Editor’s note: This story has been altered since it originally was posted to reflect a few corrections. The RoundTable regrets the errors.
Evanston residents expressed concerns about a utilities hike, the city’s budget priorities and the pension funds at a town hall meeting Thursday, Nov. 3, on the city’s proposed 2023 budget.
While only about a dozen people showed up for the event, members who were there questioned city processes in managing and allocating funds and complained the how process of public meetings and comments.
The nearly 90-minute public forum is one of eight total public meetings, including ward meetings the city or council members have held since the budget proposal was made public Nov. 10. Since then there have been a town hall in Spanish and a comment period before the city council as well as ward meetings with budget officials. The Truth is Taxation Town Hall is set for Monday, Nov. 7.
The City Council has targeted Nov. 21 as its tentative deadline to vote on next year’s proposed $402 million budget.
City officials focused their presentation on the overall picture, particularly discussing pension funding and hiring, as well as the city’s budgetary principles.
On Oct. 28, the city dismissed a 4% property tax from its proposal that residents had previously criticized.
But the budget still has price increase provisions for water and trash removal, which were in the original proposal. The water increase is for lead service line replacement, mandated by the state and inflation has hit the cost of solid waste disposal.
Officials outlined that the 2023 proposed budget is centered on capital improvements, sustainability and equity.
The overall budget, divided across a total of 39 funds, has a provision for salary increases of $3.2 million and sets aside $2.4 million for nearly 22.5 new positions in the general fund and another 16.5 positions via other funding streams.
Lawmakers remain split on the 2023 budget, particularly on spending, potentially emphasizing the role of these public meetings. Mayor Daniel Biss has said that he would not support the proposed budget as presented in October.
Clayton Black, city Budget Manager, said the document could look “very different” between now and later this month when it is scheduled for a council vote.
The public discussion
The question of debt was a key question at the meeting. An audience member pressed officials about how much of the city’s capital fund was composed of bonds as opposed to money the city already had. “We can’t talk about equity when we’re hiding that [debt] out. And we’re not attending to the incredible debt that adds up,” said Trisha Connolly, a retired District 65 librarian.
Hitesh Desai, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, deferred a detailed response to the Truth in Taxation meeting on Monday, Nov. 7. Desai added that the City Council wants to scale down bonds and that the city has AA-rated bonds, the third-highest quality, which are usually viewed as safe investments.
Other attendees asked about the rising costs of utilities, particularly water. Last year, Skokie and Evanston agreed on a water contract after a prolonged legal battle, with Skokie eventually paying 39% below what Evanston was seeking.
“We wound up getting killed on that deal,” an attendee said. Another audience member questioned officials about the benefit of selling water to other municipalities at a discount. City Manager Luke Stowe said after the meeting that Evanston makes millions on the sale of water to 420,000 individuals outside of Evanston.
Desai said the municipalities would share the water costs, thereby mitigating any drawbacks from the deal. With inflation at a four-decade high, Black touted the city’s ability to stave off dramatic rises in utility costs. Under the proposed 2023 budget, residents would see a 5% increase in water bills and a 1.8% rise in waste removal costs.
Pension funds were also a major talking point during Thursday’s town hall. Desai said the city has limited decision-making power over pensions, as guidelines are determined by the state.
The pension funds, which make up nearly 7% of the proposed budget, deal primarily with the Police and Fire departments and are administered by separate pension boards. The state requires the city to have public safety pensions 90% funded by 2040.
The connection to City Council
Of the 12 audience members, some complained to budget officials about the city not having enough public hearings. One attendee said that the the meetings are disconnected from the council. “There is no discussion with the City Council,” Ray Friedman, a semi-retired real estate renovator, said.
Friedman added that he would have liked to have attended meetings for multiple wards or viewed the recordings. But ward meetings are not recorded although they were scheduled simultaneously.
They were also complaints that concerns voiced at the town hall would not make it to city council members. No council members were present at the town hall, but Luke Stowe, Evanston’s City Manager, attended the meeting in person as did staff members of the city’s budget department.