Experience Pays This Budget Season

By Elizabeth GibsonThe Daily Northwestern

After almost two years together, the aldermen and city manager seem to have gotten the hang of working together to manage the city’s money.

Last year three-hour budget meetings seemed to pass by with more talk about policy, technicalities and criticism of the proposal’s format than about actual dollars and cents.

But this year the struggle to finalize the 2007-08 Evanston City Budget feels more thorough and practical.

Aldermen seem to have felt more pressure this year to close the city deficit of about $3 million.

City Manager Julia Carroll has proposed an $186,769,007 budget, a 0.26 percent increase from 2006-07. The new plan takes effect March 1.

Carroll said the increase is the lowest in the past 10 years.

Cuts that are mentioned every year but are never seriously reviewed are getting full consideration this year. After the 2006 budget process, aldermen told The Daily they might have to eliminate city staff jobs in the future. Apparently, the future is now.

The proposal to eliminate 26 city staff positions, including two department heads, and add on nine new jobs is a significant step toward actual change. The city manager and aldermen have replaced perpetual talk, which still sounded vague as recently as a year ago, with action. They’ve also faced the in-house issue with an admirable calm and professionalism.

Still, other long-running debates returned again this year, with plenty of discussion but once more no definitive decisions on issues such as the value of the city’s two branch libraries. Although the perennial library review has taken up much less time than last year’s unending deliberations about subsidizing beach access passes, the city still could benefit from reinstating the Budget Policy Committee.

After the budget process last year aldermen said it might make the discussion easier if they brought back the Budget Policy Committee, which facilitated year-round discussion about the budget until it was abandoned about six years ago.

Ald. Edmund Moran (6th) told The Daily last year he would like to see the committee return so that the council could focus on money instead of policy questions. Ald. Delores Holmes (5th), who went through the budget process for the first time last year, said the committee would help brief the aldermen about the more complicated aspects of city finances.

Even if the committee still could help, the council met some of its goals without special arrangements.

But suggestions to use funds from Northwestern to hold off a tax hike for a year need to be approached with caution. It seems that every year, the city magically discovers an extra chunk of revenue to lighten the proposed tax levy.

Last year the city found an $83,000 bonus by double-checking the property replacement tax balance.

Monday night aldermen discussed using half a million dollars of a $1,050,000 gift expected from NU. The payment over three years was arranged to make up for the university buying property and taking it off the city’s tax roll.

If it keeps relying on one-time revenues, the city might need to invest in some higher-end magic tricks – perhaps a mass campaign to collect coins hidden behind the ears of Evanston’s children. The city should focus on more creative ways to support itself.

The city should keep in mind more suggestions like one in January to hire more crossing guards so that the people who issue parking tickets don’t have to fill in for them. More people issuing tickets? Now there’s a way to tap the wallets of NU students and out-of-town diners.

In general, the council has done a good job digging into the details. The amount of flip-flopping and number of 5-4 votes is a sign that there is plenty of contention behind the mostly subdued meetings this year. Close debate is a healthy indicator that city officials have given issues serious thought.

City Editor Elizabeth Gibson is a Medill junior. She can be reached at [email protected]