Citing proposed cuts in the City’s Health & Human Services Department (HHS), the Parks, Recreation & Community Services Department, and the Mental Health Board, members of Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL) said on Oct. 18 they are concerned that City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz’s draft budget for 2019 will impact vulnerable Evanston residents the most.
“No one is happy about the budget cuts. ... I feel the most vulnerable and poor will be impacted.”
The group held a meeting on Oct. 18 at Grace Lutheran Church and also staged a protest at the Civic Center just before the Oct. 29 City Council meeting, at which Council members again discussed the proposed budget.
At OPAL’s Oct. 18 meeting, President Roger Williams said, “No one is happy about the budget cuts.” And, while many of the proposed cuts are significant, he said, “I feel the most vulnerable and poor will be impacted.”
At that meeting, OPAL members presented slides showing the cuts proposed by Mr. Bobkiewicz, focusing on three areas they feel affect racial equity.
The Proposed Cuts Could Shut
Down the Health Department
In a breakout group at the Oct. 18 meeting, Health Department Director Evonda Thomas-Smith explained how the proposed changes would affect her team and the services it could provide residents.
The City Manager’s draft proposes a reduction of $821,254 in the HHS budget, which would involve eliminating five staff members and would not fill the vacant position of Assistant Director of the Health Department. But the reductions would cut even deeper than that.
Director Thomas-Smith said some of these staff cuts would cause key services to be eliminated which would disqualify the City from being a State Certified Health Department. If City Council votes to proceed with those cuts, “we would have to close the doors of the health department,” said Ms. Thomas-Smith.
If the position of Public Health Educator is eliminated, Evanston’s Health Department, the oldest in Illinois, would no longer be considered a health department.
Ms. Thomas-Smith discussed other problematic proposals in the HHS budget reduction. State and federal grants currently being used would be in jeopardy, and unspent funds may have to be given back if the City’s Health Department is no longer certified by the State.
Eliminating Victim Services presents potential problems as well. Ms. Thomas-Smith said. She said the City Manager is proposing to shift Victim Services from the City altogether and is in negotiations with the YWCA-Evanston/North Shore to provide some of the same services as the advocates for half the price.
Last year the City Manager moved the program from the Police Department to the Health and Human Services Department.
The new set of services would include the 24/7 crisis response line, currently being run by volunteers, after City staff were suspended by the City.
“What about male victims?” asked Terrie Campbell, who works as a program assistant for the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, Inc. (CEDA).
The YWCA is set up currently to service only women, said Ms. Campbell. She also asked how records would be transferred and kept confidential if the switch is made.
“That’s another hurdle,” said Ariel Jackson, a member of the Victim Services staff ,whose position could be cut.
The Vital Records services is also eliminated in the proposed budget because the City Manager says he believes residents can use Currency Exchanges to obtain any personal records, said Ms. Thomas-Smith. However, the wait involved in obtaining a birth or death certificate, which could be a week or more, could cause delays in some funerals, she said.
Currently, the General Assistance fund, administered by the Health and Human Services Department, is untouched.
Residents at the Oct. 18 meeting expressed several other concerns relating to the proposed cuts to the Health and Human Services Department.
If City Council votes to proceed with those cuts, “we would have to close the doors of the health department.”
The cuts would mainly affect women and children, said resident Dickelle Fonda. Another participant questioned whether these proposals were meant to “gentrify” the City. A few others also referenced a possible “hidden agenda,” because so many of the proposed cut affect Black or minority residents and staff members.
The proposed budget cuts are “putting the City Council in an awful position,” said resident Genevra Gallo-Bayiates. “Is there any wiggle room” in the HHS budget? she asked Ms. Thomas-Smith.
“There is nothing else to cut here,” said Ms. Thomas-Smith, adding the department has already withstood a hiring freeze as well as cuts in training, supplies and out-of-state travel. “All cuts were proposed by the City Manager without input from directors,” she said.
At the Oct. 29 City Council meeting, Mr. Bobkiewicz said City staff focused on making cuts to Health Department positions supported by the General Fund and did not understand the ramifications for the department as a whole.
At the Oct. 27 meeting, Mr. Bobkiewicz asked that Council consider restoring the position of Communicable Disease Specialist. He also suggested merging the positions of Public Health Educator and Communicable Disease Specialist into a single Management Analyst position, which he said would allow the City to continue to have a Health Department.
Because the Health Department’s certification does not expire until 2021, Mr. Bobkiewicz said the City could try in that year to regain certification. Ms. Thomas-Smith said that, since the certification process takes several months, she had planned to begin it in 2019.
Parks, Recreation, and
The City Manager’s proposed reduction of $545,467 in the Parks, Recreation, and Community Service Department would have changed operations at Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center, but on Oct. 27, at the request of Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, the City Manager took that off the table.
Mr. Williams also referred to splitting up the team forming the Youth & Young Adult Division, which he said is also a “key” division, serving vulnerable, low income residents. If these changes are made the “safety net is gone,” he said. (See story in Oct. 18 issue and at evanstonroundtable.com and on page 1.)
Mental Health Board
The Mental Health Board protects and promotes mental health and welfare of Evanston residents by making funding recommendations to organizations that provide mental health services to help at-risk residents. The proposed budget would cut funding to the Board by $250,000, a 35% cut from last year’s level of funding.
OPAL’s charts reflect that last year, the Mental Health Board funded many organizations that provide supports for more than 5,000 Evanstonians, of whom 2,200 were low income and 1,243 were Black.
City Council is scheduled to meet again on Nov. 5 to discuss the budget.