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Several weeks ago, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz signaled that he would begin the budget process far earlier than ever before in his 27 years in local government. March 19 – a full seven months before the budget is due – he made good on his statement, bringing forth a memo on 2019 budget projections and a “priority-based” budget exercise for staff and Council leading up to October’s final budget.
Preliminary budget numbers show a projected $3.06 million deficit, according to the staff memo. The number does not include significant capital needs, though, and as a result Mr. Bobkiewicz said “this is not a $3 million deficit. This is a $6 million, or $11 million” deficit. “This building [the Civic Center] will make the Robert Crown Center look like a small shed.”
The Civic Center was only one of several emerging and dire capital needs, including the Police and Fire Department headquarters building. “We cannot continue to completely debt-finance capital needs,” he said, meaning the regular budget needs a significant influx of funds dedicated to capital projects.
To prepare for the budget crisis, staff will analyze every item in the budget and list services by priority, said interim City Chief Financial Officer Ashley King. Council will then look at the staff list and adjust it accordingly. Ms. King said that the last time Evanston engaged in this process was 2012. The City “will also look at all of this through an equity lens,” she added, asking, “Does this program specifically address issues of equity in the City of Evanston?”
The City expects to begin public input and Council workshops to prioritize City services beginning April 30, using all or most of May for online and other opportunities for public input. On May 29, Council will review the priority list anew, complete with public comments.
Staff then expects to compile all data and comments for a final presentation to Council on June 29, then take Council comments and prepare the 2019 budget in time for formal presentation of the draft budget Oct. 6. Council will then finalize the budge before the end of October.
“I am going to propose we stop doing” many things and providing some services the City now provides, said Mr. Bobkiewicz. “People are going to be angry.”
The writing has been on the wall for some time now – the current budget, slipping sales tax revenue caused by ever- increasing online purchasing, increasing personnel costs and pension contributions, fluctuating property taxes (due to the housing crisis and foreclosure bubble), and unpredictable building permit fees all impact the budget.
Capital needs – deferred maintenance – will eventually catch up, as it did with the Harley Clarke Mansion. According to Mr. Bobkiewicz, this all means either increased taxes, and “Evanston feels overtaxed” already, he said, or cuts in services.
The process begins now, and it appears as if it is going to be painful.