At the Nov. 12 City Council meeting, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz presented a second budget-balancing worksheet for aldermen to use to accept, reject or modify his proposed expense reductions and revenue enhancements.
Owing to a lengthy discussion at an earlier committee meeting and an abundance of speakers at the citizen comment session, the Council meeting itself did not get underway until about 9:45 p.m.
Aldermen then deliberated until after midnight, appearing to agree on some items but leaving several others to their next scheduled meeting, Nov. 19. In some cases, the proposed cuts that evoked resident and aldermanic opposition are now removed from consideration or their severity somewhat reduced. In other cases, cuts in programs and services and changes in personnel remain.
Near the end of the Council meeting, which leaked over into Tuesday, Mayor Stephen Hagerty said, “I think this version is, while difficult, better than the last version we saw.”
Spoiler alert: The news is good regarding Fire Station 4 and Mental Health Board funding, but less positive for the Health Department and the Youth and Young Adult Programs team. Many speakers at the Nov. 12 City Council meeting spoke to the proposed dismantling of the team; Mr. Bobkiewicz has said that is not a budget issue.
At the Nov. 19 meeting, Council members will tinker with a new set of proposed revenues and expenses. They may approve the budget that night, but they have until the end of the year to do that. By State law, the City Council must pass a balanced budget by the beginning of the next fiscal year, which for Evanston is Jan. 1, 2019.
City Budget 2.0
The fact that residents approved the increase in the real estate transfer tax enabled Mr. Bobkiewicz to project an additional $700,000 in revenue in the Nov. 12 worksheet. Also at that meeting, aldermen approved a new policy for dealing with parking violations during street-sweeping hours, which Assistant City Manager Erika Storlie said could bring in an additional $350,000 in revenue.
These measures could make the budget more palatable to Council members – and ultimately, to residents. Some remaining proposals, however, carry a deeper bite than might have been previously anticipated.
As an example, several City administrators and Council members said there would be no increase in the City’s portion of the property tax, but a 2% increase is now on the table, projected to bring in $820,000. The City takes only about 17% of the entire property tax bill; the two School Districts combined eat away about 68%. Oakton Community College, the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District and some Cook County taxing bodies also get a slice of the property tax pie.
The Evanston Public Library has its own line item as well, and this year the library is seeking about a 1.9% increase in its levy.
Public Safety and Community Health: Not all Council members appeared comfortable with the proposed cuts and revenue enhancements and some acknowledged that those were painful for them as well.
Saying that funding for mental health is a matter of community health, Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne asked that funding for the Mental Health Board be restored to last year’s amount.
The initial proposal was to cut the funding by $250,000; by Nov. 12 the amount of the reduction was $150,000. She suggested a few ways for the City to secure the additional funds, and Mr. Bobkiewicz said City staff would come up with a proposal to offset the $150,000 expense.
Fire Station 4 will remain open. Four vacant firefighter positions will be held open rather than eliminated, with those shifts covered through overtime. The Fire Department’s community engagement program will be gone – for the coming year, at least – and next year there will be a “cost study” to “look at costs associated with providing fire services,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said.
The Police Department will see the reduction of one Police Commander position, already vacant, in anticipation that two bureaus in the department will be consolidated under one commander.
Five vacant Police Officer positions will remain vacant, but other vacancies in the department will be eliminated.
Police Chief Richard Eddington announced several months ago that he would retire at the end of this year. Mr. Bobkiewicz has said he anticipates the City will have hired a new Police Chief by then.
Proposed cuts to the Health and Human Services Department threatened its State certification and its status as a health department. The position of Communicable Disease Surveillance Specialist would now be restored, allowing the department to retain its certification.
Mr. Bobkiewicz has proposed eliminating the positions of Public Health Educator and Assistant Health Department Director and having their duties assumed by a single Management Analyst. The position of Assistant Director has been vacant since the death of Carl Caneva a few months ago.
Rather than eliminate the service of providing vital records, the new worksheet proposed reduced hours for providing that service through the Health Department. Most aldermen appeared to agree with that proposal.
City Clerk Devon Reid angled for transferring the vital records service to his office, but no alderman supported his request.
Mr. Bobkiewicz had previously acquiesced to the request of Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons to have the City continue to operate Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center. He also, at aldermanic request, removed from consideration a proposed fee of $70 per block party.
Revenues and Savings
The City must effect some of its proposed revenue enhancements by ordinance, and at the Nov. 12 meeting, aldermen approved appropriate ordinances for introduction.
In addition to the estimated $700,000 from the increase in the real estate transfer tax, the City is anticipating the following revenues, among others.
• A 2% increase in the City’s portion of property taxes, which is projected to bring in $820,000.
• Beginning March 1, 2019, parking meter rates would increase by 50%, or 50 cents, per hour in 2019, rather than doubling to $2 per hour.
An increase of 50 cents per hour is anticipated for 2019. Parking meters would operate on Sunday – not for the full day, as was initially proposed – but from 1 to 9 p.m.
The City anticipates more parking-ticket revenue – about $400,000 – from the addition of two parking-enforcement officers. Monthly parking fees at surface lots would increase by 50% – from $60 to $90.
• Transportation network taxes – for rides beginning or ending in Evanston provided by such companies as Uber and Lyft – would increase for both single-person and shared rides.
Alderman approved a proposal by Sixth Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin that the increase will be $.20 per ride for shared rides and $0.45 for single rides, per ride, a slight decrease from the $.50 originally proposed. Rides for persons in wheelchairs would be exempt from the tax.
• Ambulance fees would increase to $1,500 per trip for residents and non-residents alike. The City projects additional revenue of about $400,000 from this measure, most or all of it to come from insurance reimbursements.
• Water rates would increase by 11% and sewer rates decrease by 7.5%. City officials have said the net cost of these two measures will be zero for most residents.
Water charges would increase from $8.83 to $9.60 for five units per two-month billing period. This represents the minimum charge and the minimum amount of water – that is, each customer is billed that rate for up to 5 units – 500 cubic feet or 3,740 gallons of water in the bimonthly billing cycle.
Charges after the basic minimum are measured in single units of 100 cubic feet or 748 gallons, and the charge will rise from $2.47 per unit to $2.74 per unit.
The sewer charge, which is based on the amount of water used by a customer, will be reduced because the debt service – which comprises 40% of the sewer budget – will be reduced by $760,000 with the final payment of debt service on two loans.
• The proposed increase in solid-waste disposal fees comes with a punch: Residents will not only pay more for regular pickups but they incur an additional “special pickup” charge if they have mingled non-recyclables with recyclables in the recycling bins.
For residential pickups, there will be a 15% increase in the regular charge for the 95-gallon and 65-gallon carts. For a 95-gallon garbage cart, the increase will be from $17.95 to $20.64 per month, or $32.28 per year; for a 65-gallon cart, the increase will be from $7.95 to $9.14 per month, or $14.28 per year.
The added charge for placing non-recyclables in a recycle container will be $25 and will be listed as a “special pickup” charge.
The charge for what has been commonly called special pickups – items placed outside the garbage carts – will increase from $60 to $100 for the first three cubic yards; the charge for each additional cubic yard will be $25, up from $10.
These charges will appear on the water/sewer bill, which residents receive bimonthly. Last year, the City began allowing food-scrap and compostable materials in yard-waste carts without any clear definition of what those are. New ordinances may be coming to define “food scraps” and “compostable materials” and specifying what may go into yard-waste cards.
There are also increases in the wheel tax, parking-meter fines, parking-garage hourly rates, commuter parking-lot rates and residents-only parking permits.
City staff will look into charging a higher fee for more restrictive permits – all-day rather than early-morning proscription.
The general wage increase (GWI) for many City employees – previously estimated at 2.6% – has been eliminated. That elimination, however, could be short-lived, as some of the unions are at present in negotiations with the City.
As now proposed, there would be no GWI for AFSCME or IAFF employees or for police officers and sergeants.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said he would return to Council on Nov. 19 with Budget 2.5. He said he believed it is important to deal with the debt service for the new Robert Crown Center – $1 million this year – and to bolster the City’s reserves by $1.5 million.
“I believe it’s necessary,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said. “Rainy days will come. It’s important to have some reserves. I believe it’s a fair budget.”