City Council continued discussions on the City’s 2017 budget on Nov. 7, reaching a consensus on all items except for how $250,000 will be used to repair the Harley Clarke Mansion, an issue on which staff was not yet prepared to make a recommendation. The time periods that parking meters must be fed will not change, but monthly fees to park in the City’s garages will likely be increased. Council will not determine how to allocate the $1.2 million collected as waste transfer station fees as part of the budget, but will do so in the coming months.
A concern was raised about the $1.6 million in attorneys’ fees spent on the James Park environmental litigation, which is still at the pleading stage.
Allocation of Waste Transfer Fees
How to allocate $1.2 million collected in waste transfer fees from the operators of the waste transfer station on Church Street remains an issue. The transfer station 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 that then haul it to landfills. About 75 trucks come and go from the site each day.
At the Nov. 7 Council meeting, several people who reside near the transfer station and several members of the Environmental Justice Subcommittee (EJS) of the Evanston Environmental Board urged again that the funds be used to assess, monitor, and mitigate the adverse impacts of the noise, odors, rodents, contamination of soils, damage to the foundations of neighboring homes, and the health of the residents. The views are consistent with the results of a survey conducted by the City in late August and early September.
Jeri Garl, a member of EJS, referred to that survey and said a vast majority of the 472 respondents said they wanted a baseline study to determine the impact of the noise, odors, soil contamination, and the impact on health. She suggested that the City spend $100,000 on a preliminary basis to develop a plan to move forward in a strategic way, including drawing on the expertise of Northwestern University and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Ald. Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said she was very concerned about the health issues that might exist in the community. She said, though, that Advanced had “some accountability and responsibility,” and she wanted to make sure they were living up to their responsibilities before spending money out of the $1.2 million held in reserve to do what Advanced should be doing. She asked the City’s legal department to ask Advanced to monitor air quality, soil conditions, smell, and noise, and to provide quarterly reports to the City, and to ask Advanced to assess and pay for damage caused to roads and infrastructure.
Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, echoed Ald. Holmes’ comments and asked that the City prepare a map showing where rodents were seen by community members, and asked for the names of organizations that could monitor air quality. He added that a lot of the $1.2 million should be used to repair infrastructure, “particularly to help offset the loss of value of some of the homes in close proximity” to the transfer station.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the allocation of the $1.2 million is not dealt with in the budget, and that City Council could decide on the allocation in the next few months.
An Equity and Empowerment Coordinator
The budget provides funding for a new position, an Equity and Empowerment Coordinator. At the request of Ald. Holmes, City staff prepared a budget memo laying out in a little more detail how the coordinator would gather information and develop and implement an equity and empowerment plan aimed at changing the culture of the City’s processes.
On Nov. 7, Ald. Holmes said she was pleased with the job description of the equity coordinator, the phases of work defined in the budget memo, and giving the coordinator “teeth.”
“This is about equity in gender, race, age, and everything else,” Ald. Holmes said. “This is going to be a big piece for Evanston in terms of showing what kind of community we really are.”
Parking Meters and Monthly Parking Fees
The budget proposed 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.
In response to a request by Ald. Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, the City obtained input from many businesses about the proposed change. Ald. Revelle said the businesses’ responses were “overwhelmingly against the proposal.” She suggested that the City eliminate the proposal to standardize the hours of all parking meters and leave the hours of operation the same as now.
Ald. Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, agreed, and suggested that the City make up for the shortfall in revenues by raising the monthly fee charged to park in City garages from $85 to $95, adding that the fees have not been raised since 2008.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl agreed with raising the monthly fee. Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, asked how it would look if the monthly fee was raised to $100.
Marty Lyons, Assistant City Manager, said raising the fees by $5 would raise about $120,000 in revenues, so a $10 increase would raise an additional $240,000.
While the amount of the increase was not voted on, Council members appeared to be on board with the approach of eliminating the standardization of parking meter times of operation and to make up for the loss of revenues from doing that by increasing the monthly fee to park in the City’s garages.
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.
Legal Fees Paid to Law Firms
Ald. Brian Miller, 9th Ward, noted that the attorneys’ fees paid by the City to law firms have tripled in the last four years, going from $325, 879 to almost $1 million.
Grant Farrar, Corporation Counsel, said the main reason for the increase was the attorney fees paid to litigate the James Park environmental case. The fees paid in that case were $28,195 in 2013, $360,136 in 2014, $592,320 in 2015, and $660,300 in 2016, for a total of $1,640,952.
Mr. Farrar said if the City prevails in that case, it can recoup the fees. To date, the Court has dismissed the City’s initial complaint, and the Court is currently reviewing whether the City’s amended complaint states a claim upon which relief may be granted. If the Court concludes that the amended complaint states a claim, the parties will move to the discovery phase, which could be expensive for all parties.
If the Court dismisses the City’s amended complaint, then “it would be an important decision to consider whether the City would want to go forward,” said Mr. Farrar.
The City’s amended complaint, filed against Nicor and ComEd, alleges that dangerous substances, specifically fluoranthene and phenanthrene, penetrated water mains along Dodge Avenue “causing the contamination of, and threatening additional contamination to, the City’s drinking water.” The complaint alleges that the source of these substances was a natural gas plant located in Skokie and that ceased operations in the 1950s.
After the amended complaint was filed, the City’s Public Works Director Dave Stoneback, told residents, “The water is safe.” He added that any fluoranthene and phenanthrene in the water was well below limits established by environmental regulators at both the state and federal levels, and that it “is in such low concentrations that is not a health threat to you.”
In response to a question by Ald. Miller, Mr. Lyons said the attorneys’ fees have been paid out of the “insurance fund,”
Ald. Miller said, “My concern is we’ve had $1.6 million right now that we really haven’t seen. It’s just kind of been spent. I’d like to have some process going forward to make sure we have oversight, quarterly reports or something of that sort, on what we’re spending on outside counsel expenses and anything projected to come up in the future as well.”
A group called James Park Neighbors, is expected to present a petition at the Council meeting on Nov. 14, urging the City to remove water mains contaminated by coal tar, fluoranthene and phenanthrene.
Landscaping Street Corners
On another issue, Mr. Bobkiewicz said staff recommended allocating $10,000 a year to maintain the landscaping on 52 street corners in the neighborhoods east of the Dempster/Dodge shopping plaza.
Council may discuss aspects of the budget on Nov. 14. It is anticipated that Council will approve the budget on Nov. 21.