Discussion of equity at the Oct. 27 City Council meeting became so mired in minutiae that it deviated from the crucial question, “Is the City’s proposed budget for 2019 an equitable one?”
Patricia Efiom, who has served as the City’s Chief Equity Officer for more than a year and a half, said the answer to that question is both “Yes” and “No.” The reasons she gave appeared to be somewhat divergent. She said the City has no definition of equity and then she said there is not sufficient data to determine whether this budget is equitable.
We think that, for purposes of this budget season, Dr. Efiom has put too fine a point on things. Anyone who is a parent, a teacher, an administrator, a social worker or an economist has a working concept of equity.
Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons said on Oct. 27 equity to her was having all residents in the Fifth Ward have the same opportunities and quality of life as everyone else in Evanston.
Given Dr. Efiom’s comments, it appears that this budget was not prepared with an equity lens. It was prepared without input from people who manage programs, and it was prepared without a clear understanding of how it will impact the people being served by various programs.
At this point, it is late in the day to evaluate the budget with an equity lens. But we think City Council should assess, as best they can, the following questions:
How will a proposed budget cut or a proposed revenue increase likely affect different racial and ethnic groups?
Will an increase in fees or costs disproportionately impact low-income households?
Will a budget cut reduce the opportunities for youth, particularly those who do not have all the advantages that youth from more affluent families have?
Will a budget cut have a negative impact on people with a mental illness or a disability or who are homeless?
We think some reasonable judgments can be made, even though Dr. Efiom says there is no data to measure the impact. Making a reasonable judgment is better than making no attempt at all. We may have to rely on the test that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote when he said about obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”
We said in our previous editorial that we believe the budget is unacceptable, and with this working definition of equity, we would say that the proposed budget is inequitable in its allocation of some burdens.
We stand by our objections to cutting funding for the City’s Mental Health Board, closing Fire Station 4, eliminating positions in the Health Department and shuffling employees – that last move allegedly for the sake of reorganization.
Many social service agencies depend on City funding, not just for the money but also for the endorsement – that the City believes in them – they can use to leverage additional funds. These agencies serve the needs of the most vulnerable of our residents – at-risk children and youth, the homeless, the mentally ill, the elderly and victims of violence, to list only some.
The City Manager now claims that staff did not understand the consequences of laying off certain employees of the Health Department. Speaking to the Director or reading her response to the proposed cuts might have cleared up what he is now calling a “miscommunication.”
We welcome the effort to help restore some of the functions of the Health Department but believe the better course is to have it remain intact. Many residents have pointed out how the Health Department benefits the entire community. There are basic initiatives to promote exercise, discourage the consumption of sugary drinks and stop smoking. In the swine flu epidemic a few years ago, when there was a run on vaccinations, the Health Department was able to procure vaccinations for hundreds of residents, particularly the young and the old.
Closing a fire station poses too much risk for the community. The added response time to a medical emergency can affect the victim’s chances of recovery. The longer a fire burns, the greater the danger of ruined property and injury to firefighters entering a burning building – not to mention people who may still be inside the burning structure.
Depending upon the purpose, reshuffling personnel may be the right of the City Manager, but we object to breaking apart one of the best-functioning divisions in the City – the Youth and Young Adult Programs division. Under the leadership of Kevin Brown, many of our youth have been enticed from the street into education or training or both. He has created partnerships and apprenticeships that lead to long-term employment for some of our youth who might have thought their choices were dead-end jobs or life on the street. The City Manager’s reason for splitting the team just does not ring true.
We are encouraged by the Council’s movement on Oct. 29 to find additional revenue sources to help mitigate some of the real pain the community will feel in this budget.
Times are uncertain and frightening enough at the national level. We could all use some local comfort.