City increases its debt limit to $85 million

Evanston City Council voted Wednesday to increase its self-imposed debt limit from $75 million to $85 million.

The change was necessary because City Council also passed a plan to issue $12 million in bonds over the next year to fund capital improvements and insurance. The bonds were approved in the budget passed in February. But the city staff asked to refinance the city’s bonds — which will allow Evanston to borrow more money with the same investment. The plan will push the city’s debt to $81 million.

“This is not an authorization to spend,” said Ald. Gene Feldman (9th). “This is just a limit.”

The current bonds are funded by the debt services portion of property taxes, but neither action taken Wednesday will affect property taxes this year. Any property-tax increase must be passed by the council with its annual budget. Next year’s budget is due by March 1.

“Let me be perfectly clear,” said Ald. Arthur Newman (1st). “There is a zero increase in spending because of what we are doing tonight.”

Director of Finance William Stafford originally proposed the debt limit be increased to $100 million as part of a five-year plan.

But Newman said Stafford was “opening a can of worms” by presenting the council with a five-year plan when it can only commit to one year.

But it is necessary to discuss long-term strategies, Stafford said. Over the next five years the city could face a $21 million expenditure in insurance against outstanding litigation and another $18 million in capital spending for improvements to roads, viaducts and the Evanston Civic Center.

“We don’t want to put the council in a position where we wait and wait to discuss these scenarios and then we have a disaster in a couple of years,” Stafford said.

Newman and other aldermen said they understood those concerns, but felt a debt limit of $85 million was enough for the current year.

“I think $85 million starts the planning,” Newman said. “Going to $100 million would send the wrong message.”

Aldermen cautioned that the increase to $85 million was not a light decision. The debt limit has not been increased for 10 years.

A debate also flared up in the council’s Administration and Public Works Committee meeting, which discussed how to best prevent false police and fire alarms. The council voted to postpone action on the issue.

The discussion stemmed from a proposal to decrease the number of free alarms a building gets before it must pay a fine. Residents currently get four free false alarms, then pay $100 per alarm and even more after 10 violations. The ordinance would cut the number of free alarms to two and the fines would bring in an extra $200,000 for the city.

City staff hope this ordinance would decrease expenses from false alarms, which Stafford said make up 99 percent of calls the police and fire departments answer.

Ald. Edmund Moran (6th) said adding fines would not educate institutions on how to reduce the number of false alarms. He argued it would unfairly fine buildings — such as hospitals — that try to install sensitive fire equipment.

“You talk about sensitivity,” said Ald. Ann Rainey (8th). “The community gets insensitive to these alarms.”

False alarms must be reduced to maintain city safety, Rainey said. The fines, she said, are “plain and simple, a fee for services.”

She also pointed out that institutions with many buildings — especially Northwestern — already benefit from the policy.

Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky said NU had 252 false alarms last year and paid $9,000 in fines. But Presbyterian Homes, 3200 Grant St., paid $10,000 for just 44 false alarms, because they were concentrated in fewer buildings.

Berkowsky also said the fire department works with residents to control false alarms and issues waivers for the fines when appropriate. He said the alarm policy does not encourage people to install less sensitive equipment.

“We’re not looking to force people to do something that would not be right,” he said.

Moran and Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) urged increased communication with institutions that have many false alarms, saying only a collaborative approach would work.

But Rainey slammed that as “protective paternalism for big-time institutions.”

“What do you want?” she asked. “Do you want us to have little classes for people on their alarms? We could hold hands with these people for years.”