Evanston officials are sticking to Nov. 21 as the adoption date for the city’s $400 million proposed budget as decisions loom on pension contributions, a third ambulance and other key issues.

At the Nov. 7 special City Council meeting, council members held off voting on introducing the budget, responding to Mayor Daniel Biss’ request that they wait for one week, until Nov. 14, the date of the next regular council meeting.

“The reason for that is that the items here are ordinances that are on the agenda for introduction,” Biss said. “If they were to pass tonight they would then appear on the agenda next week for action.”

“The intention as articulated in the [city’s budget] calendar that was first released a couple of months ago now was for the budget not to be passed until Nov. 21,” Biss said. “And so passing this tonight would put us on an accelerated calendar that I would prefer that we avoid.”

The decision to wait was in accord with concerns raised by some activists before the meeting that more discussion was needed.

Comments from the public

A number of speakers highlighted those concerns during public comment and a Truth in Taxation hearing at the Nov. 7 council meeting.

  • Longtime resident Michael Vasilko called on somebody on the council to add a new fund, separate from the city’s Climate Action and Resilience fund, that would help households – 1,000 households, initially – eliminate the use of fossil fuels for home heating and to power vehicles. He listed the catastrophic weather events happening worldwide. “Fossil fuel is at the core of the problem,” he said.
  • Mary Rosinski, another longtime resident and activist, maintained that “everything [earmarked for] the Civic Center should be taken out of the budget” without better documented figures of what’s been spent.
    “There are all things that go on, day-in day-out, year-in year-out, we have no way where we can look at our city website and say, ‘OK, in 2020 we did this, in 2021 we did this. We took out a bond for $10 million and this is how much we spent.’”
  • Doreen Price urged officials to extend the budget hearing process “to create budgets and policies that unite with compassion and prosperity for all.”
    Greater inclusion “starting now saves far more than the current budget proposal, enhances our diversity and affordability,” she said.
Tim Schoolmaster, president of the Police Pension Board, urged officials to “break the mold” and stop shortchanging police and fire pensions.
  • Tim Schoolmaster, president of the Police Pension Board, followed up on his presentation last week to the city’s Finance and Budget Committee. At that meeting, Schoolmaster spoke of the city’s unfunded accrued liability piling up as the city made minimum payments toward retiree pensions.
    He was asked to address the committee by Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, who has called on the city to step up its contributions in the 2023 budget from the 90% level to 100% to reach the state’s funding target in 2040.
    At the Nov. 7 hearing, Schoolmaster expressed the hope that “we can break the mold – that we have been consistently shortchanging both police and fire funds – this year going forward.”
Fire Pension fund member Jack Mortell called using a higher investment return estimate “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” Credit: City of Evanston YouTube
  • Jack Mortell, a lifelong resident, retired fire captain and elected member of the Firefighter’s Pension Board, also addressed pension underfunding. He urged council members not to adopt the city’s 6.5% investment return assumption for the fund this year, but rather go with 6.25% as recommended by the pension fund’s actuary.
    He estimated that the fire pension fund was underfunded by as much as $3 million between 2012 to 2020, relying on the 6.5% figure.
    “If we had been using the 6.25% we would have actually been gaining,” he said. “This is penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
Jeff Smith: “Committing to raising taxes, fines and fees at a time when any Evanstonian with a 401(k) or IRA has seen that plunge by 20% in the last year … seems a little tone deaf.” Credit: City of Evanston YouTube
  • Jeff Smith, a longtime budget observer, maintained the budget still has too many areas of vagueness and unsupported assumptions. 
    “The budget also represents a problematic increase in spending without attendant revenue,”  he said. “Spending is accomplished at a net loss for all funds using onetime monies, but committing to repeated expenses. This will force revenue increases later.”
    Further, he said, “committing to raising taxes, fines and fees at a time when any Evanstonians with a 401K or IRA has seen that plunge by  20% in the last year, while their personal cost of living has increased, seems a little tone deaf.”
    On the capital budget, he singled out the $2.4 million targeted for Fountain Square improvements “seems like throwing good money after bad.”

The case for a third ambulance

The meeting also included a presentation from Fire Chief Paul Polep speaking of the department’s request for seven new firefighter/paramedic positions to allow the department to operate a third ambulance, and making use of a new funding source to pay for it.

Evanston Fire Chief Paul Polep on the need for a third ambulance. “Our calls are at the point where it’s warranted.” Credit: City of Evanston YouTube

The department would tap a federal program through Medicaid and adopted by Illinois in 2019. In case of an ambulance call, if the department were to charge $1,500, the program would pay the difference between Medicare and mixed insurance payers, Polep said.

The department would split the funds received with the state. Going into next year, officials are estimating receiving between $2.5 million and $2.7 million from the new fund, he said.

The department has operated with two ambulances since the 1980s. “Since 1986 we’ve doubled our volume of calls in EMS [Emergency Medical Services] and we have not added a person to our department,” he told council members.

The department is at 7,400 calls so far this year, Polep said. “And I’m guessing we’re going to be at about 11,000 total” for the year, he said.

Compared with nearby departments, “We’re running about 1,000 calls [per year] more than neighbors per ambulance,” he said.

If a third ambulance were approved, the department could better split the work, he said, with crews now making up to 17 calls a day.

The addition would also change a lot of the department’s response to a working fire. Now, with a working fire in the city, “we automatically call Skokie for a battalion chief, a truck and an ambulance, because we send two fire ambulances to a working fire – one for our members, one for our residents. Then we call another department in to be on standby for our members.”

He estimated the cost of bringing in the extra firefighters somewhere between $566,000 on the low end and $724,000 at the high end.

“This is where we’re at, with the calls and the money coming in,” he said near the close of his presentation.

“I do really believe we can do this,” he told council members.  “I do believe we’ve acquired this funding source. I don’t think it’s going anywhere for a long time, it’s a state legislative source.”

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.

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    1. Dear Cynthia, We have reported it. But your note reminds me, we should always wrap up where things are in each story. But to be clear: The property tax increase was taken out of the budget. Thank you. Susy Schultz, editor

    2. You should also be aware, while that is the case, this budget proposed issuing a bond for 24 million dollars next year. A bad plan when interest rates are skyrocketing. On the surface no property tax hike is great, but there’s more to the story that must be addressed.