Evanston Panel Molds Budget Agenda

Task force hammers out fiscal suggestions as city fund has $2.9 million shortfall.

The Evanston City Council will have an additional tool for shaping the budget as the Mayor's Budget Task Force Committee finalizes its report in the coming weeks and recommends ways to foster long-term fiscal responsibility and enhance revenue.

The task force, gathering Tuesday night for its second meeting, plans to present its report to the City Council on Sept. 27 in helping to set the agenda for budget talks in the coming weeks and years. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl appointed the panel late last year.

The city's 2009-2010 budget ended with a $2.9 million general fund deficit, according to data presented in May. The panel's report will encourage the City Council to list and choose core services that are a must and tie its decisions to the city's established core values.

The committee members, who include former elected officials as well as business and nonprofit leaders, have reviewed many items during discussions over the past several months. Among their suggestions: earning additional revenue by selling the city's water service.

The City Council must consider the entrepreneurial spirit necessary to complete such a project, said Mark Sloane, chairman of the task force.

City Treasurer Martin Lyons said that the members should also recommend uses for the additional revenue from such a venture.

The revenue could be set aside for capital projects that are now funded through bond proceeds, Lyons said. The city could realize $10 million a year in its general fund using that money, which is dedicated to debt service on bonds, he said.

Sloane said the committee agreed that the council must take a "deep, hard look" at property tax exemptions in the city, That review may include exemptions to rental apartments and nursing homes, whose tax statuses vary depending on the services offered.

While economic development must be a priority, Stephen Engelman, a former alderman who is on the committee, argued that the city should have its eye toward attracting businesses that create well-paying jobs.

Though the task force found consensus on most items, some disagreements remained. The idea that the council should again consider ways to utilize perhaps its largest asset — the lakefront — brought dissension.

That question was asked and answered, and developing the lakefront clearly is not "part of the community's vision," said Jeanne Lindwall, another member of the review panel. Others argued that the idea of "development " could include allowing for vendors to sell coffee on the lakefront or adding a bus route that allows teenagers to travel to the lake more easily.

The budget process has already begun as departments have been asked to provide funding requests and identify reductions to help slash 5 percent of the general fund budget, Lyons said.

Residents will have opportunities to add ideas during public sessions scheduled  Sept. 14 and 29. The city budget is expected to be presented to council members for consideration on Oct. 8, Lyons said.

The council must complete the budget process in December, as the city moves up the start of its fiscal year from March to January.


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