The tension in the air over drastic budget cuts proposed by the City Manager appeared to mount, as residents and later, aldermen, gave voice to their fears and beliefs about the future of the City at the Oct. 22 City Council meeting.
Reaction to many of the proposed cuts has been swift and passionate. Eviscerating the health department, eliminating cultural arts programming, diminishing Mental Health Board funding, closing Fire Station 4, outsourcing victim services and restructuring the Youth and Young Adult Division are all on the table for City Council to consider. (See stories on website.) Two other proposals that proved unpopular are looking for an outside operator for Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center and increasing parking fees.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said in crafting the budget he tried to balance the services Evanston residents expect with the resources available. “We cannot provide services without resources,” he said.
The proposed budget provides the amount of money that would be saved by eliminating the positions of Public Health Educator and Communicable Disease Specialist. However, neither in the budget document nor in formal and informal presentations did Mr. Bobkiewicz indicate that making those cuts would effectively dismantle the health department, cause it to lose State certification and perhaps make the City liable to return a portion of the nearly $800,000 of funds already received. (See Oct. 18 story by Kelley Elwood.)
When asked previously about the Health Department, Mr. Bobkiewicz indicated he felt that it is not vital to the community of Evanston, saying it is a “community standard.”
No one showed up to speak in favor of the proposed budget. Some came with support for specific programs that are on the chopping block. Some came in opposition to City spending or City policies in general.
James Park Litigation: Karen Courtwright spoke of the City’s mounting legal expenses in the James Park litigation. “It boggles the mind why we spend millions of dollars a year suing utilities when you also tell us the water is safe.” The City has sued Commonwealth Edison and Northern Illinois Gas Company, alleging the companies have contaminated the water around James Park. At the same time, over the past several years, City officials have assured residents the water is safe. The City reports it spent about $2.8 million in legal fees and expenses so far this year; the total expenses for the litigation top $6 million.
Health Department: Don Zeigler, chair of the City’s Health Advisory Council, spoke against eliminating the two Health Department positions, which threatens the City with the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Lynn Gettleman Chehab, a pediatrician at Evanston Hospital who also works at the Evanston Township High School health clinic, said the Health Department also spoke against the cuts that would cause the Health Department to lose its State certification. She said the City’s Health Department was responsible in getting flu vaccinations during the H1N1 epidemic that swept the Chicago area in the winter of 2019-10. She also noted that, should Council approve the proposed cuts, public health programs such as We’re Out Walking, Rethink Your Drink and the anti-obesity campaign would be eliminated.
Jean-Marie Freise said, “I think Evanston is an exceptional place – a place like no other.” She said she is concerned about the ripple effect of closing the Health Department. … “I fear that Evanston is slipping into mediocrity. Please don’t make these cuts.”
Mental Health Board cuts: Speaking on behalf of Interfaith Action of Evanston, Birch Burghardt, Board President, said, “What stood out for us was the 30% cut to the Mental Health Board funds. We hope you will not make those cuts – they will hurt some of the very vulnerable people in our community.”
Jessica Sales said she is concerned about how the cuts to the Mental Health Board will affect vulnerable of the community – seniors, hungry children, the homeless.
Victim Services: Last year, the City moved the jurisdiction of Victim Services from the Police Department to the Health and Human Services Department. Now the proposal is to eliminate the program altogether and possibly ask the YWCA-Evanston/North Shore to implement similar services. Joey Rodger spoke against that move, “Bad things happen to good people in this livable City. Families touched by violence need two things, she said: compassion and information. She said, given the many types of violence that occur, she felt the City’s Victim Services would fill that need better than would an organization that offers services only in one area of violence.
Gibbs-Morrison: During Council discussion, aldermen approved a motion by their Fifth Ward colleague, Robin Rue Simmons, to remove the proposed cuts to Gibbs-Morrison from consideration. The vote was 7-2, with Aldermen Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, and Don Wilson, 4th Ward, voting “No.”
Ald. Wilson said, “I think we owe it to the community not to take things off the table” at this point in the budget session.
Asked by Mayor Stephen Hagerty why he had proposed pulling the City out of Gibbs-Morrison, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “We felt there was one center that could continue to be operated with an outside operator.” He added he agreed with Ald. Simmons and has begun to work with her on ways to find the money to keep the City operating the center.
HHS Director Had Little Input About Department Cuts
Health and Human Services Department Director Evonda Thomas-Smith said neither City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz nor any other City staff member consulted her about three of the proposed cuts to the City’s Health Department.
Taken together, the proposed cuts to five positions would cause the City’s Health Department to lose its classification as a health department and its State certification and potentially entail the return of several hundred thousand dollars of state and federal grants.
Director Thomas-Smith told the RoundTable she wants the residents of Evanston to know that she is not responsible for all of the proposed cuts and she objects to cutting thee positions: Assistant Director, Communicable Disease Surveillance Specialist and Public Health Educator.
At the Oct. 27 City Council meeting, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, asked Ms. Thomas-Smith why she proposed those cuts. Mr. Bobkiewicz answered the question instead, saying he had to focus on cutting positions funded by General Fund dollars. He said there was a “”miscommunication”” between staff and the Health Department about the ramifications of the proposed cuts.
At the Oct. 29 City Council meeting, Mr. Bobkiewicz proposed combining the positions of assistant director and public health educator into a single management analyst position.
Ald. Rainey then asked Ms. Thomas-Smith whether one person could handle those two positions.
“Absolutely not,” Ms. Thomas-Smith responded.