Budget review uncovers new funds for city

Andy Nelson

Savvy accounting and number crunching will alleviate some of the city’s budget woes — and not a moment too soon.

In a change from original projections, the city will have about $200,000 more in funds for next year’s budget, said City Manager Roger Crum.

The extra funds come from a re-evaluation of city revenues and expenditures, which were examined again in preparation for the council’s final budget meeting Feb. 24, Crum said. He said the final evaluation will be completed later this week.

Crum’s original 2003-04 budget projected a deficit of $3.5 million. He proposed balancing the deficit with a variety of cuts and an increase in the city’s portion of property taxes. The tax hike would increase bills by 1.5 percent and generate $1.2 million.

Now aldermen can use the $200,000 in re-evaluated funds to reduce taxes or to restore services, said Finance Director Bill Stafford.

“It’ll be up to the will of the council,” he said.

Stafford said there are some limitations on how the city will be able to use the money, because the re-evaluated figures are based on cuts already in the budget.

For instance, fringe benefits for staff members who would be eliminated by the proposed budget account for some of the reduced expenditures. If the council restored one of those positions, it would have to pay for the benefits again, lowering the amount of new funds available.

Half of the anticipated funds come from increased revenue and the rest from decreased expenditures, Stafford said. Belt-tightening in two departments resulted in many of the spending decreases, Stafford added, but he would not specify which departments.

Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) said the extra funds could be used as a cushion if ongoing labor negotiations cost the city more than expected. Evanston is in negotiations with all four of its unions this year.

The city manager projected a 2 percent annual raise in the four union contracts. Unions would also receive $561,000 in employee medical premiums. Union representatives have said that’s not enough, and Crum wrote that the city “anticipates difficulty” in arriving at an agreement.

Ald. Joe Kent (5th) agreed that the money could be used to meet unexpected costs.

“Any time you have money left over, it’s a cushion for something,” he said.

Kent said he would look into using the money to reduce the tax hike but first wanted to know how much relief the funds would really provide.

“Most people really do need a tax break of some type,” Kent said. “The question is whether $200,000 will really be able to make a significant impact.”

Ald. Stephen Engelman (7th) said the new money could replace an increase in rooming house license fees proposed by Ald. Gene Feldman (9th).

Feldman proposed the license hike, which would generate $188,000, as part of a budget amendment that would keep the South Branch Library open and eliminate cuts in other places, including the police and fire departments.

Feldman’s proposal would increase costs for hotels, dorms and Greek houses. Engelman said he opposed an increase because the city raised the fees just three years ago.