From cracks in the floor at the Robert Crown Community Center to permit requests piling up in the City building department, city officials provided some vivid examples at a city budget hearing Oct. 18 of the need to boost staffing that was put on hold during COVID-19.

The staff comments came at the special City Council meeting Oct. 18 at which Council Members held their first extended discussion of the proposed 2022 budget.

The new Robert Crown Community Center, twice the size of the former center, is also in need of more maintenance staff, officials said in a request for more staff at an Oct. 18 City budget meeting. (RoundTable photo) Credit: Evanston RoundTable

Officials have proposed a $355 million total city budget, covering all funds. 

The budget anticipates no property tax increase. A $1 million fund balance along with $1.5 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds the city has received through the American Rescue Plan Act would cover a projected $2.5 million deficit in the General Fund, which covers most of the city’s basic services.

The city’s expenses include general wage increases for non-union and union employees amounting to just over $1 million, as well as $2.55 million to cover 29 full-time positions that were held vacant in the 2021 budget and restored to the budget in 2022.

“These were 29 positions considered critical to our operations, we didn’t want to eliminate them,” Kate Lewis-Lakin, the City’s Budget Manager, told Council members. “However due to concerns because of COVID-19 and our financial situation while we were doing the 2021 budget it was determined these could be held for one year and they’ve been added back into the base budget for 2022.”

City department heads are also requesting the addition of 20 more staff positions that department directors have put forward “as being very critical to improving the operations of their department, and responding to areas of significant need, where we’ve seen understaffing, where we’ve received concern from the public about how we’re operating and using and providing these services,” Lewis-Lakin said.

The new personnel will total around $2 million on an annual basis, she said responding to a question from First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly.

At Kelly’s request, department heads at the meeting were asked to speak in more detail about the positions they were seeking.

“I don’t know about anybody else but I absolutely would like to know more about $2 million worth of new personnel every year,” Kelly said.

New Crown a big job

Sean Ciolek, the city’s Fleet and Facilities Management Division Manager, and Lawrence Hemingway, the City’s Parks and Recreation Director, spoke about the need for more skilled maintenance staff at the new Robert Crown Community Center, located at Main Street and Dodge Avenue.

“What we have come to realize is that we don’t have enough bodies,” Hemingway told Council members. “This building is a seven-day-week, 364-days-open building, 5:45 a.m. to midnight,” he said. 

At the facility, which also includes ice rinks, “We need a specific trades person throughout the day, as well as on weekends. We are currently operating without that,” Hemingway said.

The city currently has a call preventive-maintenance contract, he said. “The last call we had to make when we had an emergency it  took them over three hours to get to us.” On a few occasions, officials had to evacuate the facility after alarms went off, with no one on the premises to address the problem. he said.

In addition, he said, the building has seen some “settling,” with cracks developing along the floors and throughout the walls that “need a certain amount of technical expertise,” which the city doesn’t currently have at the building.

This building opened in February 2020, he noted. In March of that year, “the pandemic hit,” he said.

After the facility reopened, he said, “all of my custodial type staff has been dealing with cleaning, keeping the building clean and trying to maintain the ice in terms of ice cuts and service, flip rooms for setups, etc.”

He said the Council’s approval of a department request for a building engineer and general tradesman “will allow for the city to have technical expertise on a more consistent basis.”

The Parks and Recreation Department’s other requests included a Lakefront Manager ($110,000) and a Recreation Manager for Chandler-Newberger, Noyes Cultural Arts and Gibbs-Morrison community centers.

The Lakefront Manager’s post was eliminated around 2010 and and responsibilities fell to an assistant director; that position was eliminated in 2018, Hemingway said in a budget memo.

“The lakefront operation is in desperate need of a Manager to focus on operations year-round and exclusively,” he wrote.

“The department has been able to survive without the position because of the dedicated and committed individuals who have served the department,” he said in his memo, “but it has become apparent that to improve the experiences of our staff, residents and visitors to the lakefront, this Manager position is critical to the survival of the department and any improvements that may need to be implemented from the pending lakefront investigation.”

Needs ran similarly deep in the memos and comments of a number of other department heads at the Oct. 18 meeting.

Requests identify strong needs

Johanna Nyden, the city’s Director of Community Development, spoke of understaffing on the department’s permit desk.

“Based on the number of permits we get, we don’t have enough time in the year – the minutes, hours, working days – to process all the permits, and that also assumes even incoming permits,” she told Council members. “They’re peaking around May, June, July, August we get a lot, and then by now [October] it kind of flattens out.”

“But in our permit operations right now we’re still in August, September,” she said, “because of the lag that we’ve had.”

The department is requesting two new Permit Desk Representatives, as well as one Permit Desk Supervisor at a total cost of roughly $278,000.

The permits submitted to the city for review and approval, observed Nyden in her budget memo, “range from simple projects such as tuckpointing, roofing, HVAC/plumbing, and other over-the-counter permits to more complex projects such as new construction, additions, garages, or planned developments. 

“The City has seen a year-to-year increase in permit activity in the built environment,” the memo continued. “In the COVID environment, it is notable that homeowners are investing in improvements to homes, which results in more smaller projects and higher permit volume and more demand for contact with city staff to answer questions. Overall, comparing 2020 and 2021, the City currently has processed 1,000 more permits for various activities.”

“It is anticipated that the addition of more permit staff will not only reduce permit wait times, but it will also result in increased permit activity,” she said. “If the City makes it easier and more accessible to obtain a building permit, that likely means that obtaining a permit will not be a skipped step for a building project.”

Some other requests include:

– The addition of a Human Resources Specialist (an estimated $100,000 expense).

“Currently, the HR [Human Resources] Division staffing level is below the industry-recommended HR-to-Employee Ratio,” wrote Luke Stowe, the City’s Administrative Services Director and Megan Fulara, the City’s Acting Human Resources Division Manager.

“Operating below the recommended staffing level, as the HR Division currently is, places the City in a precarious position,” they wrote. “The workforce needs to continue demonstrating the requirement for qualified HR personnel to address workplace issues and administer solid policy proactively.”

– A Digital Services Specialist ($100,000). 

“The continued adoption of analytics is more critical now than ever before,” officials wrote. “To optimize city services, such as building inspections to restaurant inspections, cities across the country are using analytics to help improve local government policy and performance, which may also be revenue-generating, and cost-savings.”

– A Second Deputy Clerk (around $80,000, including benefits.)

“The City Clerk’s Office needs additional support staff to manage the additional services and responsibilities allocated to the Clerk’s office,” wrote City Clerk Stephanie Mendoza.

“The Clerk’s office will now manage vital records, record retention, municipal code updates, mail services, and we are seeing an increase in notary services and disability placard requests,” she said. “The Clerk’s Office currently has one full-time staff member who helps run the Clerk’s Office’s day-to-day operations. This includes imputing FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests and ensuring over 20 open requests services are moving through the FOIA process.”

“The second Deputy Clerk would help shift a position to manage all walk-in services and manage vital records services, bringing in approximately 100 patrons per week to the Clerk’s office for birth and death certificates,” she said in her memo. “Currently, the phone, email, and walk-in services are handled by one person, which means the Clerk’s office is left unstaffed or closed when the Deputy Clerk and Clerk are unavailable at the same time.”

– The purchase of a new fire engine at a cost of $750,000.

“With an aging fleet and a backlog of other critical equipment in need of replacement, the staff is requesting that the Equipment Replacement Fund be increased by $750,000 for the 2022 budget so the new pumper engine can be replaced in an expedited manner without affecting the replacement of other desperately-needed City equipment for critical operations in Public Works, Facilities & Fleet Management and the Police Department,” wrote officials, including Fire Chief Paul Polep.

– The hiring of a full time permanent Pest Control Operator at a cost of roughly $70,000 a year, including benefits and any overtime. 

“The contract established between the City and Rose Pest Solutions expires in December, 2021 and there is no intention by HHS [the City Health & Human Services Department] to renew it,” wrote Ike Ogbo, the Department’s director.

“There are currently over 300 open rodent complaints in 311 that require attention and that have not been resolved,” he noted. “This is a significant issue that will be resolved by hiring experienced Rodent Control Operators managed by staff in HHS.”

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.

2 replies on “From building maintenance to rat control, officials pitch Council members on more staff”

  1. Regarding the Robert Crown construction/settling issues, most builders and thier products have warrantys. This needs to be looked into so the costs of these repairs don’t fall unfairly onto the backs of taxpayers. This was a $54,000,000 project and the builder the city selected awas paid $10,000,000 more than the next closest bidder who was Walsh Construction. I think the builder Bulley and Andrews, will stand behind their work.

  2. I’m just noticing that the previous year’s budget was approximately $296 million which would then make this a $59 million dollar budget increase in one year. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the current state of affairs or if a backlog of things not done that just got piled up. However, we just got 43 million dollars from the federal government as part of a stimulus package and we’ve already overspent it according to this if it does come to pass. Rather than a helter-skelter approaches what I would call it, why not a librarians approach which would be a spreadsheet with a list of all positions, repairs, activities ( with a brief reason why something is necessary right now) and various sets of needs that will be a wish list that will be sliced and diced flying above bird’s eye and then looking more granularly worms eye, or a macro to micro approach. All of this can’t be done in a year I don’t think, and, if decisions are made rapidly bad decisions will be made and it will be the equivalent of financial suicide to put it bluntly. On the other hand, there are real needs. It seems like there needs to be some sort of ad hoc committee to look at all these various sets of Needs & Wants and triage needs to be done, as in who and what is going to die first if we don’t take care of it right now. Make sense? However, the team making these sorts of assessments needs to defer to the experts, and know what they know and don’t and make sure to take heed so as not to get into an area where rash decisions are made out of hubris, i.e. not knowing what you don’t know.

Comments are closed.