Veteran Evanston budget watchers raised concerns about a proposed tax hike, the funding of positions needed to pursue the city’s climate action goals and the status of contributions from Northwestern University at a public hearing on the city’s proposed 2023 budget Monday, Oct. 24.

First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly Credit: Richard Cahan

There also was pushback against the City Council as some in the audience complained that not enough notice was given for the meeting, held in conjunction with the City Council meeting. All told seven people spoke up.

And even though there are multiple hearings still planned, council members agreed to continue the hearing to a later date. The city has tentatively set the final vote for budget passage on Nov. 23.

More public notice urged

First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly also urged the addition of another meeting, siding with several speakers at the hearing who argued that the hearing notice wasn’t sufficient to alert the public.

In council discussion, Kelly proposed the hearing be continued at a later date “designated just for a hearing.”

“And I think we would have had a lot more people here this evening if it had been better notice for our residents,” she said. “I understand that legally we comply because it [the legal notice] was buried in the [Chicago] Tribune. But don’t think that was appropriate in terms of our notifying our Evanston residents.”

City officials maintained the meeting notice was published Oct. 13 in the Tribune, at least 10 days before the hearing, as required by state law. The hearings were also listed on the main budget page of the city’s website.

Council members backed Kelly’s proposal.

Public hearings have always served as the last big forum for residents to voice concerns about the officials’ proposed budget as council members head into the final stages of the process.

This year, the budget hearings may be crucial as there does not seem to be agreement on the council on spending. Mayor Daniel Biss has said that he could not support the proposed budget as presented.

Staff’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 is $402 million, an increase of $42.1 million from the fiscal year 2022 adopted budget.

The city’s proposed $402 million budget includes a 4% property tax hike, restoration of staff positions and new hirings totaling 39, as well as an ambitious schedule of capital improvements as Evanston begins to emerge from COVID-19.

Officials say the property tax increase will result in a $2.6 million net increase in the city’s General Fund tax levy and $300,000 net increase in the Library Tax levy to support increases in personnel and operating expenses.

If the increase were to go through, the owner of a $300,000 home would pay an additional $64, officials estimated. There would also be increases in the city’s water rate and garbage collection fees.

Speakers weigh in

  • “I’m sure the council’s aware of this, that every time the property taxes are raised, the people who get hurt the worst are the landlords and in turn, working people,” said Eric Paset, who lives in the Fourth Ward and owns North Shore Apartments & Condos. “So the people you’re trying to help through affordable housing are being hurt by the proposed increases in property taxes.” He suggested council members look elsewhere for revenues, noting that there are large costs being estimated – about $3 million this year and $50 million over 10 years – to either move out of the Morton Civic Center or renovate it. Paset sided with moving out of the building. “I mean, this is a pretty underutilized building as a whole.”
  • Ray Friedman took issue with the hearing notice on the calendar that runs on the lead page of the city’s website. It was listed there as part of a regular council meeting, with a long agenda. “Why wouldn’t a public hearing be a hearing by itself?”
  • Jeff Green, a member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby-Evanston North Shore Chapter, said his group supported the two positions requested by Cara Pratt, the city’s Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator – a community outreach specialist and a resilient building specialist. Failure to support those “would result in an unacceptable contraction in the scope of the city’s commitment to public sustainability work, environmental justice, community outreach, building emissions reduction, and its ability to collect, analyze, and report on data whose compilation is required.”
  • Dorene Price suggested that council members “prioritizing things on the basis of what’s important, truly important, is super important. … If residents were listened to more intensely … we would probably come to better solutions sooner.”
  • Mary Rosinski joined other speakers urging more time for residents to comment on the budget. “I think [the budget] is very bloated and the time period for public involvement has been shortened. … I would like to see more consideration given for public comment. We have too many huge public service projects that have not been discussed. They’ve been announced but not discussed, and I think we deserve discussion on any huge public service.”
  • Michael Vasilko asked, “Where is the $10 million Northwestern University [tax-exempt under state law] should be contributing to our budget? The issue with Northwestern seems to have come and is gone again.” He named a number of projects on the city’s capital improvement list that he said needed greater study. “One of my favorites these days is the animal shelter because it’s now estimated, as I understand it, as of September to be a $7.5 million project, not a $6.3 million project like we were told repeatedly by staff,” he said.
  • Tina Paden suggested city officials invite comment about the budget at ward meetings. (A number are expected.) “You have rushed through this and no one knows what you’re doing.” she said.

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.