The City is pressing Evanston first responders to join non-union employees and take non-paid work furloughs to address a budget shortfall they say is due to the pandemic.

City officials are pressing forward on cost-saving moves to meet a steep budget shortfall with revenues down due to the coronavirus.

But some large pieces are still unresolved – including agreements with the local police and fire unions for unpaid furlough days.

 At the May 26 City Council meeting, Interim City Manager Erika Storlie said she was encouraged at the progress the City has made so far with the unions.

 But the attorney for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, the union representing close to 200 Evanston Police Department employees, said June 2 that a meeting has not taken place yet.

Kimkea Harris, attorney for the FOP, said the union has furnished some materials in response to the City’s request for discussion on furloughs.

She said the two sides were supposed to have their first real discussion of the City’s issue today, June 3, but that meeting had to be postponed with police “extremely busy,” in the wake of the protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Ms. Harris said she was surprised at the City’s request for police to work fewer days in the first place, with the all-out need for manpower on the streets at this time.

Ms. Storlie could not be reached for comment, in both an email and a phone call, seeking an update.

The City’s local unions, the FOP, Evanston Fire Association Local 742, and AFSCME Council 31, signed off on four-year contracts in 2019 that called for a zero-percent wage increase that year, followed by increases of 1.5%, 2.5% and 3%.

At the time, more than a year before the pandemic, City officials noted that “the union’s agreement for zero-percent increase in 2019 and a low wage increase in 2020 will give the City the ability to significantly reduce and anticipate salary expenses to improve its financial situation.”

To date, the City has received a commitment of 10 furlough days from its non-union employees, for a savings of $630,000.

AFSCME officials agreed to a furlough day on May 18, and they have tentatively agreed on nine additional furlough days, City officials reported in their May 26 budget presentation.

In the case of police officers and firefighters, an agreement for 10 furlough days or its equivalent would result in savings of $900,000, officials said.

“Furlough days are a little different with the police and fire, with our public safety employees typically on a slightly different schedules than with office and other workers, more on a standard 8:30 to 5 p.m., schedule,” said City Budget Coordinator Katie Lewis-Lakin at the meeting.

In discussion after the presentation, Ms. Storlie told Council members she was “very encouraged with the progress that was being made with the unions.

“AFSCME is a tentative agreement, and so I’m very confident we’ll get to a final agreement very soon,” she said. “That willingness to come forward and help us out is truly appreciated, and I know that the police and fire unions are also looking very hard on potentially what they can do as far as helping contribute to solve this deficit.”

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, asked Ms. Storlie whether she had any timeline when agreements with police and fire would be reached. Ms. Storlie said she was hoping to have some concrete idea before the end of June. 

“Time is of the essence here, and if there are furloughs or other concessions to be made by those employee groups, it’s certainly less painful to them if they have a longer time to spread it out over,” Ms. Storlie said. “But it is a negotiation process, and we’re doing our best to make it move at a pace that both sides can work with.”

Joining the discussion, Mayor Stephen Hagerty said he appreciated that the fire and police unions understand “the gravity of the situation that we are in.

“But if the unions come back at the end of the day, and say, ‘Listen, we can’t give you any concessions in terms of furloughs,’” he asked whether Ms. Storlie had the authority to move forward on the issue anyway.

“Obviously that’s a possibility – it’s a possibility that we hope to avoid,” Ms. Storlie said.

 Mayor Hagerty agreed that it is a possibility he would hope to avoid, too. “I don’t think anybody would want that situation,” he said. “But I also know that time is of the essence here, and this [the City’s financial situation], is only going to get worse, not better.”

Bill Lynch, president of the Evanston Firefighters Local 742, could not be reached on where the union stands on furloughs. At the May 26 City Council meeting, Mr. Lynch did address the “shared sacrifice,” City officials are calling on employees to make.

During the pandemic, “We’ve had to increase our sacrifice, we’ve had to increase our work load,” Mr. Lynch told Council members. 

He told aldermen firefighters’ commitment to the City began at “the very beginning of this coronavirus, and we’ve been going at that very hard now for over two-and-a-half months,” speaking of the “tremendous mental toll” the work has taken on members.

As we talk about this, this budget crisis and talk about how we can be part of the solution. I would ask that as we look at, at this problem through this lens of equity,” Mr. Lynch said. “We don’t look at this as everyone is treated the same, but that everyone is treated fairly. And I think that there’s a difference there, because what’s fair to one group may not be fair to another.”

 In the budget presentation, officials projected the City’s revenue shortfall in the General Fund (which covers most basic services) at $10.6 million through the end of 2020.

That figure is based on an assumption of “continued major revenue losses through June due to the shutdown of the economy, and trailing losses through the end of the year,” officials said in their presentation.

For that reason, the City is closely monitoring the reopening decisions by community institutions and revenue projections from state and professional organizations. 

“The $10.6 million was our floor of potential revenue loss,” pointed out Ms. Storlie. She said if things do not return to some level of normalcy, with people patronizing local businesses and restaurants, “we’re going to see some long-term impacts of this until we have either a treatment or a vaccine, and we have neither of those right now.”

 On the revenue side, parking tickets ($471,000 down) and recreation program fees ($872,000 down) were the biggest loss leaders thus far.

Other revenues showing declines were hotel, liquor and motor fuel tax, all hurt by the coronavirus, staff said.

Current data show loss of $300,000 in revenue from those sources, officials said.

Bob Seidenberg

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.