An “extended review” of Northwestern University’s proposed new athletic center by the Army Corps of Engineers will result in the loss of about $3 million in anticipated building-permit-fee revenue the City counted on in the 2015 budget, according to a midyear report presented by City staff at the Aug. 17 City Council meeting. City staff encouraged Council to fill the gap by implementing a furlough day for certain City staff, increasing parking-ticket and seat-belt violation fines, upping ambulance fees, initiating a hiring freeze, and transferring funds from the City’s health insurance cooperative fund.
Council received the report, but took no immediate action. Each proposed increase or transfer will return to Council in the coming months.
The City had budgeted receiving those building-permit fees in the fourth quarter in fiscal year 2015. The permit itself is expected to total around $4 million, but only $3 million was included in the 2015 budget. Concerns over lake infill have prevented a quick approval by the Corps of Engineers, however, and “The payment for the building permit is now anticipated to be made to the City in the first quarter of 2016,” per the staff memo.
“We did not know when it would come in,” said Deputy City Manager Erika Storlie. Accurately predicting approval dates and actual groundbreaking is difficult, she said.
The memo’s summary opened with, “The City ended the second quarter of the 2015 fiscal year in stable financial condition. Through June 30, 2015, there is a General Fund surplus of approximately $2.2 [million].”
Revenues through the first half of the year sat at “$44.2 [million] or 48.5% of budget, or slightly under the 50% target” per the memo. Similarly, expenditures “were $41,035,522, or 44.9% of budget.”
Highlighting the “Major Budget Issues” remaining, however, was the shortfall in anticipated building permit revenue. Building-permit revenue was $2.2 million, or 32.89%, of $6.7 million budgeted.” The City anticipated that the biggest chunk of those fees would come from the NU project. Fee increases will be part of the method used to make up the difference.
While the amount of any increases has not yet been proposed, Ms. Storlie went through the possibilities. The City is “looking at the possibility of taxing data plans” to make up for the steady decline in the City’s telecommunications tax, she said. State law caps taxes at 6% for cellphone and landline services, but the law does not apply to Internet-based communications or cellphone data plans. “The proposed budget for 2016 will include consideration of a potential tax on these data plans,” the staff memo stated.
Ms. Storlie then turned to parking fines, seat belt and child restraint fines, and ambulance fee increases as a way to fill the budget gap. She said Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve, would be the proposed furlough day.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said, “I’m having trouble with the furlough day. I’d like a different direction.” Taking money from employees’ pockets at the holiday season is not ideal, she said.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the City remained “cautiously optimistic, but we’re keeping our options open. Staff will “continue to move forward with fee adjustments and the furlough day… [and] hope that is all that we’ll need.”