Debate continues after fair share vote

The vote is in, but the direction remains unclear.

Although the March 21 fair share referendum passed by a landslide, neither City Council members nor Northwestern administrators know where the debate about the university’s financial contributions to Evanston will go from here.

In the Illinois primary election, 83.5 percent of voting Evanston residents supported the City Council’s advisory referendum proposing that NU pay its “fair share” of the cost of municipal services the city provides for the university. According to returns collected the day of the election, 10,524 people cast votes in favor of the referendum while 2,257 voted against it.

Proponents of the referendum said the landslide vote has sent the indisputable message to university administrators that it’s time for NU to pay up.

“Regardless of what Gene Sunshine and Al Cubbage and other people feel, the citizens of Evanston have spoken,” said Dave Ellis, co-chairman of the Fair Share Action Committee. “They are keenly attuned to what’s going on here — their property taxes are subsidizing services that Northwestern receives.”

Sunshine, NU’s senior vice president for business and finance, said he wasn’t surprised with the results but didn’t think they would affect the way the administration deals with City Council.

“You didn’t need a referendum to empower the councilmen to come through these doors to talk and listen so we can tell you what’s on our minds,” Sunshine said. “We’ll be happy to sit and negotiate.”

But Ald. Arthur Newman (1st) said he didn’t think the council would try to negotiate with the university right now because the two institutions are in the midst of negotiations concerning the proposed historical district.

The historical district would contain 50 NU properties on the west side of Sheridan Road, including university office buildings and the Foster-Walker Complex. New zoning laws could restrict renovations on these buildings, a loss of flexibility that Sunshine said would hurt the university.

While fair share committee members have alleged that NU administrators believe only a few Evanston residents want the university to make a contribution, Sunshine said he has always known that many expect NU to pay.

For more than 100 years, Evanston residents and NU administrators have been tangled in a bitter debate over whether the university should do more to ensure the financial security of the city.

Because of its 1851 state charter NU is exempt from paying property taxes that the city uses to fund services such as police and fire protection, road maintenance, and parks and recreation.

Sunshine said the university contributes to the well-being of the city in other ways — for example, by paying the city more than $3.5 million in other taxes and fees, creating jobs for Evanston residents and purchasing more than $15 million in goods and services from Evanston businesses.

“We know there are opportunities for us to do even more, whether it’s providing services or actual dollars or just sitting down with the City Council and talking about the situation,” Sunshine said.

But city and university officials have continued to spar over technicalities, Sunshine said, and no real resolution is in sight.

Ald. Stephen Engelman (7th) said he has always felt that the referendum was the wrong tactic because it would not substantially impact NU’s intentions or accurately reflect the desires of the public.

“Voting on this is like voting on motherhood and apple pie,” he said. “NU will be less motivated by the results of this referendum than with the willingness of the council to discuss matters of mutual concern,” Engelman said.

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