City Council votes to keep parks referendum off ballot

Emily Ramshaw

Evanston City Council decided Saturday morning to keep a parks and recreation referendum off the April ballot, opting instead to allocate funds to the city’s most immediate parks concerns.

The city will provide $11.5 million over the next seven years to renovate the city’s soccer and baseball fields, basketball and tennis courts, and parks. The money will be distributed at a rate of about $1.5 million per year and will be added incrementally to the city’s capital improvement fund.

The renovations will be funded in what Ald. Dennis Drummer (2nd) dubbed a “pay-as-you-go” manner, which means the council most likely will raise property taxes and put the city in debt.

Originally, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department proposed a $35 million referendum that would have included a new multipurpose recreation facility, parks and playing field improvements and Robert Crown Center renovations. The new multipurpose facility was removed from the plan last week after residents and city officials expressed uneasiness about its cost and feasibility, bringing the referendum cost down to about $20 million.

Amendments to the referendum made by Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) further reduced the referendum by leaving out improvements to the Crown Center and plans for a Centennial Park beachfront kiosk, bringing the cost down to the current $11.5 million amount.

The referendum came to the council floor Monday but was postponed. The council rejected it Saturday but agreed to offer Rainey’s suggested $11.5 million for the parks renovations.

Rainey said she proposed removing the Crown Center improvements and Centennial Park kiosk from the referendum because of concerns that not enough research has been done on the city’s structural needs. She said she hopes the community will take the time to discuss all of these needs and address them.

“I think a year’s worth of education, discussion and research on the city’s structural projects would do the city good,” she said.

Hours of debate preceded Saturday’s decision, and some city officials expressed fears that future councils will not follow through on the improvements if they are scheduled to take place over a seven-year period.

Mayor Lorraine Morton said the council should carefully consider any proposal that involves raising property taxes.

Ald. Stephen Engelman (7th) recommended putting a referendum for the proposed $11.5 million on the April ballot as a response to Morton’s concerns. But parks and recreation board members appeared disheartened by the way the proposal’s funding was whittled down from $35 million over the past week, saying they would not want to put the time and energy into soliciting support for what they called a “modest proposal.”