Officials evaluate ’05 budget woes

Paul Thissen

What does an Illinois anti-racial-profiling law have to do with Evanston’s tax situation? Fifty thousand dollars.

Illinois passed a law in 2003 requiring that cities keep track of the race of people stopped in traffic incidents.

The Evanston Police Department thought one part-time clerk would be able to handle the data, but after one year the department decided it needed a full-time employee — at a cost of about $50,000 each year, according to Evanston Finance Director Bill Stafford.

County, state and federal political decisions affect local budgets in a “laundry list” of ways, he said, from health regulation to police pension requirements. The governments that make these decisions, however, do not foot the bill.

“The public buck stops at the localities,” Stafford said. “We’re at the bottom of the governmental food chain.”

New regulations are not the only way other governmental bodies induce headaches for local budget planners.

The proposed 2005-06 budget for Evanston, released online Jan. 4, included a proposal for a 1 percent tax on food and beverages bought at restaurants.

The next day Cook County’s board president released his budget proposal, which included a 2 percent tax on restaurant meals and hotel stays.

“Individuals who are able to afford to … purchase a hotel room would be more able to incur this 2 percent increase as opposed to a sales tax that would affect everyone,” said John Gibson, deputy press secretary to Cook County Board President John Stroger. “No one likes tax, but the 2 percent level is not viewed as something that is egregious.”

But even before knowing about the county’s proposal, some Evanston restaurants already had expressed concern about the city’s proposed 1 percent tax.

Patrick Casey, Evanston’s director of management and budget, quipped at Saturday’s budget workshop that he had proposed the restaurant tax first.

“I think the restaurant owners would be more concerned about it (given the county’s proposal),” Casey said. He said he will leave it to the aldermen to determine whether to approve the tax or find another solution.

State requirements affect nearly every department in the city, Stafford said, from parks and recreation to police.

Jay Terry, Evanston’s director of health and human services, said he cannot even keep track of how many state and federal requirements his department must enforce and pay for.

Evanston gets some grants from the state and federal government, but they do not nearly cover the required services, which include restaurant inspections and lead paint laws.

This year is better than last year, though — the state is giving Evanston its $300,000 portion of state income taxes.

Last year the Illinois legislature withheld this money to pay income tax refunds because of the slow economy.

The state avoided raising taxes, but it passed some of the challenge on to cities, Stafford said.

Last year the state also mandated an increase in the funding level for police and fire pensions, a requirement that made up about $1 million of the city’s $2-million tax increase last year, according to Stafford.

The increased pension levels did not necessitate a tax increase this year, but the increase from last year remains.

Some states, including California, attempt to provide money for everything they require of municipalities, and about 20 years ago the Federal government shared revenue with municipalities, according to Stafford.

For this year, however, Stafford is just glad that Evanston is getting the $300,000 of income tax the state has promised.

Reach Paul Thissen at [email protected].