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With cost-cutting and even revenue gains in some places, the City was able to absorb revenue losses due to COVID-19 in 2020 and even manage a small surplus at year’s end.
This year will provide a whole different and much more preferable challenge with $45.8 million in federal stimulus money heading Evanston’s way, and officials having to figure out where to spend it.
In a presentation at the April 12 City Council meeting, officials provided an overview of the City’s 2020 budget as well as a look ahead.
COVID-19 related revenue losses totaled $11.6 million in the General Fund in 2020, officials said. The areas hit hardest include sales taxes ($1.6 million), hotel taxes ($1.2 million), parking ticket revenue ($1.4 million), with all those areas affected by the economic shutdown.
Recreation program fees ($1.8 million) and other Home Rule taxes ($5.5 million) were hit hard too, adding up to the $11.6 million loss.
Revenue in a few other areas, such as building permits actually showed gains in 2020. With savings due to staff furloughs, positions held vacant, delays of equipment purchases, the City was able to show a $2.1 million surplus at year’s end, officials reported.
“Obviously, we need the surplus to replenish the General Fund [which covers most City operations], which is beyond its two months of fund balance,” said Hitesh Desai, the City’s Chief Financial Officer, “and the Insurance Fund which has a negative balance of $10.5 million … so we need that money.”
As for the COVID-19 federal stimulus package signed into law last month by the Biden Administration, 50% of the $45.8 million in funding is to be available in 2021, and the rest in 2022, said City Manager Erika Storlie.
All spending must take place by December 31, 2024, she said.
The City is also expected to receive $1.3 million in funding to address the housing needs of the unstable housed, officials said in their report.
Additional funds are also possible through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and other specific programs, they said.
(The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced April 8 a plan to allocate $5 billion to address homelessness.)
Unlike the relief bill passed last year under the Republican administration, the money going to cities under the Biden stimulus package is not tied as tightly to the public health emergency.
In her report, Ms. Storlie identified a number of areas for its use, telling Council members “the biggest eligible use of this funding is to cover revenue loss.”
Officials estimate the City will have lost $20 million in revenue due to COVID-19 between 2020 and 2022. They include large revenue losses to the City’s General Fund and the City’s Parking Fund, she said.
Officials “don’t expect all of our revenues to recover this year just because vaccines are out and things are starting to return to normal,” she told aldermen. “It will take a while for our balance sheets to recover.”
“The three other eligible expenses for this,” Ms. Storlie said, “are our costs to respond to the public health emergency with respect to COVID-19; our negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, non-profits; impacted industries, such as tourism, travel and hospitality; and then the costs to respond to workers performing essential work.”
She named water, sewer, and infrastructure projects as well as addressing the City positions held vacant in the 2021 budget as other key areas.
A number of the positions “were pivotal to performing the services that we provide to the community but yet we didn’t have the funding to fill them,” she said.
She told Council members that staff is creating four different teams who are going to be working on identifying uses for the federal funding. “The first of these teams will be the Economic Development Committee [meeting] in April,” she said, “where we’ll hear from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Evanston (Downtownevanston.org) as they bring forward what their requests are or potential uses of this funding.”