Northwestern University is exempt from paying property taxes to the City based on an amendment to its State charter in 1855.

But an aldermanic candidate said at a forum March 13 that, if elected, she would work with colleagues to get the University to step up its contributions. 

Clare Kelly, a longtime Spanish teacher at Evanston Township High School and lifelong First Ward resident challenging incumbent Alderman Judy Fiske in the northeast First Ward, was taking part in a candidates forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Evanston for candidates in the First and Third Wards.

The candidates were asked about the City’s budget and what steps they would take to improve Evanston’s financial status.

Ms. Kelly said, “We need a strong steward with a detail-oriented eye who will scrutinize the budget. We have to stop being spoon-fed the information from our upper management – we should be getting monthly financial reports,” she said.

As for Northwestern, Ms. Kelly said, “I’m positive that if I am elected I will collaborate with my colleagues and with Northwestern to ensure that Northwestern contributes more to the City through a PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] program or through other programs. All this will help us balance the budget – no more tax hikes.”

In response to Ms. Kelly’s criticism of the Council’s budget actions, Ald. Fiske said, “I don’t think Ms. Kelly understands the budget, and I don’t think she understands the need to raise revenue in Evanston. Our budget is pretty much a bare-bones budget. We’ve cut staff to the minimum. We did a great job last year because of the pandemic and $8 million shortfall.  We reduced that to a bare minimum of a property-tax hike.”

She said the “the idea of going to Northwestern and that somehow, Miss Kelly would solve that problem and bring money into the city coffers, it’s been tried before and tried by aldermen for a long time and has not worked,” she said.

Later in the program the candidates took up the issue again.

Ald. Fiske noted that she chairs the Northwestern/City Committee, a committee that was established under a court-issued consent order to settle a lawsuit in 2000 filed over the Northeast Evanston Historic District. As a preservationist at the time, she helped establish the district, to which the University objected as making it more difficult for them to renovate, demolish, or construct new buildings within the district.

“I have never seen my opponent at any one of those meetings [of the Northwestern/City Committee], but they [the meetings] are very valuable,” Ald. Fiske continued. “I absolutely agree that Northwestern should be paying for vital services, but I also have to raise the issue that if Northwestern ever pays anything that resembles property taxes, they risk losing that exemption of the Illinois Constitution, and that is not something that they’re ever going to do. So we need to look for another source of funding [from the University].”

Ms. Kelly emphasized that “along with fiscal accountability, having Northwestern contribute more is at the forefront of my campaign.”

She also noted that of all the candidates she probably has the deepest roots to the University, as her great-great-grandfather was a member of the university’s first graduating class.

That aside, she said right after the election “we will begin a PILOT task force to establish guidelines for payment in lieu of taxes as other towns are doing. “I’ve been meeting with commissioners of assessments from many different cities who’ve been walking me through how you establish this partnership with your tax-exempt private university,” she said.

Candidates from the Third Ward weighed in on the issue, too. Nicholas Korzeniowski, like Ms. Kelly a first-time aldermanic candidate, noted that with a mayor-elect in Daniel Biss, and leadership changing both at the City and University, “there is a genuine opportunity for both sides to put their best foot forward as good neighbor. There’s no reason why there needs to be an adversarial relationship, even though some people are advocating for it,” he said.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, on the Council since 1998, also noted that the last time there was a leadership change, with a new mayor [Elizabeth Tisdahl] and new president [Morton Schapiro] there was an improvement.

“I do think that the tough part of this is that Northwestern’s tax-exempt status is written into the Illinois Constitution and that provides them [University officials] with a lot of legal protection for our trying to get them to pay taxes. So we have to find other alternatives, which we have begun to do.

“I have always explained to Northwestern administrators,” she added, “that they need to see the value of a healthy economically strong, vibrant Evanston. Neither of us is going anywhere and we both offer tremendous assets to each other.”

Other topics covered during the 90-minute forum:

 Police Cutbacks:

– Ald. Fiske: “We [Evanston] were the leader in putting police on the street. We’re a community that has higher standards for our Police Department to be part of the community. When you’re talking about defunding the police – for example, we’re roughly 15 to 20 officers short right now – that has a great impact on police response within the community, and especially when we need to go to outside police response.”

– Ms. Kelly: “Though we have an outstanding police force, we are nevertheless, in our City, outspending other communities per capita tremendously. This is not having a correlating effect on the rate of violence. We are still overstaffed, outspending, and we’re not getting the bang for our buck. Other cities where they are saving the residents’ money by restructuring and allocating a greater amount of funds toward social services, are seeing a reduction in taxpayer expense as well as a better outcome.”

– Mr. Korzeniowski : “I’m a very strong proponent for finding things like social work, alternative response, those sort of things, in evaluating a budget. As Clare just spoke, the budget is very large. … We just need to find a financial way to backstop programs that we know work to reduce public safety concerns here in the community.”

– Ald. Wynne: “What’s happened over the last four years, as we all know, is that social services that have been provided traditionally have essentially eroded away, and what’s left is calling the police. We need to put those social services back in place, support people, before police are even called.”

Possible Changes From the City’s Current Council-City Manager Form of Government to Another Form of Government Allowed under State Statute:

– Mr. Korzeniowski : “If there’s not confidence in the City Manager position, then the whole structure looks suspect. That’s very understandable, especially given the process that went around hiring the current City Manager. I think we should address that process. I don’t think that the entire structure of government needs to be completely burned down because one process needs fixed.”

– Ald. Wynne: “I am a very, very strong advocate for the City Council-City Manager form of government for a number of reasons. Actually, it was the League of Women Voters in the City of Evanston who led the charge 70 years ago for the City of Evanston to become a City Manager form of government for very good reasons. I think a city our size of 75,000, has 800 employees, $350 million budget – what that does is allow us to hire a professional to run our government, which is significant and which then is guided by the elected officials. I think that provides us with a City Manager who has professional training and experience to manage what is a pretty large budget with a fairly large number of employees that allows our City to get the highest quality city workers and employees, to give us the best advice and expertise. When you look at cities approximately our size that have a strong mayor form of government [like] Cicero, those are cities that I don’t want be like. I think that we have good government that’s transparent, that provides the best services we can get to our community through professionals.”

– Ald. Fiske: [The League drive for a Council-Manager form of government in the 1950s] “according to my research, was really concerned that we keep money, politics out of our City government. I very much like having a professional manager managing the day-to-day operations of the City. That is what that person does, and that’s why the Council looked very closely at qualifications, length of service, and other qualities that in our minds made the choice of the City Manager the correct choice. The other concern I have is the proponents of changing to a strong mayor talk about eliminating home rule, for example. That would dramatically change the way we do business in Evanston, because the home rule status gives us the power to perform the functions of government rather than leaving those decisions to the State legislature in Springfield.”

– Ms. Kelly: “I haven’t heard, really, any candidate advocate for doing away with home rule. Home rule is great if you have a responsible government. That’s the key piece here. That’s what we need to understand. That’s why some communities have gotten rid of home rule, because their taxes were skyrocketing and it was the only way to get it under control.”

As for a strong mayor versus strong City Manager, Ms. Kelly added, “I don’t really have a full position on this. I think we have to look beyond Illinois. I think we should look to other cities to what is most successful, but I can say I don’t have a firm position regarding which.”

The forum in its entirety can be seen on the League of Women Voters of Evanston webpage at www.lwve .org

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.