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Evanston Residents Engage Over City Budget, Demand Better Planning

Evanston residents sounded off Thursday night at the year's first citywide public forum for the budget planning process.

What is the best way for the City of Evanston to plug a projected $1.4 million deficit in the 2012 city budget?

That is the question city officials have been asking residents for the past week as part of the Engage Evanston campaign, an attempt by the city to solicit public knowledge and opinion on both potential budget cuts and ideas for new revenue sources.

Though city representatives have recently held listening events at prominent locations in various Evanston neighborhoods, Thursday night’s budget meeting held at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., marked the first citywide public forum in a 5-month-long process leading toward the eventual submission of a Fiscal Year 2012 Proposed Budget at the Oct. 7 City Council meeting.

Near 40 residents and city officials assembled to listen to City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz review upcoming budget issues, to make suggestions and to flat out vent frustrations.

Bobkiewicz said that regardless of the issue or intention, he was happy to hear from residents, to bring “more substance” to the budget process than in past years and to avoid tax hikes.

“I don’t pretend to be the expert,” Bobkiewicz said. “I want to hear from the community and the council wants to hear from the community, so we’re getting a running start now to do that, versus scrambling in October or November.”

Citizen comments ranged from practical suggestions (“reduce salaries of the city manager and aldermen”) to contentious accusations (“the city is not tracking real costs … and the staff has presented phony numbers for services and programs”).

Throughout, though, a few trends of common appeals emerged: foster business, protect the arts, plan long term and trim excess fat in the form of non-mandated services.

Evanston resident Kevin O’Connor criticized the recent implementation of the City’s 311 non-emergency call center, calling the move that required the hiring of 12 new union employees both expensive and unnecessary. He said the city misinterpreted a demand for greater transparency and better informed operators as a mandate to create the hotline.

Evanston-based attorney Jeff Smith said his beef was with the city’s accounting processes, which did not assign present values towards long term payments such as pensions, leaving future taxpayers to carry burdens that had not been intelligently examined when they were promised.

“The temptation, when budget is tight, is not invest in the future and spend on the present,” Smith said. “In budgeting, they just look at current budget expenditures, and then we end up with these pensions holes into which we are trying to fund.”

Resident Carl Bova also expressed discontent with Evanston’s lack of long-term planning, saying well analyzed payments for infrastructure maintenance could save the city money down the road by increasing the longevity of building and roadway repairs.

“For example, I can spend $5,000 today and maybe get 5 years of roadway improvement,” Bova said. “But maybe I can spend $10,000 next year on that same road, but instead of 10, I get 15 years.”

In the past week, residents have also been encouraged to submit suggestions via Facebook, Twitter, email, phone and through an Engage Evanston website. After an idea is suggested and posted online, other residents can vote thumbs-up or thumbs-down, giving the recommendation an overall positive or negative rating.

Some of the more popular ideas have been “allow alcohol sales at park events” (+51), “sell advertising space in City publications” (+46), “charge other communities more for our water” (+38) and “utilize a more fuel efficient fleet” (+45).

Some of the more unpopular ideas include “eliminate yard waste collection services” (-31), “cut pensions” (-15), “install red light cameras” (-24) and “file for bankruptcy” (-10).

Bobkiewicz said the resident suggestion phase is just one step in the budget process.

The City has also developed an elaborate evaluation system which would assign a numerical value for programs and services in relation to City priorities, by scoring them (0-4) in 13 categories ranging from “economic viability” and “environmental sustainability” to “cost recovery” and “reliance on City to provide service.”Afterward, composite scores will be compared and evaluated in combination with other criteria, hopefully leading to a better understanding of what must stay and what can go.

Additionally, the City will analyze how other similar Illinois and U.S. cities, ones with universities and comparable demographics, are tackling their own budget problems.

Results from the community comparison, program prioritization summary and other budget planning processes will be shared in the form of recommended program reductions and eliminations at the Aug. 8 City Council meeting.

Notable problems facing the City in the budget process include a capital needs projection of more than $32 million for deferred infrastructure maintenance (near 3 times the normal amount), potential cuts to a City staff that has already decrease in size by 4.5% in the past decade, a general obligation debt load of $111.2 million dollars (of which the City pays off interest owed but rarely attempts to lower the principal) and the possibility that Illinois may cut $5 million from the City’s share of State income tax.

Bobkiewicz says difficult decisions will have to be made in the coming months, but that community input will be essential throughout to ensure that the final budget accurately reflects public consensus.

“The most difficult part of this process is trying to be fair and meet community standards,” Bobkiewicz  said, “because at the end of the day, Evanston is Evanston, and we want Evanston to stay Evanston. But if you have to make the budget smaller and make the services smaller, how do we do that without hampering and injuring what makes this community so great?”

Under current projections, the City's budget deficit will swell to $3.2 million in FY2013 if nothing is changed.

Richard Schulte May 07, 2011 at 02:49 AM
I had a great idea about how to reduce the cost of government, but I'm afraid to make the suggestion. . . .Evanston is located in Crook County, ya know.
John C Thomson May 07, 2011 at 04:17 PM
Richard, before I get into this issue, thanks for the information about whats going on with the situation down in New Orleans. That was very informative. “I don’t pretend to be the expert,” Bobkiewicz said. Wait a minute Mr. Bobkiewicz, wasn't that what you were hired for to provide the expertise on budgetary matters. Its quite simple you know? I do it all the time, I spend on those things I need and if I can't afford it I either cut back somewhere or just flat out do without. I don't have the luxury of tapping into "other peoples money." While feedback is nice from the community it doesn't or shouldn't drive the engine. Zero Based Budgeting (original phrase coined by Texas Instruments) is a model that says you don't spend what you don't have. This state says that we can borrow and tax our way out of our financial predicament but isn't that how we got here in the first place. Giving out early retirements and allowing earlier draws on their pensions doesn't seem a wise decision.
Neil Elliott May 07, 2011 at 08:59 PM
The city manager, Mr. Bobcat, spends on a lot of stuff the residents hate and ignores their wishes totally. You can see him smirking and sneering at citizens who speak at public meetings. He thinks we're funny. Well, I think he's funny, and we could save a lot of money by firing him. Neil Elliott
Richard Schulte May 08, 2011 at 11:53 AM
(I base my assumptions on simple math and Econ 101). Tom, thank you for your common sense approach. A very good suggestion.
victoria smith May 09, 2011 at 11:56 AM
I agree with Tom's suggestion. Evanston has run out of options. Instead of trying to pretend that if we do this or if we do that it will help us get out of the hole that continues just to get bigger and bigger. Nobody likes the "B" word, but as of this point I think maybe it is the only alternative that acually makes any sense. Thanks Tom and Richard for all of your great insites and level headed approaches to the growing problems at hand. We should have had more people like you running our fair city!
Richard Schulte May 09, 2011 at 02:49 PM
Tom, so far you are running a great campaign for mayor. Based upon what I've read from you, you have my vote (if I haven't moved to Florida before the next election). I'd be very interestede in reading your work on the Evanston finances. It's difficult work pouring through numbers. Thanks for all of your interest in the City. Mayor Fischl has a good ring to it. Your middle initial wouldn't be "O" would it? Then you'd be Mayor Tom O. Fischl. Thanks victoria for letting me know that somebody thinks that what I write is worth reading (even if you don't agree with me).
Richard Schulte May 09, 2011 at 08:08 PM
If they had just cut taxes in February 2009, rather than tried to spend their way out of this mess, this recession would have been over long ago. It worked for President Kennedy in the early 1960's and President Reagan borrowed JFK's idea. In other words, it worked for both sides of the aisle. If Wal-Mart sold milk for $10/gallon, they wouldn't sell much milk. Lower the price, sell more. It works the same for business and taxes. If you want less business (employment), raise the cost of doing business-the Evanston model. If you want more business (employment), cut the cost of doing business. Common sense. (You know that, but I'm writing in hopes that some other people might start to get it too.) The country of Chile in South America is doing grand-they hired Milton Friedman as a consultant and got supply-side economics. Canada and Australia are doing great economically too. What's wrong with us? Absolutely no leadership at the top-too busy playing golf and going on vacations to pay attention. Can't wait for November 2012, but I'm not sure my business will survive for that long. I hope you and me are wrong about the double-dip, but I think the writing is on the wall. As soon as gasoline hit $4/gallon, my business went to zero. I have plenty of time to comment on Patch now.
John C Thomson May 10, 2011 at 02:18 PM
Its been said that 67% of property taxes go towards our schools. If this is true, is it written in cement? Could the percentages be altered so that more taxes went to the budget? And why not? Who says that 67% should go to the schools?
Richard Schulte May 12, 2011 at 01:57 AM
That's what I was thinking too. We have been throwing money at the schools, but we're not getting a very good return on our investment. We should be able to cut the school budgets and also get better schools at the same time. I was walking by an elementary school this afternoon and was watching the physical education teacher and students out in the school yard. Sorry to say this, but that job looks like a minimum wage job. I couldn't help but wonder what the salary of the phys ed. teacher was. We could probably get parents to do that job on a volunteer basis or for minimum wage. Don't know how many phys. ed. teachers there are in the schools in Evanston, but it would be my guess that that's quite a big pot of money that could be saved. Sorry phys. ed. teachers, but standing around in a school yard watching children play is not very difficult or demanding.
Steve May 12, 2011 at 10:56 AM
The pension system needs to be abolished right now. Those currently in the system would not be affected, but any new hires no longer receive the pension option. It's a very out-dated system. I also will not blame the public employees for demanding what they were promised. It's not necessarily their fault that the states and cities decided to raid their funds to plug holes in their budgets. Now there are short-falls everywhere. Several groups are trying to assign blame to the evil employees when it is once again the politicians who created this mess.
Richard Schulte May 12, 2011 at 11:10 AM
Tom, sorry but I have to disagree with you here. The salaries and benefits of public sector employees, as well as the number of public sector employees is, of course, an important component of the cost of government. The highest paid teacher in the State of Illinois in 2010 was a phys. ed. teacher. Off the top of my head, his salary (only) is $186 thousand annually. If you think that paying a phys. ed. teacher that sort of salary is justified, then you just lost my vote for mayor. I would also say that you have lost your mind. As looks can be deceiving, so can experiences. Simply because a PE teacher inspired you is not justification for paying PE teachers 6 figure salaries. Inspiration comes from many sources-by fate, yours came from a PE teacher. My inspiration came from my grandfather-cost to the taxpayers for my inspiration: $0. Inspirational figures are all around. History books are filled with inspirational figures. Compensation for public employees should be based the degree of difficulty in performing a task, hours worked and merit. It is certainly not necessary to have a 4 year college degree to supervise 3rd graders while that do what comes naturally-running around and playing. It seems to me that the pay scale for teachers and police officers should be about the same. If I recall correctly, the maximum annual salary of a police officer in Evanston is $75K, but the working conditions between the jobs is hardly comparable.
Richard Schulte May 12, 2011 at 11:32 AM
Tom, in your post you mentioned Harvard, Yale, West Point and Northwestern. I assume that you mentioned these universities as examples of the pinnacle of academic success. President Bush (41), President Clinton and President Bush (43) were all graduates of Yale. President Obama is a Harvard graduate. President Carter was a Naval Academy graduate. Now look at the mess we're in. Sorry, but I not buying into the fact that graduates of Harvard, Yale or Northwestern Universities are smarter than the rest of us. What we need is a dose of common sense. You can't get a college degree in common sense. President Reagan, the most successful president since President Truman, had a degree from Eureka College. Not sure where President Truman went to college, or if he even went to college, but Give 'em Hell Harry was a pretty smart guy for being just a Kansas City politician. The smartest person that I've ever known, my grandfather, had a 3rd grade education and didn't speak English as a young child. Some of the most successful people in America (measured in terms of wealth), such as Bill Gates, didn't finish college. It doesn't take a president with an Ivy League degree to figure out what's wrong and what to do about it. Heck, I know what's wrong and what to do about it and I'm just a commoner.
Richard Schulte May 12, 2011 at 01:08 PM
BTW, if you're looking for inspiration, the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri is an excellent place to find it. Independence is just east of Kansas City, about 9-1/2 hours by car from Evanston. Been there 3 times since 2002. The admission is $6 if I recall correctly. Harry and Bess Truman are buried out back. Stop by and pay your respects. President Truman was a Dem president that earned the respect of Republicans-my kind of Dem. Be prepared for no crowds-you will have the place practically to yourself. What a lovely place to visit.
John C Thomson May 12, 2011 at 06:18 PM
We're talking budget here, right? When I was hired by Northwestern University - University Relations Department, my job was to implement a charge back system to all of the departments who used the services of UR"s 5 editors and 5 graphic designers, als0 add the costs of all the typesetting, paper that were absorbed in producing the numerouse publications that NU produces. All this while not making the editors and designers feel that they had been reduced to hourly wage earners. No need to go into what I did but trust me it was successful. I was educated in accounting, though I did not have a degree. When I ran for City Council in 1993 I drew upon my experiences with city organizations (CEDA Neighbors At Work, COE-Pops) and my background. Given what the city council does sitting around with all those meetings I'm glad I did not win, but did I think I was qualified. Moreso, than many on the council because I had come to see that the council members are not representative to the entire ward they represent only the 1,000 or so that voted for them. I did not have a college education nor infact a high school education. The truth is, having raised 3 gainfully employed children, one currently aboard the USS Nimitz, I sit and rock with my 2 grandechildren - retired. Oh, and what did I do before working for NU 30 years ago, I spent 20 yrs in over a dzn penitentiaries though the midwest. A prison school teacher had enough influence to encourage me to accept Christ in my life.
Richard Schulte May 13, 2011 at 12:33 PM
"Oh, and what did I do before working for NU 30 years ago, I spent 20 yrs in over a dzn penitentiaries though the midwest. A prison school teacher had enough influence to encourage me to accept Christ in my life." A very inspirational story! America has its faults, but its still a wonderful country. I just wish more people would learn to appreciate how lucky we Americans all are.

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