Burrus: Spending $50,000 to build tot lot is “irresponsible”

Chris Kirk

Evanston’s Economic Development Committee on Wednesday committed $50,000 for a tot lot in a move one alderman said was fiscally irresponsible.

The committee approved partial funding for a nonprofit organization to build a playground for toddlers at 1125 Dewey Ave. after a house fire left the property vacant last year. If the Evanston City Council OKs the committee’s recommendation and ultimately builds the park, the property will drop permanently from the city’s tax rolls.

Residents near the property formed a neighborhood nonprofit organization called the Grandmother Park Initiative two years ago to raise funds for a tot lot and donate it to the city.

The city’s $50,000 contribution will partially cover the $250,000 that city parks Director Doug Gaynor said the nonprofit needs to acquire and develop the site. But the nonprofit will only receive the money if it successfully raises the rest of the funding needed to build the playground.

With the city’s commitment of $50,000 secured, a Chicago-based conservation group, Openlands, will purchase the property for $70,000 and hold it for up to three years as the Grandmother Park Initiative attempts to raise more funding.

Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th), the lone dissenting vote at Wednesday’s committee meeting, said approving the funding would be fiscally irresponsible, especially considering recent layoffs the city made to balance its budget.

“We’re trying to save money, we’re laying folks off, we’re telling them their kids aren’t going to eat, we’re going to tell them their kids aren’t going to have health insurance, but we’re going to throw $70,000 to a vacant lot and hold it, maybe to raise money for a playground, and we’re going to take it off the tax rolls in perpetuity,” Burrus said. “Please, anybody, help me out with the fiscal responsibility here.”

The property brought in $9,000 in property taxes each tax cycle, of which the city received no more than 20 percent. The property has yet to be reassessed since the house burned down.

Ald. Lionel Jean Baptiste (2nd) said the tot lot would increase property values in the area, which may offset the site’s perpetual removal from the tax roll.

Burrus said installing the tot lot at Robert Crown Park would save the city money, but Jean-Baptiste and Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) said it would be several years before the city could install it there.

Burrus also said the Grandmother Park Initiative’s ability to raise enough funding is dubious.

The nonprofit is seeking grants and individual donors for the rest of the funding, said Adam Finlayson, one of the founding board members and treasurer of the nonprofit.

The council will likely OK the funding because six of the seven aldermen on the Economic Development Committee voted in support of it Wednesday, said Lehman Walker, director of the Community & Economic Development Department.[email protected]