On Nov. 9, City Council discussed three changes to the City’s proposed budget for fiscal year starting Jan. 1, 2016: increasing the amount to fund police and firefighter pensions by $100,000; increasing staff to assist in reducing violence in the community; and providing funding for neighborhoods impacted by Evanston Plaza and Main Street Commons.

After eliminating interfund transfers, the total budgeted expenses for fiscal year 2016, excluding the library, are $243.2 million. The proposed budget includes an increase of $800,000 in property taxes, or a 2% increase in the City’s share of property taxes, to accommodate spending on police and fire fighter pensions. “There are no other proposed tax or fee increases,” City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said in the budget documents.

The City’s budget is still subject to uncertainty because the State has not yet adopted a budget and legislation is pending that, if enacted, would negatively impact the City’s financial position.

At the start of the Nov. 9 meeting, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl reported that even if the State increases income taxes by 1%, that the State will have between $5 billion and $8 billion of debt and that the way being considered to pay off that debt is to take some of the local government distributive fund. “Our budget looks all right at the moment,” say the Mayor, “but what’s in the offing does not look good at all.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz echoed these comments. “Only bad news continues to come forward,” he said. “We’re still concerned about this coming year.”

Adding $100,000 to the Pensions

Mayor Tisdahl proposed increasing the amount paid to fund the police and firefighter pensions by $100,000. The proposed budget calls for the City to contribute about $9.4 million to the police pension fund and about $7.4 million to the firefighter pension fund. On a combined basis this is about $1.7 million more than last year. The City’s new actuary recommended that increase primarily as a result of using a new mortality table to estimate future pension liabilities.

Mayor Tisdahl said she was making her proposal primarily because one of the reasons Fitch and Moody’s gave the City high bond ratings was that the City paid more money into the pension funds than its actuary required last year. The Mayor said she knew the new actuaries were recommending a substantial increase for next year, but added, “I think we would be wise to put in an additional $100,000, and then we would still be notable for putting in more.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz said the City could make this payment without increasing the amount of property taxes.

Martin Lyons, assistant City manager, said the City is budgeting about a $600,000 surplus, and paying out $100,000 to the pensions would take it down to $500,000, “so we could still be able to do that.”

Council members voted, 9-0, to increase the payment.

More Staff to Prevent Violence

Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, proposed adding five youth outreach workers in the youth services division. “I think we’ve made great strides and put a number of resources toward [addressing gun violence] in the past and their efforts are bearing fruit. But I think we need more.

“My proposal is to put ‘boots on the ground’ in a sense,” said Ald. Miller. “We have great outreach workers in our youth services division, we have been out in the community day to day cutting off problems, identifying hot spots, etc., but each of them is managing a caseload of 300 people each. I think if we put more people into the youth service division then we can cut that [caseload] down significantly.”

Ald. Miller estimated the cost of his proposal, including salaries, programing and training, at $450,000. He proposed raising revenues by that amount by increasing the fine for seatbelt violations, allocating the City’s share of sales tax revenues on the new medical marijuana dispensary to pay toward the salaries of the outreach workers, and charging an administrative fee for towing vehicles.

Alderman Holmes, 5th Ward, opposed the proposal. “I don’t know if there’s anyone more committed to getting violence stopped in our community than those of us sitting up here and those of us working on it every day,” she said. “Alderman Miller did share his concept with me, and my first question was, ‘What’s the plan?’

“It’s very easy to say we can increase and put more boots on the ground, but they’re not trained and they don’t know how to do that. This is very intense work.”

Ald. Holmes added, “We have got to have jobs available for young people to work. …  We need to have them trained. … We have to find some places for these folks to live, and do something about the drug problems in our community. We don’t talk about the things that are really happening in the community that is making this stuff go on. We’ve got to do something about that.”

Ald. Holmes emphasized that the community needs to be involved. She said “Evanston Own It,” which is being led by the pastors, is one of the solutions because it has to come from the ground up.

“A lot of it has to come from the community,” Ald. Holmes continued. “We have to do something that’s sustainable.”

Jane Grover, 7th Ward,  said, “Maybe it’s time to promote what plans we have, what strategies we’re already deploying so people understand the big picture of what’s happening in Evanston to address gun violence and substance abuse.” She suggested that after the big picture has been developed, “then turn that into a plan and strategy for what the next steps are.”

Ald. Grover suggested holding off on hiring five new people.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, noted that the proposed budget assumed the City would receive $50,000 next year as its share of sales tax revenues from the medical marijuana dispensary. If the revenues exceed that amount, he suggested the excess be put into a fund that could be used by the youth services division for any new programs it developed.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he supported putting a portion of the revenues generated by the dispensary in excess of $50,000 into a fund. He added, though, that if the City set aside additional funds, “We should be very specific and intentional about providing more job opportunities for that population.”

It appeared that Ald. Miller’s proposal lacked support. “The only way we’re going to get people connected to the necessary services is reaching out to them,” he said. “That’s why I think we need to increase staff.”

Ald. Braithwaite’s Proposals

Ald. Braithwaite proposed two things. First, he asked if a Neighborhood Improvement Fund could be restored with respect to Evanston Plaza, at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue, and if so what revenues could be allocated to that fund and what would be the allowable uses?

A Neighborhood Improvement Fund was provided for under a 2000 redevelopment agreement for the plaza, but that agreement expired when the developer went into receivership. Mr. Lyons said there is no revenue sharing agreement with Valli Produce, the new owner of the plaza.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said City staff took a look at Ald. Braithwaite’s questions from a larger perspective, whether there were neighborhoods that needed additional resources to take care of issues brought about by individual developments. He said staff recommended that the Economic Development Committee make a list of what the needs are and once a list has been prepared, then come back for funding citywide.

Ald. Braithwaite also said he wanted Council to establish the boundaries for the neighborhood that would be able to benefit from the Mainstreet Commons Neighborhood Improvement Fund. Mr. Lyons said there is a $200,000 balance in that fund.

Ald. Braithwaite also mentioned there were some infrastructure improvements along Main Street and in the Dempster/Dodge area that he thought should be addressed. Council directed staff to prepare preliminary plans and cost estimates to make the improvements, and to present them for possible inclusion in the City’s budget for capital improvements for 2016.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said the budget would be presented to Council for approval at the Nov. 23 meeting.