With some spoken reservation but ultimate unanimity on July 9, aldermen approved the issuance of bonds to pay for the new Robert Crown complex, infrastructure improvements throughout the City and development on Howard Street. The vote was 8-0; Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, did not attend the meeting.
The total amount of the bond issuance is $85 million – $50 million for the Crown complex, $20 million for capital improvements, $5 million for the theater project and the mixed-used development on Howard Street and $10 million to refund 2008 bonds. The net debt would total $75 million. The City estimates the refunding will save about $900,000 over the life of the bonds.
To approve the $85 million in bonds, City Council had to increase the City’s debt limit, which it did by unanimous vote at the June 25 City Council meeting by amending the City’s budget policy. The debt limit, previously $113 million, is now $150 million, an increase of $37 million.
The City plans to issue the bonds for the Crown project in two parts: $25 million in 2018 and up to $25 million in 2019. The amount of the 2019 bond issue depends on how much additional money the nonprofit Friends of Robert Crown Center raises, so the 2019 amount could be less than $25 million.
Cost to Taxpayers
What this will cost taxpayers is still unclear.
Also unclear is how the cost of the project mushroomed from around $20 million to its present $53 million estimate. Although a staff memo detailin the ever-increasing costs was promised for the July 9 meeting, no such memo was in the Council packet, and Council members voted on the project without alluding to the increases that occurred since the project began.
During Citizen Comment, Mike Vasilko said, “I wish someone would tell me how much the Robert Crown Center is going to cost property owners. It seems before you vote on a project like this, at least you could tell us what it’s going to cost us.”
Ray Friedman said, “It seems like Robert Crown has taken over. Is a new recreation center in Evanston the most important thing to City Council?”
No one seemed to have that information at hand. Each $1 million in bonds costs the City $70,000 per year in debt service, said Hitesh Desai, the City’s Chief Financial Officer. How the City will raise that money – whether from increasing property taxes, which some aldermen have said they are reluctant do to, selling City assets or identifying new revenue streams has not been decided or even fully discussed.
Mayor Stephen Hagerty said he believed that in a February meeting, when the cost of the Robert Crown was projected to be about $47 million, the increase to the City’s portion of the property tax bill was estimated at 3.3%.
Mr. Desai said he thought the total property tax increase – taking into account the bond issues and the other City expense projections – would be about 4.7%. He reminded the aldermen that the City would issue the bonds for the Crown project in two series – one in 2018 and the other in 2019.
The 2019 series, Mr. Desai said, would take into account the construction progress and the fundraising by Friends of Robert Crown. The debt service paid in 2019 would depend on the time of year the City issued the bonds, he said. He said he would provide information about the projected property tax increase and that staff would also look at possible revenue streams.
“When you say ‘property taxes’ you mean the City’s portion of the property tax,” said Aldermen Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward.
“Yes,” Mr. Desai said. The City’s portion of the property tax bill is about 20%.
Mayor Hagerty asked how much it would cost to operate the new Crown Center. “We know that the Parks and Recreation division runs at a loss of $6 to $7 million per year. One of the things [former Chief Financial Officer] Marty Lyons said is that Robert Crown will generate net revenue.
Lawrence Hemingway, Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Service for the City, said, “There is about a $700,000 loss per year at Crown. We hope to reduce that to $400,000 and put the difference into a building-maintenance fund.” These amounts do not appear to take into account the debt service on the Crown bonds.
Aldermen also approved hiring Bulley & Andrews of Chicago as construction manager, and they amended the contract with Woodhouse Tinucci Architects to add another $1 million for “bidding, negotiations, permitting, construction administration and LEED commissioning services."
The Crown Project
The $53 million project entails building the new community center with an ice complex, a library branch and several turf-covered athletic fields.
There will be a basketball court on the second floor, above the library.
The plan is to construct the new building on Main Street closer to Dodge Avenue and just west of the present building. When the new building is completed, the present one will be razed, per the City’s plans.
The memo from Mr. Desai and Budget and Finance Manager Ashley King that accompanied the bond ordinance said the debt service for the $50 million bond issue “will be paid out from the various sources including funds raised by Friends of Robert Crown and a variety of existing or new revenue sources including the tax levy.” Some Council members, however, have said they do not wish to raise taxes to pay for the Crown Center.
If there is a referendum to increase the City’s real estate transfer tax on the November ballot, and if voters approve it, some of those funds could be used to pay for the bonds.
City has invited the public to the groundbreaking for the project, scheduled for 4 p.m. on July 13.