

At the Oct. 20 meeting, Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons expressed the need for the increase in funds to continue their “work that supports our colleagues and engages in a deeper way with our community, provides a safe space to learn and come together as a community – to talk about race, for example, and youth violence – and to reach out beyond the walls of our library.” Among the programs available at the Library are workforce development, English as a Second Language and citizenship classes, she said.

As examples of the work beyond the walls of the Library, Ms. Lyons said this past summer the Library expanded its summer reading program to three parks, and, since the beginning of the school year, 300 Evanston Township High School students have received Library cards.

Ms. Lyons said the Library’s work is performed “by a staff of talented, dedicated and, for the most part, part-time workers.” She said that the 3.3 FTE positions represent “no full-time staff.”

Libraries in Illinois are funded for the most part through property taxes, Ms. Lyons said, noting that the per capita tax for the Evanston library is $67.56. In Skokie the per capita allocation is $198.90, and in Oak Park it is $132.

“It is difficult to ask for money, but our support of our sister agencies, livability, the education of our children and the support of our seniors warrant what we feel is a reasonable request,” Ms. Lyons said.

At the end of the Oct. 20 meeting, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said, “I believe in the Library increase and strongly support it.”

Revenues

Revenues to the City will come from a combination of fees, taxes and charges for service.

Taxes: Revenues from basic sales taxes, home rule sales taxes, state income tax (remittance) and athletic contest taxes are all projected to come in higher in 2015; the aggregate projected increase in tax revenues – except the property tax – is projected at $1.7 million.

The proposed budget also includes a 1.2% increase in the City’s portion of the property tax.

In addition, the City anticipates revenues of about $70,000 from a new car-rental tax, to be implemented in 2015.  

Water Rates: Again this year, the City Manager is proposing a 10% increase in the water rate. This would be year two of a proposed three-year series of 10% increases in the water rate.

Anticipated expenditures in the water fund total $32,069,642, an increase of $8 million over the current year. The $32 million includes $18 million for capital projects, such as main replacement, tank painting and improvements to the water utility. Utilities Director Dave Stoneback appeared to allude to the need to replace an underground storage tank beneath a parking lot at Northwestern University, which has stirred some controversy, because there is no study that clearly states the entire tank needs to be replaced – about a $30 million project – rather than just replacing the cover for about $6 million.

Even with the 10% increase, “We still have the lowest water rate [in the area],” said Mr. Stoneback. “We have the highest sewer rate, so we’re in the middle when the two are averaged,” he added. He said the average annual charges for water and sewer for a single-family home will increase from about $664 to $685.

Capital Projects:

Proposed capital projects for fiscal year 2015 include improvements to facilities, parks, sewers, streets, water mains and parking areas. The total capital improvement package is $43.6 million.

Focusing on Council Goals

The City will “continue to take on the challenge of balancing our operating budget while tackling the long-term task of updating and replacing City facilities, parks, and utility systems,” City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz wrote in his transmittal letter submitting the budget to the City Council.

“Evanston is a wonderful place, in part, because of the great facilities, parks and transportation systems that bring the community together. These systems require periodic repair and replacement and given our tight operating budgets, developing a strategic plan to prioritize these replacements and upgrades will be an important task in 2015 and beyond,” the letter said.

Mr. Bobkiewicz also said that again this year the City will focus on implementing the Council’s goals, which for 2015 target buildings and facility infrastructure, water and sewer infrastructure, street/sidewalk infrastructure, economic development, at-risk individuals and families, and financial policies.

The proposed budget contains a 1.2% increase in the City’s portion of the property tax – which is about 20% of the property tax bill. City staff provided the following information about how the proposed increase will affect the tax bill:

The increase in taxes on a property with a value of $300,000 would be $20; on property with a value of $600,000, the increase would be $39; and on a property with a value of $900,000, the increase would be $59.

Budget Schedule

The City has scheduled the following meetings on the budget: 

Oct. 25, 9 a.m., Public Hearing

Nov. 10 7 p.m., Budget Discussion by City Council

Nov. 17, 7 p.m. Budget Discussion by City Council, if needed

Nov. 24, 7 p.m. Budget Adoption