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Evanston City Council continues to wrestle with an approximately $3 million budget gap caused, according to City staff, by less-than-anticipated building permit fees and a slowdown in sales- and income-tax-revenue collections. At its Aug. 14 meeting, Council voted to take several steps to address the issue, but did so tentatively and with reservation.

The collection of parking ticket revenue through a well-publicized amnesty program is expected to bring in at least some of the needed revenue. The program, proposed by Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, at the last City Council meeting in July, encourages parking-ticket scofflaws to come forward and pay outstanding parking tickets. “There are millions and millions of dollars of unpaid parking tickets,” said Ald. Rainey at the Aug. 14 meeting. City staff estimate about $4.8 million in unpaid tickets is on the books, going back to 2010.

The “amnesty” extends only to late fees and other penalties. The original ticket fine must be paid. The program lasts through the end of September.

City Staff estimates the program will bring in about $100,000. This is not the first time the City has offered amnesty, and by all accounts the last effort was not very successful. Ald. Rainey said the previous program was not advertised well enough, and already the Aug. 17 launch has created some buzz on social media hinting at better results in 2017.

Other ideas for increased parking revenue will likely take effect in 2018 and not this year. Erica Storlie, Assistant City Manager in charge of Administrative Services, presented several ideas. Taking away free parking on Sundays would bring in $400,000 to $500,000, she said. Eliminating the first-hour free rule in parking garages, another $270,000.

City CFO Marty Lyons recommended exploring a different non-resident parking rate by increasing the cost for non-Evanston registered cars to park in Evanston parking decks. Without more details, though,  no estimate of increased revenue could be attached to the proposal.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, encouraged the Administration and Public Works Committee to reconsider raising the fine for expired meters from $10 to $20 – a change staff estimates would realize about $120,000 more each year. Ald. Wilson called the proposed increase “one of the least regressive ways” to add to City coffers available. The Committee flat refused to consider such an increase in July when an ordinance introduced at the committee level could not even muster a second – a procedural step necessary to open discussion and consideration.

Council also agreed to an unpaid vacation for City staff – a furlough day tentatively set for the Friday after Thanksgiving. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, who was on vacation and did not attend the Aug. 14 meeting, wrote in the Staff memo that the unpaid day off would shave about $120,000 off the City’s 2017 budget.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, objected to the timing of the day off. Nov. 24 is “very close to the Christmas holiday,” she said, and because it is toward the end of the month may impact an employee’s ability to make rent payments. She suggested Nov. 11 instead.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he agreed with Ald. Fleming and he was “not in favor of the furlough day.” He suggested going after other money owed the City through administrative adjudication fines such as property standards fines, dog violations and similar ordinance level fines.

He also objected to a proposal to change the number of outstanding tickets that result in a car’s getting the Denver Boot. Staff proposed lowering the number from five to three, but Ald. Braithwaite said households with multiple cars could easily end up with three tickets and not even know about it.

Staff confirmed that if two cars in the same household are registered under the same name, parking tickets attach to the name. Those with teenaged drivers shifted in their chairs nervously with visions of a yellow boot dancing in their heads.

No action was taken on the boot proposal.

The budget hole will continue to be an issue while the City waits to see how effective the parking ticket amnesty program turn out to be.

While Evanston faces a looming budget hole and considers furlough days and increased parking fees and fines, Council continues to fund projects without discussion and without any life safety or other pressing need.

At the Aug. 14 City Council meeting, aldermen voted on the Consent Agenda, and without any discussion at the Administration and Public Works Committee, to spend more than $371,000 to improve the patio at the Gibbs-Morrison Center at the corner of Church and Dodge; $190,000 of that amount will be paid through the Sewer Fund.

According to the staff memo describing the project, “The site surrounding the Center currently contains a small patio space and unfinished landscape and exhibits a variety of issues affecting its function as a public facility. The building’s roofing system drains through downspouts directly into the soil surrounding the property creating flooding within the building during significant rain events. … ”

The City purchased the building and completed rehab in 2015. The memo continued to describe the improvements: “In order to correct these deficiencies the City obtained consulting services to design a stormwater management system, outdoor programming space, maintenance access and improved site lighting for the facility.”

The cost of improvements to the patio and stormwater management will top $370,000. Meanwhile, the City stands to save about $120,000 by imposing an unpaid furlough day on non-essential City employees in November. At the same time, Council agreed to spend almost $250,000 improving the Dempster Street beach offices and restroom facilities. According to the City’s Capital Project Manager Lara Biggs, the bid price received this year is very favorable and the City may not get pricing at this level were the project to be put off a year. Council again passed the project on the Consent Agenda and without any discussion at all. 
                                                                                                              — Shawn Jones