Citing proposed cuts in the City’s Health & Human Services Department (HHS), the Parks, Recreation & Community Services Department, and the Mental Health Board, members of Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL) said they are concerned that City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz’s draft budget for 2019 will impact vulnerable Evanston residents the most.

“No one is happy about the budget cuts,” said OPAL President Roger Williams.  And while many of the proposed cuts are significant, he said, “I feel the most vulnerable and poor will be impacted.”

Mr. Williams was among OPAL’s Board members to speak at a community meeting organized by OPAL on Oct. 18 at Grace Lutheran Church. At the meeting, OPAL members presented slides showing the cuts proposed by Mr. Bobkiewicz, focusing on three areas they feel affect racial equity. 

The RoundTable’s Oct 18 issue included an article summarizing the overall budge, and separated articles on proposed changes to the Youth & Young Adult Division and the closing of Evanston Fire Station No. 4.  This article focuses primarily on proposed changes to the Health & Human Services Department.

The Proposed Cuts Could Shut Down the Health Department

During a breakout group at the Oct. 18 meeting, Health Department Director Evonda Thomas-Smith explained how the proposed changes would affect her team and the services it could provide residents.  The City Manager’s draft proposes a reduction of $821,254 in the HHS budget, which would include eliminating five staff members.  But the reductions would cut even deeper than that. 

According to Director Thomas, some of these staff cuts would cause key services to be eliminated which would disqualify the City from being a State Certified Health Department. If City Council votes to cut the Communicable Disease Surveillance Specialist, which is a State mandated position to be certified by the State, “we would have to close the doors of the health department,” said Director Thomas.  The proposed elimination of the Public Health Educator would also violate State certification requirements and but not cause the Department to shut down.

Director Thomas discussed other problematic proposals in the HHS budget reduction. State and federal grants currently being used would be in jeopardy and unspent funds may have to be given back if the City’s health department is no longer certified by the State.

Eliminating victims’ advocates presents potential problems as well.  According to Director Thomas, a plan is being discussed to shift victim services from HHS to the Evanston YWCA which proposed “to provide the same services (as the advocates) for half the price.”  This would include the 24/7 crisis response which is currently being run by volunteers, after City staff were suspended by the City. 

“What about male victims?” asked Terrie Campbell who works as a program assistant for the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, Inc.  (CEDA). The YWCA is set up currently to service only women, said Ms. Campbell. She also  asked how records would be transferred and kept confidential if the switch is made.

“That’s another hurdle,” said Ariel Jackson, one of the victims’ advocates whose position could be cut.

The Vital Records Program is also eliminated in the proposed budget because the City Manager believes residents can use Currency Exchanges to obtain any personal records, said Director Thomas.  She said that the Assistant Health Director position, which became vacant due to a death is also eliminated in the budget draft.

Currently, the General Assistance fund, which is dispersed by HHS, is not being affected.

Residents attending the meeting expressed several concerns relating to the proposed cuts to HHS. The cuts would mainly affect women and children said resident Dickelle Fonda.  Another participant questioned whether these proposals were meant to “gentrify” the City.  A few others also referenced a possible “hidden agenda.” 

The proposed budget cuts are “putting the City Council in an awful position,” said resident Genevra Gallo-Bayiates. “Is there any wiggle room” in the HHS budget? she asked Director Thomas.

“There is nothing else to cut here,” said Director Thomas who said her department has already withstood a hiring freeze as well as cuts in training, supplies and out-of-state travel. “All cuts were proposed by the City Manager without input from directors,” said Director Thomas. 

Other proposed changes were highlighted at OPAL’s meeting as well.

Parks, Recreation, Community Service

The City Manager’s proposed reduction of $545,467 in the Parks, Recreation, Community Service Department would change operations at Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center.  

Gibbs-Morrison is located in the 5th Ward where residents are “still suffering without a school in the ward,” said Mr. Williams.  He said that the Center was “never systematically set up to thrive,” so it had few ways to generate income. 

Mr. Williams also referred to splitting up the team forming the Youth & Young Adult Division, which he said is also a “key” division,  serving vulnerable, low income residents. If these changes are made the “safety net is gone,” he said.  (See RT article, “City Manager Proposes to Split Up Youth and Young Adult Programs Division” for more information.)

Mental Health Board

The Mental Health Board protects and promotes mental health and welfare of Evanston residents by making funding recommendations to organizations that provide mental health services to help at-risk residents. The proposed budget would cut funding to the Board by $250,000, a 35% cut from last year’s level of funding.

 OPAL’s charts reflect that last year, $736,373 was distributed to many organizations to help provided supports for more than 5,000 Evanston community members, 2,200 of whom were low income and 1,243 who were Black. 

City Council is scheduled to meet tonight, Oct. 22, to discuss the budget.