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Since the City previewed its budget process a few weeks ago – including proposed cuts to or elimination of more than 50 quality-of-life/social services programs – much of the vocal response has been negative.

In comment at public meetings and in letters and phone calls to the media, many people have objected to the proposed cuts in certain programs and services; others, to an online and hard-copy survey seeking residents’ input.

Still, City Council has until mid- or late November to approve the budget, and there is time for input from residents, Council members, City staff and members of the City’s recently appointed Equity Commission.

The Survey

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz presented the community with a survey as part of a process called priority-based budgeting seeking residents’ input into expense reductions. He said he asked City staff to winnow City programs, using scoring guidelines for the program’s basic attributes, its alignment with Council goals and its equity. 

The basic attributes scoring included the following: 1) the source of the mandate to provide the program – federal, state, City charter or City ordinance or resolution; 2) the cost of the program and whether the service recovers for the City a percentage (from 100% to less than 1%) of its costs; 3) whether the demand for the service is stable or increasing or decreasing; 4) what other entity or entities could provide the service or whether beneficiaries rely wholly on the City; and 5) the portion of the community served by the program.

The Council’s goals in the Priority-Based Budget ranking are investing in City infrastructure and facilities, enhancing community development and job creation Citywide, expanding affordable housing options, furthering police/community relations initiatives, and stabilizing long-term City finances.

For “Equity,” the sole question was “Does the program benefit historically underrepresented or disadvantaged populations?”

City staff scored the programs and services using these guidelines and came up with the 54 programs that appear in the survey.

The survey, which is available at community centers as well as online at cityofevanston.org, asks residents to choose from the list 10 programs they would cut and 10 they would keep. It also allows residents to suggest additional cost-cutting measures. In the survey, the City has also provided information about the cost of each program. There was no information, however, about what the cost to the community would be if the program were eliminated – such funding for mental health and other social services, outreach to at-risk youth and victim services.

Because paper copies of the survey are readily available and because it is possible to use different computers to take the survey, it appears possible to game the system by the old Chicago “Vote early, vote often” method.

The survey closes June 7.

Public Comment

Mr. Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable the survey was “meant to be a dialogue. It was never meant as a ‘thumbs-up or thumbs-down’ document.” Yet many residents did not see it that way. Some have characterized the survey as “flawed” and a vehicle for “opportunity hoarding” or pitting valued City services and programs against each other.

More than 20 of the people who spoke at the May 21 City Council meeting expressed support for certain programs on the chopping block –particularly Mental Health Board funding, the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program and the Youth and Young Adult Division – and concern, anger or regret over the process and whatever outcome might result from the cuts.

Although, because of the number of speakers during the Citizen Comment portion of the Council meeting, each person was allowed 75 seconds to speak. The RoundTable obtained the full prepared statements from some of the speakers.

Oliver Ruff said, “I am pained and saddened to be before you to speak on behalf of programs that have a plethora of positive results. It is appalling and dismaying that there is a need to speak and lobby for proven, beneficial, and successful programs in this Evanston community.

“I don’t think that any of the 54 programs deserve to be on this list for consideration of budgetary severances. … What will be your replacements, at what cost, who will it affect, and who will benefit from the cuts? … The people in those programs have generally demonstrated skills, talents, communication, love for the Evanston community, and an unquestionable commitment in working with the young Black and Brown people. What more should we expect?”

William Jones, now 22, spoke of the importance of the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. “I started working when I was 14. I was taught life skills. I went to college and was a college athlete and graduated.”

Neil Gambow said he has “unwavering support for the youth programs. We have an abiding responsibility to prepare our youth for life beyond the classroom. Put aside any thoughts of   budget cuts on these youth programs.”

Sergeant Donald Knott said he had seen many programs for youth across the country and Evanston’s “Youth and Young Adult Program is by far the best program I’ve seen. This should be a model for every other city.” He said that even if the youth and young adult program is eliminated, the youth are still going to be in the community.

Jennifer Bergner, a social worker at Oakton Elementary School, described how a member of the Youth and Young Adult Division had intervened with two students who had difficulty with anger management. She said, “Youth outreach workers provide the vital service of outreach and linkage to the marginalized youth in Evanston.  These are often the young people who need these services because they have been victims of racism and inequity, have experienced trauma, have untreated mental health issues, etc.

“Outreach and linkage are services that are lacking in this community. School social workers are positioned to do this work, but the size of caseloads makes it difficult to leave our schools to do outreach. I personally think it would be fiscally responsible to expand these efforts as prevention for our younger people rather than decreasing the number of outreach workers.

“I’m concerned that the use of a community survey will be used to determine what is a priority. I think we can predict whose priorities will be reflected in the survey, and our marginalized youth will again be forgotten about. In my experience, Evanston is a loving community until it comes to deciding who will be the recipient of resources. … I would think that before making any cuts to youth services, it would be best practice to conduct an assessment of the needs of the community and the current resources in place. I would be disappointed for any youth services, including those provided by the funding by the Mental Health Board to be cut due to community opinion rather than a thoughtful process.”

Jessica Sales said that in a recent City survey, “Mental health was the primary concern.” She voiced support for “continued funding of the Mental Health Board, Y.O.U., Family Focus, PEER Services and Connections.”

Saying he was speaking on behalf of friends, Bruce King said, “You can’t stop the expungement program. It gives them a gateway back to the community, to building their lives.”

Dave Studeman, who said he has helped prepare corporate budgets said, “One thing I’ve learned is there is a difference between an investment and an expense. The Youth and Young Adult Division and the Mental Health Board are investments.”

Tracy Kurtzer said she supported the Youth and Young Adult Division, the summer youth employment program, the fire and police Explorers programs and the Mental Health Board.

Alyce Barry said of the survey, “What a terrible way to determine priorities. It has the potential for harmful, even dangerous, impact on some residents who are the most marginalized among us. Maybe this should be called the ‘Who Shall We Marginalize Survey’.

“The first and most obvious blunder is that the survey can be completed in paper anonymously so anyone can hand in multiple surveys and stack the results in their favor.

“A second blunder is in asking residents to decide about little-known programs, which I hope, that members of City Council know more about. Choosing priorities is exactly the kind of job that we elect you all to do. … This terrible survey doesn’t even get the job done. To do that, we’d need to know how many dollars to cut, and be able to cut programs until we’ve cut that much. The fourth blunder is the worst. It puts all programs on a par with each other. … I think this Council should be embarrassed to see what’s listed together here. Are we really a City in which youth programs and mental health are no more important than tree-trimming and Divvy bikes?” Ms. Barry concluded.

Projected $3.1 Shortfall

Mr. Bobkiewicz publicly warned the City Council in February, March and in April that a budget crunch was in the offing for 2019. The shortfall has been pegged at about $3.1 million. So far the City has not presented concrete numbers to identify the sources of the shortfall, except to indicate that cuts should come from the General Fund, the City’s main operating fund.

In March, Budget Manager and then-Interim CFO Ashley King and Senior Management Analyst Kate Lewis-Lakin showed projections for 2019 that included increases in cost-of-living ($1.6 million) and health insurance ($300,000) and non-personnel” ($650,000) expenses as part of a budget presentation to City Council. Coupled with a projected $1.1 million decrease in revenues in the General Fund, the projected shortfall totals just over $3 million. Ms. King, now Budget and Finance Manager, wrote in response to a RoundTable request for information on the shortfall, “All labor contracts expire on 12/31/2018. All will need to be renegotiated for 2019.”

Other materials presented to Council indicated that there would likely be increased expenses in other City funds: a note in one of the presentations that there is a need for an “additional $410,000 property tax increase in 2019 for the Solid Waste Fund, in order to further reduce the deficit in this fund. Ms. King’s response was, “When the solid waste fund tax property tax was approved in 2018, it was stated that there would be an additional increase in 2019. This will still need to be voted on by the Council.”

Expenses attributable to the insurance fund were higher this year, 2018, because of higher litigation costs, and it is not clear how many of the lawsuits are ongoing. On May 24, the RoundTable filed an FOIA request seeking information about costs associated with litigation but as of presstime had not received any response. The City is self-insured.

Ms. King’s response also said, “A detailed analysis of 2019 projects for all other funds has not been complete yet – but the capital fund is known to have unmet needs and the pension funds could be further improved.” 

On the revenue side, revenues from property taxes and State income taxes were projected to be flat, and revenues from building permits were projected to decrease. Projected revenues from utility taxes and “all sales taxes” showed slight increases in presentations to Council in March and April.

The City has also pointed to the upcoming retirement of the Washington National tax-increment financing (TIF) district, which should add about $1 million of property tax revenues each year. In addition, sales of water to various other communities are expected to bring in additional revenue. Morton Grove and Niles are new water customers this year. Skokie, long an Evanston customer, has disputed the pricing in its new water contract with the City of Evanston, and the City of Evanston has sued the Village of Skokie. Nonetheless, the City continues to provide water to Skokie at “a new wholesale water rate of $2.06 per 1,000 gallons for the Village of Skokie effective for all water supplied to Skokie as of 12:00 a.m. October 1, 2017,” according a resolution approved at the Sept. 25, 2017 City Council meeting.

Equity Considerations

The City has hired an Equity and Empowerment coordinator, Patricia Efiom, and appointed an Equity Commission, chaired by retired Seventh Ward Alderperson Jane Grover. “Pat has been on the budget team since the beginning,” Mr. Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable. “After the June 18 review of the survey results, an equity lens will be applied.” He added it is likely that some programs will be removed from the list of endangered programs and services and others, such as the firefighters and police, will be added. He said that discussion would likely begin at the June 4 Human Services Committee meeting.

Ms. Grover told the RoundTable the Equity Commission first met in February, after the budgeting process had begun, but added, “When we met last week, we agreed to make the 2019 City budget a priority. We’ve still got time to weigh in.”

Next Steps

Staff will return to City Council on June 18 with the results of the community survey and seek additional direction from the City Council. The next check in with the City Council will occur July 30, according to information from the City.  Included in this additional review will be a careful examination of each program or service proposed to be reduced to evaluate any equity issues of the proposal, the City said.

There will be another round of community input in September, and the City Manager plans to release his proposed budget for 2019 on Oct. 6. The City Council will then conduct a public hearing on the budget and take other resident input through October and November, before the budget is adopted in late November.

Budget Timeline

• June 7, survey closes

• June 18, results of survey reported to City Council

• July 30, staff “check-in” with City Council

• September, community input

• Oct. 6, City Manager unveils Proposed 2019 Budget

• November, City Council approves budget

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...