What on the surface appeared to be a rather sedate meeting contained fireworks as the  May 29 Evanston’s City Council considered big ticket items while debating seemingly routine items such as Mayoral appointments to volunteer boards. In the end, Council approved every proposed spending measure, and all board appointments as well. Tensions over the perceived budget crisis continue to mount, however.

The Civic Center’s elevators have been a near-constant concern for months if not years. According to the City’s Bureau Chief of Capital Planning, it is rare that a full week goes by without one of the two elevators being out of service and under repair. 

Council faced a $456,779 sole source contract with Otis Elevators to completely “modernize” the elevators, to be paid for with borrowed money via general obligation bonds. Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th ward, objected not to the repair but to the lack of a coherent plan for the building as a whole. 

“I don’t doubt there’s a necessity to modernize, but I think it needs to be part of a larger discussion,” he said. The HVAC and boilers within the building will likely cost millions, and the entire capital needs of the building need to be placed in context for the elevator replacement to make sense. He was alone in voting against the expense, though at call of the wards (COW) Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th ward, called for a list of the top ten capital needs in the building. 

The Church Street harbor and south pier will be renovated, to the tune of $891,000, again in borrowed GO bond money. Ald. Suffredin asked how much the harbor and pier generated in revenue. 

The facility “generates a couple hundred thousand dollars” every year, said Director of Parks Lawrence Hemingway. The entire City aquatics camp runs out of the facility generating about $180,000, with boat launch permits adding another $20,000 or so.  The Coast Guard, Fire Department and City lifeguards all use the pier for rescue missions as well, he said. 

Ald. Fleming said she was voting for the measure because deferred maintenance ends up costing more money, but wanted to assure residents she did not place the pier ahead of the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment program or youth intervention, a comment she felt she needed to make because of the priority based budgeting survey asking residents to vote on which programs to keep and which to jettison. 

The measure passed unanimously out of the Administration and Public Works Committee, and on the consent agenda at full Council. 

The Smylie Brothers lease of the Recycling Center remains unclear. “We have a dialogue,” said the City’s Director of Community Development Johanna Leonard. The City has “continued to stress that they are still on the hook” under the terms of the lease, she said. The City “presented terms” and expects a response shortly. 

Meanwhile, potential suitors are lining up to make proposals. Monday night the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse and the owners of Peckish Pig both asked for permission to submit proposals for the building. They join at least two others, a rock climbing company and another fitness studio, who have also expressed interest. 

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th ward, said the City should leave the door wide open for any and all other proposals, including to lease or purchase the property. “One thing I feel really strongly about is it needs to go on the tax rolls,” said Ald. Rainey, encouraging the City to do “anything we can to expand the tax base.” The Rebuilding Warehouse is a not-for-profit entity. 

Ald. Rainey returned to this theme when the YWCA asked for a change in zoning to take over two single family homes it recently purchased at 1726 and 1730 Ridge. The Y will take these properties off the tax rolls, joining another building in south Evanston they recently purchased and confirmed will be exempt. Ald. Rainey said she fully supported the mission and programming of the YWCA, but removing the properties from the tax rolls takes costs about $50,000 in revenue. 

“That’s a hit to the schools. I just want to point out that every time we take a property off the tax rolls” there are budget implications, she said. “Everybody has to hear and know that. At some point we are going to have to draw the line with hospitals, churches, and not for profits,” she said. “I’m opposed, but I’m voting yes,” she concluded. 

Vacation rentals, many through websites like Air B&B, returned as an issue. One at 2001 Orrington Ave. was held, as neighbors claimed they did not receive notice. The applicant appeared, and showed proof that certified mail had been sent, but Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward and Chair of the Planning and Development Committee, said she already told the neighbors the matter would not be heard. She held the matter in committee for the next meeting. 

The second, at 1109 Garnett, met opposition because the property owner lives in Winnetka and is viewed as an outside investor. Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th ward, said the time has come to review the City’s rules and consider changing vacation rentals to only owner-occupied properties. For now, though, the rules permit investor-owned properties to obtain one-year licenses, subject to annual renewal. The matter passed, 6-3, but changes may be coming soon. 

On a related note, Ald. Fiske continued to oppose the bed and breakfast license of Stone Porch because vacation rentals pay a hotel tax but bed and breakfasts do not. She was alone – the license was approved 7-1.  

At Call of the Wards, Ald. Fiske waved a letter residents received stating Northwestern would no longer help pay for dumpsters for move out day. “Northwestern University can no longer financially support the dumpster program,” she read. She asked the Mayor to “look at the so called good neighbor fund,” a five-year commitment of $1 million per year from Northwestern to the City for projects selected by the Mayor and University president, to fund dumpsters. Stay tuned…