City Watch: Finding balance in budget

Nathalie Tadena

It’s a tough time to be an Evanston lawmaker.

Tonight the Evanston City Council will meet to approve the city’s 2010-11 budget. In the face of an approximate $9.5 million budget deficit, city officials have spent several months working with residents to balance the budget.

While funding decisions are undoubtedly difficult, determining where and how to make budget cuts boils down to the question, “Luxury or necessity?” The problem, as the city often sees during budget cycles, is the answer to this question is not so black-and-white. Take the branch libraries, for example. In a budget proposal released by City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz in late December, closing the North and South branch libraries could save the city more than $425,000. Residents fought vehemently against these proposed cuts, arguing these peripheral libraries offered educational opportunities for students and brought foot traffic to nearby businesses. Rather than making the proposed cuts, the council voted 5-4 last week to support the libraries for another six months, after which the branches must be funded privately. Yes, this is an acceptable compromise for now to accommodate vocal branch supporters. But when the city already has a large and active central branch in downtown Evanston, are two smaller, less-frequented libraries really necessary?

Consider the branch libraries in comparison to, say, public safety.

Personnel cuts in the city’s fire department were also at stake during this year’s budget cycle. Bobkiewicz’s proposed budget suggested eliminating $275,000 in overtime funding for fire fighters. Though the Evanston Fire Fighters Association and council members have agreed to other department cuts instead, had these cuts to staffing been made, the city could have seen increased response time to emergency calls, posing a real threat to Evanston residents.

Then there’s the Evanston Community Media Center. Many would say it provides useful programming, but at the same time, it seems more like a luxury than a necessity. (Bobkiewicz did announce a compromise with the center to reduce proposed city funding for the center from $200,000 to $150,000.) As with the branch libraries, if there is a real desire to continue services like those provided by ECMC and the spared Ecology Center (which, if closed, could have saved $200,000), then residents should be able to find an alternative way to fund them and leave limited city resources for essential services that address immediate needs.

In such an instance, the council made a wise decision in voting against the elimination of $153,000 from the city’s dental clinic. In so doing, the council ensured the continued dental services for the 1,800 low-income children who use the clinic and who may have had no reasonable alternatives.

“We should provide as many municipal services as we can,” Bobkiewicz told The Daily in January. “I’m just trying to make sure we continue to provide services to people, but within the resources we have.”

Among the hardest cuts are those that pertain to jobs-Bobkiewicz originally proposed cutting 47 positions, many janitorial and secretarial positions, from the city’s payroll. The council has done a lot of admirable work to address citizens’ and affected parties’ concerns, adjusting budget cuts here and there. But at the end of the day, hard but needed decisions must be made. City Editor Nathalie Tadena can be reached at [email protected]