Penny-pinching proposal pleasing to council

Dalia Naamani-Goldman

Several Evanston aldermen have applauded City Manager Roger Crum’s 2003-04 budget proposal, which attempts to address an anticipated $3.5 million deficit, although they agreed there’s bound to be some squabbling over specific cuts and tax increases.

“We are in the second year of very serious (financial) problems” stemming from a decline in the national and state economies, said Ald. Stephen Engelman (7th).

The budget, released to the public Monday, calls for an 8.6 percent increase in the city’s portion of property taxes, the elimination of 22 full-time city positions and the closure of the South Branch Public Library, among other cuts. The proposal spread the reductions across every department, though some areas will shoulder more of the burden than others.

“The saving grace is that the people of Evanston are aware of what’s happening everywhere else (in the country),” said Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th).

With a downturn in the economy and decreased federal revenue, the government is giving less money to states. Municipalities like Evanston are feeling the pinch as well.

Bernstein said he is optimistic that Evanston’s economy will improve over the next fiscal year. The city can expect additional revenue from condominiums currently under construction, and Bernstein said he is hopeful new stores will move into vacant spaces.

“We’ll have that many more pockets to pick,” he said.

While Bernstein is not enthusiastic about raising property taxes, he said it might be very necessary.

“If we want to have a pristine, well-maintained, manicured community, we’ll have to pay more in taxes,” he said. “You see the trees haven’t been pruned. That’s a function of trying to stretch the manpower.”

Like last year’s budget proposal, this year’s calls for the closure of the South Branch Library, which serves half of Bernstein’s constituents.

“That’s going to be a bloodbath,” he said.

Both the North and South branches were on the chopping block last year, but after library users protested the plans were dropped. According to Crum, the North Branch wasn’t targeted this year because it’s more popular, but also because the city owns the building. Evanston rents space for the South Branch.

Ald. Joseph Kent (5th) said he does not understand the logic of Crum’s decision to close only the South Branch.

“Both provide service to the community,” he said. “It might as well be a clean sweep.”

But Engelman said fewer residents use the South Branch.

“If you’re going to close a library, the South Branch should be closed,” he said. “The North (Branch) is more efficient. No one likes to cut services, but clearly we have to cut some.”

Bernstein agreed: “You can’t operate at a deficit — unless you’re the federal government.”

During the past six weeks, the aldermen have hosted meetings for Evanston residents to explain the $3.5 million budget gap.

Evanston City Council must approve a final budget by March 1. The aldermen will meet Saturday at 9 a.m. for a budget review session.

“Last year we took things off the table too quickly,” Engelman said. “We need to make a careful analysis of each and everything proposed.”

The Daily’s Andy Nelson contributed to this report.