Council still searches for budget help

Susan Daker and Matt Lopas

With City Council’s deadline approaching for adoption of next year’s budget, it remains unclear how aldermen at tonight’s council meeting will solve Evanston’s nearly $4 million budget deficit.

The council is scheduled to approve a budget tonight after months of debate and controversy over cuts to city services and tax increases, though the council has until to Feb. 28 to decide.

“We’ll do what we have to do and we will probably not be happy about it,” Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th) said.

For the past several weeks residents have spoken at meetings and at one point demonstrated outside Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave. They protested controversial cuts originally proposed by City Manager Roger Crum, including closing two branches of the Evanston Public Library, eliminating the Summer Youth Employment program and substantially reducing funding for social service organizations.

Alds. Arthur Newman (1st), Melissa Wynne (3rd) and Gene Feldman (9th) unveiled a new proposal at the Feb. 18 budget workshop that differs greatly from Crum’s initial budget proposal, released Dec 4.

Instead of the steep cuts that Crum recommended to programs such as the Arts Council and Evanston Community Media Center, the aldermen’s proposal includes reducing the city’s non-union employee raises and benefits as well as finding new sources of revenue. The aldermen suggested increased parking fines and a 7.24 percent hike in the city’s portion of property taxes.

Ald. Edmund Moran (6th) said he would not support a $190,000 cut to mental health grants and Community Purchased Services in the aldermen’s proposal because it departs from resident’s expressed values.

“(Residents) said they value our diversity,” Moran said. “From their perspective the way that was translated was by giving money to support the less fortunate.”

Another controversial cut is to the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre. Though the new proposal’s $31,000 reduction differs greatly from Crum’s recommendation that would have eliminated the program, several aldermen still thought the cut was too much. The aldermen’s proposal likely would leave the adult theater program at its current location but would move the children’s program to the Levy Senior Center, 1629 Chicago Ave., taking the program out of the neighborhood.

“I don’t want to jeopardize the success of either program by sticking our nose in,” said Ald. Ann Rainey (8th).

Moran said he did not support the aldermen’s $325,000 cut that reduces all non-union city employee’s raises from 4 percent to 2 percent and reduces benefits. Contracts of union employees cannot be changed until 2003, when they expire.

“It’s my understanding and belief that our approach has been to be equitable with the entire employee base,” Moran has said. “This is a radical departure from a long-term precedent.”

Next year’s budget requires more cuts than other years because of high legal costs, a poor economy and a drop in sales tax revenues after Sept. 11.

Last year, the council balanced a nearly $2 million deficit by raising the city’s share of property taxes by 2.5 percent and the sales tax by 0.25 percent. To balance next year’s budget, the aldermen’s proposal also looked to increase revenue by tax hikes and increases in fines and fees.

Since at least the 1970s, Evanston has had trouble balancing the budget, due partly to the large portion of property used by non-profit organizations – including Northwestern – that leaves only 45 percent of its property on the tax rolls. Because of the city’s socioeconomic diversity, Evanston has problems generating revenue.

But some aldermen see the need to find a more permanent solution. Ald. Stephen Engelman (7th) suggested looking at the programs previously eliminated from consideration, including the Summer Youth Employment Program and the police school liaison officers.

“The real solution is cutting service,” Engelman said. “We are not going to get a handle until we solve the systemic problem.”