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.