After several weeks of wrangling by elected officials, City staff and community members, the Evanston City Council passed next year’s budget with a vote of 6-3.
Mayor Stephen Hagerty said of the budgeting process, “There is sacrifice across the board, in terms of programs and for our taxpayers, but good work has been done here.”
Aldermen Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward; Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward; and Cecily Fleming, 9th Ward, voted against the budget. Ald. Don Wilson, 4th Ward, noted his displeasure with some aspects, but said he voted favorably with respect to the work that had been put into the process. Ald. Fleming, in contrast, said she voted “no” because she was uncomfortable with the long-term sustainability of the City’s spending.
Ald. Suffredin said in an email to his constituents, “Budgets are collaborative and nobody gets everything that they want, but this budget resorted to a property tax increase before exhausting other revenue opportunities and I could not support it.”
The $319 million budget – the total includes interfund transfers – is balanced with both cuts in programs and services and increases in taxes, fees and fines. With these, the City projects a surplus of $233,000. By State law, the City had to approve a balanced budget by the beginning of the next fiscal year, which for Evanston is Jan. 1.
A key concern remaining in the lead-up to the vote was victim-support services that, prior to 2018, had been provided by Evanston Police Department. Those services had been shifted to the City’s Health and Human Services Department and City staff had been investigating the possibility of outsourcing some of those responsibilities to the YWCA Evanston/North Shore. About 80% of such services pertained to domestic violence cases, a realm in which the YWCA regularly provides services, thus possibly duplicating some City services. City Health Director Evonda Thomas-Smith said she was comfortable with the new strategy.
But some at the meeting expressed concern with the proposed arrangement and what seemed to be an increasing fragmentation and siloing of victim-support services.
Under the new plan, domestic violence services will be directed to the YWCA, mental-health-related services directed to Presence Health and sexual-assault-related services directed to Northwest Center for Sexual Assault (Northwest CASA). Police officers will take over death notifications.
Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, called the plan a “chaotic mix of running here, running there … There is all sorts of chaos created by this situation.”
Ald. Fleming added, “I have a lot of concern with the transition in this.”
Ald. Wilson said he was confident that the process would not be a confusing one for City staff and officials, but that he “didn’t want there to be confusion [for victims] in the toughest moments of their lives.”
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz proposed that the original proposal – eliminating three full-time victim advocates’ positions currently in the Health Department – be modified so that two of the positions would remain for about six months.
The remaining duties would be outsourced to the YWCA. The new arrangement is ultimately pending a review in 2019 by the incoming police chief, whom Mr. Bobkiewicz has said he expects to hire by year’s end.
Mental Health Board funding remained the same for the new year.
Ald. Rainey objected to a proposed $25 charge imposed on residents who consistently dispose of non-recyclable materials in their recycling bin, noting that neighbors or passersby sometimes randomly dispose of things in nearby bins and that sometimes people simply dispose of their waste in the wrong bin by mistake.
Council members noted that sanitation workers simply dump recycling bins into trucks and usually do not sort out the trash on their routes. The sorting usually takes place at a facility outside of Evanston. Public Works Manager Dave Stoneback and Mr. Bobkiewicz maintained that the disposal-stream needs to be free of contamination and that residents would be given plenty of warning before a fine was imposed.
But aldermen agreed that Evanston residents needed more education about the scope of the issue before the City should start imposing the fines widely. Mr. Bobkiewicz struck that aspect of the solid-waste line item.
Aldermen rejected another proposal from Ald. Rainey, this one a proposed increase in the City’s amusement tax from 4% to 5% on tickets on all for-profit live performances; Ald. Rainey said she believed theater and music patrons would be able to bear the extra cost. She also asked her colleagues to consider a subsequent 2.5% increase in the amusement tax, which would exclude school- and church-related venues.
Aldermen resisted, noting that many venues already paid significant alcohol taxes, and that additional taxes added up to more bookkeeping hassles for them. Ald. Rainey’s proposal, which covered only the initial increase from 4% to 5%, was defeated 6-3.
Council also approved a three-year agreement by the City to utilize Aurora-based Andy Frain Services, Inc., for crossing guard services; the contract is for $620,662 per year, with two one-year optional extensions.
The final budget approved by Council included a City of Evanston property tax levy of $31,539,995, up from $30,101,220 the previous year. That tax includes General Fund Operations, Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund payments, Police and Fire Pension Funds and the General Assistance Fund.
The Evanston Library Fund Property Tax Levy will be $6,887,755, and the Solid Waste Fund Tax levy will be $836,735.
City levies amount to about 17% of Evanstonians’ tax bills.
Several proposed measures generated animated discussion during October and November. Here is how they shook out:
• Property Tax Increase: 2% of the City’s share of the property tax bill, which is about 17% of the entire tax bill.
• Fire Station 4 will remain open; one police commander position will be eliminated. Four vacant positions in the Fire Department and four in the Police Department will remain vacant and not be eliminated.
• Mental Health Board funding was restored to last year’s level.
• Victim Services saw two positions funded for six months.
• Health Department: The Public Health Educator position will be eliminated.
• Parking rates, fines and hours will be increased. Effective Jan. 1, the parking rate at meters will be $1.50 per hour and Sunday will no longer be a free-parking day; meters will run from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday.
• Youth and Young Adult Programs, no change until next June. The proposed reorganization of the Youth and Young Adult Program division was removed from the budget. Deliberations and decisions about workforce development and the future of the program and its manager will begin in a few months.