Proposed police, fire cuts get heat at budget review

Proposed cuts to the fire and police departments were among the issues debated at the first Evanston City Council budget review session Saturday morning — though one alderman said such cuts were so dangerous that they should not have been proposed in the first place.

“There is no support for the argument that everything in the community is wonderful and crime is down,” Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) said. “(This) should not be tolerated by the community.”

Saturday’s meeting was the first in a series of three Saturday morning budget workshops. The council must approve a balanced budget and overcome a $3.5 million deficit before the fiscal year starts on March 1.

Police and fire cuts received the smallest percentage reductions in City Manager Roger Crum’s balanced budget proposal, at 2 percent of their department budgets. But along with the closing of the South Branch library, they were among the most controversial.

Crum proposed the elimination of three middle school liaison officer positions. The current officers would relocate from Evanston/Skokie School District 65 schools to street positions, and other vacancies in the department would be cut.

Police Chief Frank Kaminski told the council his department would still try to provide service to the schools.

Ald. Gene Feldman (9th) said he is concerned that fewer officers would be on Evanston streets in the summer, when many children are outside.

Rainey said she has received complaints about continued problems in the downtown area from constituents, and a reduction in the police force might make things worse.

“To eliminate them from the force is wrong,” she said.

Like the proposed police cuts, many aldermen were upset with the fire department cuts, which proposed the reduction of overtime pay by $100,000 and severance pay by $50,000 across the force. In order to reduce overtime costs, firefighters who called in sick or couldn’t work would not be replaced with a fill-in, Fire Chief John Wilkinson said.

“Any kind of mitigation that limits the effectiveness and safety of the community is the kind of thing that I certainly could not support,” Feldman said.

Ald. Joseph Kent (5th) also said he was concerned with safety. He requested that city staff investigate the difference in response times that could result from the fire department changes.

Crum’s budget proposal also would close the South Branch of the library, 949 Chicago Ave. The main library would open at 1 p.m. instead of 9 a.m. during the week, and five full-time employees would lose their jobs.

Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) proposed closing both the North and South branch libraries to shift the focus on keeping the Main Library open longer. Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) said the library branches should be viewed as extra services provided by the city. Even if a branch closes, the main library would still be available, he said.

But agencies like the Childcare Network of Evanston are essential, Jean-Baptiste said — though some aldermen questioned whether programs like the network, which serves far fewer people than the libraries, should be funded while the more popular service is cut.

“The services these branches provide cannot be compared to (these) agencies,” Jean-Baptiste said. “These programs would totally fail if we pull money. There is a qualitative difference between the services we provide for needy families and the services we provide at different libraries.”