City budget staff fanned out Tuesday night talking to a total of six wards, explaining the details and the evolution of the 2023 proposed budget.
As of Tuesday, the proposed budget, which Mayor Daniel Biss said he could not support when it was presented to the City Council, had been out in the public eye for 22 days. The vote for City Council approval is targeted to be Nov. 21, less than 21 days away.
Late last week, Budget Manager Clayton Black announced that the increase in property taxes, about 3.5%, were being taken off the table. But it was still not clear after all these meetings if that move is enough to garner support from Biss and the majority of City Council members needed to pass the budget. Indeed, it is not clear which City Council members support it.
But the talk last night at the Third/ Fourth Ward and the Sixth/ Seventh/ Ninth Ward meetings was about pensions, taxes, Northwestern University and city hiring. (The First Ward meeting is covered in a separate RoundTable story and centered on pensions.)
Sixth, Seventh and Ninth ward
City Council Member Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, said officials decided to meet with residents of geographically non-contiguous wards in order to have a diverse array of viewpoints in the audience.
And City Council Council Member Juan Geracaris, 9th Ward, explained to all that the budget is still a work in progress.
City CFO/Treasurer Hitesh Desai was at that meeting explaining the budget basics:
- The 2023 budget is just over $402.5 million, up $42.1 million from the year before.
- Additional expenses stemmed from increases in expenses in the water ($23.6 million), capital ($17 million) and general funds ($7.4 million).
- He said the new budget was prepared through an equity lens but also works to fill numerous vacancies among city departments, funding a total of 39 new position.
Meeting participants, numbering about 40, suggested that the city should be looking for a new hire in its forestry department. Desai noted, however, that the city is having difficulty filling already-existing vacancies there.
Audience member Michael Vasilko asked whether council members would be utilizing Northwestern’s stadium as leverage to get the university to contribute more of its fair share to the city. He maintained that all council members ran for office on dealing with Northwestern, but residents had heard “crickets” since then. Council Member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, admitted that Northwestern was indeed “asking for a lot” when it came to the stadium.
“We’re just trying to understand the magnitude of the stadium project,” she added.
Vasilko later said that the city needed to make climate change a higher priority, suggesting that the budget only had a token amount set aside to prepare for and take climate action. Numerous budget items, he said, could be omitted and allocated towards climate action resources instead.
“It’s a dilemma,” Revelle admitted.
“It’s not a dilemma,” Vasilko countered, saying that a skate park and a “Cadillac animal shelter” should be lower priorities.
Geracaris ended the meeting by reminding participants that the city’s Library Board was still increasing its tax levy, bit that it was so small, it did not meet the standard for City Council approval. The board will have to go before the council as a matter of course, Geracaris said, “but they’re not close to that threshold” triggering any actions by the council.
Third and Fourth Wards
The Crown Center Conference Room B, which was also packed with about 40 residents and some heavy hitters in city government, including City Manager Luke Stowe, Deputy City Manager Dave Stoneback, Budget Manager Clayton Black and newly appointed Chief of Police Schenita Steward as well as City Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward. (Council Member Melissa Wynne, 3rd ward, was recovering from surgery and unable to attend.)
Much of the budget questions and discussion focused on hiring and the funding level for the city fire and police pensions.
Black went through budget basics and explained the top expense in the budget is people. Stoneback spoke about the 39 new positions within the budget, 22.5 of those to be paid for through the General Fund and 16.5 positions paid for through other funds such as Water, Fleet Services, Library and others.
He characterized the hiring level as cautious, saying, “We don’t want to have too many staff and then have to cut back if there’s a downturn.”
Stoneback also talked about where taxes go: For every dollar you pay in property taxes, the city receives 17 cents. But District 65 receives 41 cents of every dollar and District 202, 26 cents. He said it would be the schools, and not the city, to blame if a budget increase is proposed.
Although the pensions are underfunded, the city’s contributions have improved compared to where it was 10 years ago, Black said.
Pensions are funded through the city’s contributions to the pension fund and investment growth of those funds, and the city’s assumed rate of investment return is on the conservative side, and the same as the Illinois Department of Insurance, 6.5%.
Nieuwsman said: “Although we are better than the state as a whole, we are not doing as well as we should” at catching up on what we owe our pension fund. “We should shoot for 90 or 100% by 2040.” (Which is actually what the state requires — public safety pensions must be at least 90% funded by 2040.)