Residents raised some pointed questions about past City spending decisions at an early budget hearing at Three Crowns on Oct. 10. Photo by Bob Seidenberg

Residents at a joint 6th and 7th Ward meeting on Oct. 10 raised some pointed questions about past City spending decisions at an early airing of the City’s 2020-21 budget.

About 30 residents showed up at the meeting held at the Three Crowns Park Retirement Community in northwest Evanston – some of them activists from other wards – at which City budget officials Hitesh Desai and Kate Lewis-Lakin presented an overview of the budget released Oct. 4.

The total $317 million budget includes an additional $1.5 million in sales tax revenue approved recently by the Evanston City Council, hiking the local sales tax on retail items, including restaurant meals, from 1 to 1.25%.

The increase pushes the total sales tax rate to 10.25% – the same as Chicago, but higher than some surrounding communities, including Wilmette.

Some of the other revenue generators proposed include a recreational cannabis tax and an increase in the amusement tax on movies and other activities, from 4% to 5%.

During audience discussion, Sixth Ward resident Constance Porteous asked officials whether they had taken into account increases in parking fees, a measure taken to balance the budget last year, and its effect on activities covered by the amusement tax.

Ms. Porteous said she had plans to go out to dinner the following night but would not be doing so in Evanston because of the added parking costs

“I think you really have to balance whether you’re going to get the money from the amusement tax, but it’s going to be offset by the fact that I’m not coming, that I’m not going to pay that parking tax,” she said, asking whether the City had conducted any study of the issue.

Mr. Desai maintained that officials “had no lack of details,” in their study of the parking fees and rates and their impact.  He said the changes also took into account what was occurring in Chicago and the private sector.

In addition, he pointed to the City’s costs in operating three public parking garages, “so we have to have some kind of service or ability to recoup some of those big capital costs,” and also fund other upgrades.

Several residents challenged officials’ statement that the City is finishing up with the Robert Crown Community Center project, and that that cost will go away next year.

There is more to the story, said Michael Vasilko, one of a group of residents that has been critical of the escalated spending on the project, once projected to come in between $18 million and $30 million.

“We’re going to be paying $2 to $3 million for the next 25 years on the debt service to pay for the building,” Mr. Vasilko said.

Mr. Desai explained that when officials said this is the final year of construction spending on the project, “what we meant was the construction was over.”

“Yes, you’re right in the sense,” he told Mr. Vasilko, “that we have borrowed the money, we have issued the debt,” and that the City will have to pay the bonds off.

Declaring that construction is done, observed Sixth Ward resident Jeff Smith at the meeting, is like saying “your tuition payments are done, you’ve graduated,” when “you’ve got 25 years of tuition loans” ahead of you.

Doreen Price, another resident, raised concern about legal expenses. “We need the government run in a way where they are not beating up on people and causing problems that Legal has to defend,” she said.

Carl Bova, another longtime resident, pointed out the legal fees the City paid out in a contamination suit in James Park as an example of the greater checks on decisions.

Earlier this summer, officials agreed to drop their long running environmental lawsuit against NiCor and ComEd after spending more than $8 million.

“I would like to know who in particular was the driver that perpetuated that litigation for such a long period of time when there was virtually no evidence to support you would be successful,” Mr. Bova asked officials.

Sixth Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin stepped in for officials on that, agreeing with Mr. Bova on that point.

Ald. Suffredin, not on the Council when the suit was initiated, said there was a complete lack of oversight on the issue and how much it cost.

“As it continued on, it was like, ‘Well, we’ve come this far.’ It should never have started,” he said. “We lost that fight when we entered into it.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.