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Evanston residents will be able to use the City’s beaches for free on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays this coming beach season, with City Council members looking at making all beaches free in 2022.
At the May 24 City Council meeting, Council Members approved the free beach days for 2021 after a proposal by Eighth Ward Council Member Devon Reid calling for completely free access to all the City’s beaches this coming season never came to a vote.
Instead, Council members voted on a substitute motion from Council Member Jonathan Nieusma, 4th Ward, proposing to make beach access free on Sundays and Mondays this summer “with the clear direction that we go in 2022 to free access to all Evanston residents to all Evanston beaches.”
That substitute motion passed 5-4.
Voting in support of the substitute motion were Council Members Peter Braithwaite, 2nd,Ward; Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Mr. Nieuwsma; Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward.
Voting against were Council Members Clare Kelly, 1st Ward; Bobby Burns, 5th Ward; Mr. Reid, and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward.
Mr. Reid then asked for reconsideration of that motion, saying he was unaware that if a substitute amendment was submitted “it would be all over, that there wouldn’t be any discussion” on his motion for free beach access this year.
He then requested a change to a more popular beach day than Sunday and Monday, suggesting a Saturday as a possibility.
At Ms. Clare Kelly’s suggestion the number of free beach days was then upped to three days per week — Saturdays, Sundays and Monday (free beach access is already in place that day at the Clark Street Beach.)
That amended proposal passed 8-1.
Mr. Nieuwsma agreed about his proposal that “to qualify for a free token is humiliating. I believe that access to our community’s most valuable natural resource should be available to all Evanston residents – no matter how much money you make – for a variety of reasons.”
“Having said that,” he said, “I’m mindful of the economic constraints that we are under and the unintended potential consequences of making a change, not only on our budget. But if we’re trying to make up the money something else is going to have to be cut. Who’s going to be hurt if we would cut another program?”
The City has used a beach-token system for years to allow access to Evanston’s swimming beaches.
Residents and non-residents buy tokens, either physical or digital, which allows entry to the beaches.
The cost, going into this beach season, was $30 for Evanston and Skokie residents and $46 for non-residents.
For a number of years the City has sponsored programs that offered free or reduced rates for residents who met income requirements.
Mr. Reid, one of a number of new Council members elected to office April 6, had called for elimination of the beach token system at the new Council’s seating May 14.
At the May 24 meeting, while officials said establishing free beach access at this time would result in a $1 million hike in their budget, Mr. Reid argued the loss in revenue would be closer to $600,000, with the fees non-residents pay factored in. He called on Council members to end “the very clearly racist and classist process of collecting revenues for access to the beach.”
To people who argue “we should slow this down,” who maintain “’people pay for the value for the beach,’” he said, “we don’t charge for access to any other place so what they’re paying for is exclusivity – what they’re paying for is to keep Evanston residents, who can’t afford to frequent our beaches, out.”
Lawrence Hemingway, the City’s Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, told Council members in a memo and responding to questions at the May 24 meeting that the department has a budget revenue line item of $1 million associated with beach tokens, daily sales, and aquatics camp for the current 2021 fiscal year.
He estimated that eliminating the sale of beach tokens and daily sales along with the elimination of the City’s aquatics camp would leave a budget gap or shortfall of 20% in the department’s budget.
“This shortfall would put the department in an unfavorable position trying to balance this fiscal year,” Mr. Hemingway wrote. “It would require the elimination of existing positions, programs, and events to make up this dollar amount.”
Responding to questions at the Council meeting, Mr. Hemingway stressed in requesting more time to develop a replacement program, “I’m not advocating for or against free beaches.
“What I’m advocating for is a process that allows me to make sure that my budget balances. We’re one week out from opening the beaches. What I am asking for is just an opportunity to, let’s do it the right way so that funding can be identified to make up for it if the Council makes a decision to make the beaches free right now.”
Mr. Hemingway also spoke in his memo about the operational impact of putting a program in place immediately.
“To date, the department has sold over 4,000 physical beach tokens,” he said in a memo. “Processing these refunds will now become labor-intensive and extremely laborious for the department clerks at each building because anyone who paid with cash or check would have to complete a vendor registration form in order to be issued a refund check. Furthermore, processing this amount of refunds is adding to a staff that is already stretched thin due to everyone having to do more with less and already added administrative responsibilities.”
Mr. Reid argued against taking “half measures to end a practice that we know definitively is racist, has a classist impact,” and will not have the budget implications that were put forward in City officials memo.
Ms. Kelly also argued the City should go with full beach access this year. “I think the funding is there,” she said.
“I think the timing right now really merits that we act with special consideration and effort to find it,” she said, “like we increased funding for the Pooch Park, for the boat storage ramp.” She referred to her correspondence with staff inquiring why “there is about $700,000 in extra money left in the City’s Fleet Service Fund, and why that wasn’t returned to the General Fund at the end of last year.”
“We can do this,” she said.
She said the City could also offer the option “of people donating to our beaches to preserve our beaches.”
“This is entirely possible financially,” she said.