A public statement by City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz describing the reorganizing of some City departments has raised fears, particularly in some parts of the black community.  The May 12 statement said the reorganization plans are primarily a result of concerns about how anticipated reductions in the State of Illinois budget will affect the City: “Given the uncertainty of the State’s plans for FY 2016 and beyond, I believe now is the time for staff to develop plans for the City of Evanston in 2016 to better serve our community.”

Reviews and Reorganization

Mr. Bobkiewicz has begun an evaluation of City departments and staffing in preparation for the budget crunch he believes the City may face. The Public Works Department is being examined, cut up and possibly eliminated. The Water Division will likely remain whole but under a different department.  The Fleet Services Division will be transferred to the Department of Administrative Services.

The Public Works Department oversees, among other things, street and alley repairs, street cleaning, snow and ice removal and collections of recycling and yard waste. The Fleet Services division repairs and maintains City-owned vehicles.

 In response to an email from the RoundTable, Mr. Bobkiewicz said the plan is to “rearrange the functions of the departments into new, different departments.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz said in his announcement that he has asked Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons to oversee the day-to-day work of the Utilities and the Public Works departments “to examine how the services provided by both departments can better align with City goals and community standards.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz further said, “I believe this examination will result in the elimination of both departments and the creation of a new department or departments to better deliver these core services.”

Health and Human Services Director Evonda Thomas and Community Development Director Mark Muenzer will convene a working group to better align all City departments that provide human services support. The Community Development Department includes the building and inspections, the planning and zoning and the housing and grants divisions.

Police Chief Richard Eddington, Fire Chief Greg Klaiber and Parking and Revenue Manager Rickey Voss will convene a working group to review current staffing and planning in emergency management and report recommendations on needed improvements.  That group will “evaluate our community relations efforts in both the Police and Fire Departments and provide recommendations on needed improvements,” according to the City Manager’s statement.

Some senior staff members will assist Mr. Lyons in conducting his review. Others will take on additional duties or receive temporary promotions through August of this year while the departments are being examined, aligned and streamlined. 

Although the long-term goal is to streamline services and save costs to the taxpayers, one immediate effect will be an

increased City payroll, because the temporary promotions come with a temporary-duty pay increase of 10%.

 Disproportionate Layoffs Feared

At a joint Second Ward/Fifth Ward meeting on June 11, Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite said, “About a month ago it was presented to us that in 2016 there will be cuts [in funding] coming to the City from the State.” Cuts in public-sector jobs “are hitting blacks hard.  Concerns arise that the majority of the dark faces will be cut.”

Ald. Braithwaite told the residents present that one purpose of the joint ward meeting was to “give you an opportunity to understand what’s going on.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz said City staff are already looking at the FY ’16 budget. He said he is not optimistic about getting any help from Springfield, and he feels there is a Council mandate to hold the line on property taxes.

“It’s safe to say things aren’t going well in Springfield. It’s hard to tell how it’s going to turn out, but my sense is, it’s not going to be good,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. He added, “Council made it clear that the last thing they want to do is raise taxes.”

In January the State income tax reverted to 3.5% from 5%, reducing the State’s income tax revenue. A portion of the income tax revenue is remitted to municipalities on a pro-rated – not per capita – basis. These moneys are called local government distributive funds (LGDF) and, according to the City, have been used here for such services as public safety and public works.

Governor Bruce Rauner is proposing to cut LGDF to municipalities. The expected cut to the City of Evanston is $3.7 million.

As a result, Mr. Bobkiewicz instituted the announced reviews. The City will be concentrating its focus on livability initiatives, human services and on four major capital projects – the Harley Clarke mansion, a live theater on Howard Street, a downtown performing arts center and a new or rehabbed Robert Crown Center.

The Public Works and Utilities departments are the most likely targets for layoffs, given that those two departments are likely to be dismantled and reconstituted.

Residents at the June 11 meeting spoke of their concerns about both the City’s hiring practices and the threat of layoffs, particularly as they affect the City’s black employees.

More than one resident said Water Division employees are for the most part white and, most Streets and Sanitation employees are black.

“I’ve been here 11 years,” one man said, “and I’ve never seen a black face in the water department. We’re good enough to fix potholes but not good enough to guard the water.” Another said there is “one African American in the water department.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “What you do see is an apprentice program in the water department. We are working to make all the City departments look like the City.” Mr. Bobkiewicz expanded his answer in response to questions from the RoundTable. The Utilities Department staff is 22% minority, he wrote in an email, “with a higher percentage of Asian and Latino workers” than black workers.

 Some residents also said they were concerned about the future of Public Works Director Suzette Robinson in light of the proposed reorganization of the Public Works and Utilities Departments.

Greg Sams, who said he worked for the City for 25 years, said, “Budget cuts are going to hit the streets and sanitation division – and those employees live here. You’re going to get rid of Suzette. Water department employees do not live here. The water department makes money, but the Streets and Sanitary division makes no money except for [selling] garbage and recycling carts.”

The RoundTable asked specifically about the future of Utilities Director Dave Stoneback and Public Works Director Suzette Robinson.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said Mr. Stoneback “will continue to lead [water operations] efforts and his portfolio may expand to include other programs and services pertaining to the environment and natural resources.” Decisions about Ms. Robinson’s position would be made after the evaluation of services, he said.

George Mitchell, president of the Evanston/North Shore branch of the NAACP, asked, “Has anyone taken into account the economic effect of when you lay off a person from the City?”

“You’re absolutely right,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. “The hope is that we will use people more efficiently and not have to lay anyone off.” He added, though, “It’s smart to cut and lay off now rather than later in the year.”

In his email response to the RoundTable, Mr. Bobkiewicz added there has been no decision about layoffs yet, and such decisions “will mostly depend on the State budget.”

Also by email to the RoundTable, Ald. Holmes said, “My major concern regarding race is that the City staff looks like the community and I think that has  been improved over the years. …  I have stated to Mr. Bobkiewicz that we look okay Citywide but there is work to be done in some departments.  I think Mr. Bobkiewicz has worked hard for all of Evanston, but as we all know there is always room for improvement.”

Next Steps

The temporary assignments will be in effect until the end of August. Mr. Bobkiewicz said he plans to submit a proposed budget to the City Council in early October.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...