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On Saturday morning, Oct. 29, City Council held a public hearing on the City’s proposed budget for 2017, which pegs expenses at $242 million, after eliminating interfund transfers. Residents raised concerns about only two budget items: 1) a proposal to reduce the amount of funding to the Evanston Cradle to Career (EC2C) initiative, and 2) the allocation of the $1.2 million in waste transfer station fees held by the City in a reserve fund.
Council members raised a handful of topics, including whether to increase fees to park in City garages and how to define the role of the new Equity and Empowerment Coordinator, and they posed a few questions about the police and firefighter pension funds.
At this point, there do not appear to be any contentious issues on the table. While four hours were scheduled for the meeting, the meeting lasted only about one hour and 45 minutes, and almost half that time was devoted to a proposed reduction of funding for EC2C.
Council members are scheduled to hold a special meeting, on the budget on Nov. 7, and they may take it up again at their Nov. 21 budget meeting. Council will be asked to approve the budget on Nov. 28.
Proposed Funding for EC2C
The City’s budget proposed to decrease the amount of funding that the City would provide to EC2C from $50,000 this year to $25,000 next year.
EC2C is built on the premise of “collective impact” – that schools, community organizations, business groups, and others can have a greater impact by working together to address complex issues, than working alone. More than 30 organizations, including the School Districts, the City, and Northwestern University are partnering in the initiative. The vision of the initiative is “By the age of 23, all Evanston young adults will be leading productive lives.”
At the Oct. 29 budget hearing, 11 people urged City Council to restore its funding to the $50,000 level, including members of the District 65 and 202 School Boards, a representative of United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, and heads of the Infant Welfare Society, the Childcare Center of Evanston, Reba Early Learning Center, the Youth Job Center of Evanston, and EC2C.
Suni Kartha, a member of the District 65 School Board and of EC2C’s literacy committee, noted that achievement gaps exist when children enter kindergarten. By working together, she said, the organizations partnering in EC2C can help to address the gaps and make sure students are not falling through the cracks.
Many speakers summarized the collaborative work being done to improve the literacy skills of children in the 0-5 year age group, and that of school-age children in after-school and summer programs.
Marcia McMahon, Regional Chief Professional Officer for United Way and a member of the steering committee of EC2C, said United Way has invested $75,000 in the preliminary planning phase of EC2C and is poised to increase its support. One key factor, she said, is seeing that the community partners are maintaining their level of support.
“The reduction of $25,000 is symbolic,” said Stephen Vick, Executive Director of the Infant Welfare Society. “It’s a symbolic move backwards, in my humble opinion.”
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl interjected that the City has been supporting EC2C, noting the City has expanded its 311 call center so the operators can provide information about the availability of social services through various organizations in the City, the Evanston Public Library is overseeing a text-a-tip program to promote literacy skills in the 0-3 year-old age group and is expanding literacy opportunities to young children, and the Parks and Recreation Department has included a literacy session during its summer program in partnership with EC2C.
“I think there’s a message that we’ve given strong support,” said Mayor Tisdahl .
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, moved that the City budget an additional $25,000 for EC2C and that the amount be taken from the City’s distributive share of the surplus in the Howard/Hartrey TIF fund, a TIF being closed this year. The motion was seconded and passed unanimously.
Allocation of Waste Transfer Fees
The City is holding $1.2 million in waste transfer station fees that were paid by the operators of the transfer station on Church Street that is now owned by Advanced Disposal Services. At the transfer station, garbage trucks bring in waste they have picked up at residences and businesses, and the waste is transferred to large semi-trailer trucks which then haul it to landfills. About 75 trucks come and go from the site each day.
Over the years, neighbors have complained about the noise, the smell, the traffic, rodents, possible damage to foundations, and potentially hazardous materials seeping into the ground and onto their properties.
The City has been considering how to allocate the $1.2 million. At a joint Second and Fifth Ward meeting on June 9, Rick Nelson, a member of the Environmental Justice Subcommittee of the Evanston Environmental Board, said the subcommittee recommended that the money be used to support the local residents. Neighboring property owners gave their priories and said they wanted to be kept apprised of any proposed allocations.
In late August and early September, the City conducted a survey to gather input to assist in deciding how to make an allocation. More than 450 people responded. According to a City report, 85% said they agreed with taking action to reduce rodent populations near the station; 81% agreed or strongly agreed with developing a process to monitor environmental impacts of the station on the surrounding neighborhood periodically.
At the budget hearing on Oct. 30, Mr. Nelson asked the City to be transparent about how it was planning to allocate the funds. He asked that proposed recommendations be made public as soon as possible so the public could review them and respond before Council made any decision.
Ald. Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said she and Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, had talked about air quality and soil conditions, and wanted to determine what sort of reports Advance Disposal was required to file with the State. She said she did not want the City to pay to conduct air quality and soil contamination studies if Advance Disposal was required to so by the State.
City Attorney Grant Farrar said Advance Disposal is required to file information with the State, but it is generally brief, suggesting it would not provide the information desired.
The dollar value of the assets held in the pension funds has doubled in the last 10 years, but the unfunded liability has increased from an estimated $145 million in 2008, to $204 million in 2016.
It is anticipated that Ald. Holmes and Ald. Braithwite will put together proposed allocations of the $1.2 million, and keep residents advised.
Police and Firefighter Pensions
The City is budgeting to pay about $20.5 million into the police and firemen’s pension funds in 2017. Marty Lyons, Assistant City Manager, said just under one-half of that amount is being paid to reduce the amount of unfunded liabilities.
The dollar value of the assets held in the pension funds has doubled in the last 10 years, said Mr. Lyons, adding, “but so has our liability.”
The unfunded liability has increased from an estimated $145 million on Jan. 1, 2008, to $204 million on Jan. 1, 2016.
Ald. Don Wilson (4th Ward) said this showed it was necessary to “aggressively” reduce the unfunded liability.
The unfunded liability has grown due to a number of factors, including changes in the assumptions on mortality. When the assumption about the length of time pension payments must be made increases, the estimate of the amount of funds needed to make those pension payments increases.
Another key assumption is the rate of return that will be earned on the assets held in the pension funds. In 2008 the assumed rate of return was 7.25%. In 2016, it was 6.5%. If the assumed rate of return decreases, it increases the unfunded liability and in turn the contribution required to be paid by the City.
At a City Council meeting held on Oct. 10, Mr. Lyons said if the City opted to reduce the assumed rate of return from 6.5% to 6.25%, the City would be required to increase its annual contribution to the pension funds by about $1 million per year.
In an Oct. 26 budget memo, Mr. Lyons said, “Unfortunately, the City will need to look at changing the interest rate assumption downward …” His memo did not suggest by how much.
One thing suggested in Mr. Lyon’s memo is to sell $100 million in General Obligation bonds and place the proceeds of the bonds in the pension funds. He said the City’s current interest rate on GO bonds is currently below 3.0%. Thus, if the City could earn more than 3.0% on the $100 million, it would come out ahead. If not, it loses.
An Equity and Empowerment Coordinator
The budget provides funding for a new position, an Equity and Empowerment Coordinator. The person filling this position will serve “as an educator, facilitator, and advocate regarding issues of access, equity, inclusion, opportunity and diversity in the City of Evanston,”
The City has outlined the responsibilities of the equity officer in budget memos, but at the budget meeting on Oct. 29, Ald. Holmes said she wanted more information spelled out about what the person’s responsibilities will be, who the person will report to, and whether the position will have any “teeth.”
Ald. Holmes said she was excited to have the position, and suggested that the person could look at equity from every angle, including race and gender.
Wally Bobkiewicz, City Manager, said “this is the only new position that we are adding this year. We want to set the person in this position up for success from the beginning. We really see the position as being collaborative across the organization,” but he acknowledged “there need to be teeth.” He said the person would report directly to him and have authority to act “through my office.”
The budget proposes to raise about $290,000 in additional revenues by standardizing the hours for parking meters to require they be fed in all areas of the City between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.
The RoundTable asked Mr. Lyons if the parking meters would be programmed to allow for parking for three hours after 6 p.m. to enable people to park their car and eat dinner without needing to leave a restaurant or theatre to feed the meter. Mr. Lyons said the City could program the meters to run for two hours before 6 p.m. and for three hours after 6 p.m., but the times would have to be approved in an ordinance adopted by City Council.
Mr. Lyons added that one thing staff was considering is the possibility that restaurant staff would take up all the metered parking spaces if meters were changed to allow three-hour parking after 6 p.m. He said City staff will obtain input from restaurant owners about that.
The proposed budget includes an increase in parking deck fees by $5 per month, which would raise an estimated $280,000. Alderman Melissa Wynn, 3rd Ward, suggested raising the fees to park in the public garages, saying the fees had not been increased since 2008. Mayor Tisdahl supported that suggestion.
A budget memo says the monthly parking fee in the City’s three parking garages is $85 per month, compared to $132.50 per month in Oak Park. The daily fee to park for up to 24 hours in the City’s three garages is $13.00, compared to $16.00 in Oak Park.
Some New Street Lights
Ald. Braithwaite said he would like street lights installed on Lake Street from Dodge to McDaniel avenues and in the area of the 2300 block of Greenwood. He said students walk along these streets, and lighting is important for safety reasons.
Ald. Holmes said she would like lighting installed on portions of Foster and Emerson Streets.
Dave Stoneback, Public Works Director, is looking into costs and whether Davit lights are compatible with the City’s system.
City Council will take up the budget again on Nov. 7.