Evanston’s current City Council is now one full year into its tenure after being elected last April. Under the leadership of Mayor Steve Hagerty, and with three new aldermen, the Council appears to be rounding into shape and gathering its own personality. Many aspects of City government remain unchanged, though.
This City Council, like the last, speaks often of a budget crisis and yet agrees to every spending proposal put forth by City staff [see sidebar]. The April 9 meeting began with a case in point – the approval of a contract with Infrastructure Management Services, a roadway consultant to assess the condition of Evanston’s roadways.
The main cost of the $206,720 contract is for “street pavement assessment,” said Director of Public Works Dave Stoneback. The City first did such an assessment five years ago and road conditions have changed since then, he said.
The consultant will send trucks around the City with lasers, and five or six cameras on each. They will do “non-destructive testing of the road base” by dropping a bowling bowl type weight on roads and testing the resulting vibrations. The result will be four different factors generating a street rating between 0 and 100. The consultant “takes out the human factor,” said Mr. Stoneback.
The City then tries to repair or resurface all roads with ratings under 50, then turns to streets rated between 50 and 60.
“We also plan to take a street sign inventory,” he added, using the five or six cameras to count signs, then place records of the signs into a GPS database. When the City changed street cleaning schedules, for the third time in a three-year period, the City guessed at the number. The new sign database will take out guesswork, he said.
Finally, the consultant will evaluate street markings such as crosswalks to help determine what needs refreshing or repainting.
The project will be paid for using General Obligation bond money – borrowed money that must be paid back, generally, by using property tax dollars. “In your opinion, will we save $206,000 in lost efficiency?” asked Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward. Mr. Stoneback responded “Yes.”
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, was the only alderman to mention the impending and assumed budget crisis. Given the City already has roadway data from five years ago, could the project be put off a year, he asked. “What if we pushed out whatever data you collected five years ago?”
“Sure, it could be pushed out another year,” said Mr. Stoneback. “But streets have changed.” Some streets could be rated 50 or under that were not rated so low five years ago.
“I’m not an engineer, but since 2012 I’m sure you have a list” of streets still needing attention, said Ald. Braithwaite. Given budget issues and available data from 2012, “I’d ask the Committee to consider holding this a year.” He was a voice in the wilderness. The measure passed out of committee 4-1. When it came before full Council, it stayed on the consent agenda and passed unanimously.
Next came a new ambulance for the Fire Department at just over $300,000, adjusted up from the Administration and Public Works Committee listed cost of about $292,000. Ald. Suffredin asked Fire Chief Brian Scott to provide “the reason why we have to do it.”
The new ambulance replaces a 2005 model year International with 89,000 “hard” miles on it, he said, which is the current reserve ambulance and will be auctioned off. A 2012 model year will then go into reserve as the new ambulance comes on line.
“Should we have three… ambulances on duty at all times?” asked Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.
“Optimally, that would be a benefit to the City,” said Chief Scott. Now, when the third, reserve ambulance is called upon, it takes a fire team out of service. “At some times of the year, we have manpower to put it into service” based upon staffing levels, he said. Only when all three ambulances are tied up does the City call upon outside ambulances to make calls. All fire trucks also have advanced life support equipment and all firefighters are trained paramedics, “a big benefit we need to focus on here,” he added. Outside ambulance calls are rare.
No one voted against a new ambulance, and the matter passed on the consent agenda.
The closest vote came on a measure that actually increases City revenue, however slightly: the rollout of the new taxicab coupon and debit card program. The City reimbursed seniors for 60% of the cost of taxi rides around Evanston using a paper coupon turned in by cabdrivers for reimbursement. The program has $115,000 budgeted in 2018.
The new program shifts to a 50-50 reimbursement program and introduces a “transit debit card” usable for any form of ground transportation, including Lyft or Uber rideshare services, PACE, and Amtrak. It also eliminates the geographic restriction in the prior program.
Council also voted to increase the cost of paper coupons from $4 to $5 each. The entire coupon is worth $10, said the City’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Audrey Thompson. Bumping the contribution up to $5 matches the 50-50 debit card split. “We want to be fair,” she said.
“A constituent reached out to me and said [the increase] would be a hardship to them,” said Ald. Suffredin, who then voted “No.” He was joined by Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward.
Council signaled possible major changes to the City’s Administrative Adjudication program. Most Tuesdays and Thursdays the City holds administrative court in the Civic Center to hear “C-tickets,” ordinance violations ranging from marijuana possession to building code violations, as well as parking tickets and other minor infractions. Cases are heard by Administrative Law Judges hired by the city on a contract basis.
Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, questioned the program, asking if it is actually cost-effective. “The whole issue of administrative adjudication is ripe for further discussion,” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.
In 2017 according to the staff report, the program cost about $188,000 to collect about $160,000. In 2018, according to the report, the program should raise $262,000 at a cost of $232,000.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, not satisfied with the staff report, asked for more detailed numbers. “I would like” a report setting out, “here are all administrative adjudication expenses, here is all the revenue it generates…. there’s no way. I can’t tell” whether the program saves the City money, she said. “I really want to know how much that is so I can know if it’s worth having administrative adjudication. Is it worth doing? Or should we go out to Skokie?” she asked. If the program is eliminated, all contested C-tickets would go to the Skokie courthouse.
“Clearly it’s close now based on the revenue that’s attributed to it,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. “What are we really gaining through the process? It is worth our time to explore it further.”
The current City Council then revived a suggestion that has been studied at least twice before – a fence atop the Sherman Avenue garage to deter suicide attempts. Referencing “another incident” lasting four or five hours after which Evanston first responders literally talked someone off the ledge, Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “Clearly something needs to be done on the roof of the Sherman Avenue parking garage.”
“Two times ago we reached out to experts and they were inconclusive” as to whether a fence might help or cause further damage, said Mr. Bobkiewicz. If one fence is erected, the City might then need to address all other garages, most immediately the Maple Avenue garage. Further, just walking down one level could skirt the fence. Instead of a fence, he said the City also considered netting designed to catch jumpers.
He said expert opinion may have changed in the years since the matter was last considered. A fence then would have cost about $25,000, he said.
Ald. Rainey said the research should be updated. We need to “reach out into the community and see what is out there,” she said. Mr. Bobkiewicz said staff would “refresh” the research conducted last time, and return with a report in May.