Health services dominate budget concerns

Susan Du

Concerns about preserving funding for health services in Evanston were particularly prevalent among the approximately 20 attendants at Thursday’s city budget input meeting.

Before the meeting started, Debora Braun of Shore Community Services distributed neon stickers reading, “I support mental health services,” to many of those in attendance. Her main issue with the expenditure-decreasing ideas presented at the session was the provision, which stated the city should “look at eliminating all Community Heath Initiatives other than Mental Health Board and Environmental Health.”

“We’re still short of funds from last year,” Braun said. “Even with township money coming in, we’re about $40,000 short of allocation funds to multiple services agencies to the city of Evanston.”

Approximately a dozen health agencies receive funding from the Evanston Mental Health Board, funding which could mark the difference between continuing operations and closing services. Braun said two Illinois mental health agencies operating primarily on dwindling state funds have already closed this year.

“Who else would serve the most vulnerable citizens of Evanston?” Braun said. “These are individuals who – unlike you and me – can’t care for themselves. They can’t hold steady jobs.”

Thursday’s budget input session was the last night of the second phase of Engage Evanston, a “community outreach initiative intended to give residents the opportunity to shape budget priorities,” according to its website.

The first phase, which ran from May 1 to 7, encouraged Evanston residents to submit ideas for generating non-tax revenue and containing costs. The second phase, which ran from Aug. 22 through Thursday, urged residents to complete a survey on which service changes they felt were necessary and comment on budget ideas.

An analysis of about 175 ideas proposed by Evanston residents resulted in 39 remaining viable options. The purpose of Thursday’s session was for residents to discuss and decide what the top recommendations are.

The city is currently facing budget deficits of $2.1 million for the 2012 fiscal year and $3.9 million for the 2013 fiscal year, said Martin Lyons, assistant city manager.

Other expenditure-decreasing ideas included on the list of options were making changes to citywide youth services, examining the affordable housing and emergency housing programs for cost-effectiveness and reallocating the Evanston Community Media Center’s $300,000 budget.

Evanston resident, architect and urban planner Michael Vasilko proposed developing a convention center, resort hotel and cultural facilities on the lake, which will generate a projected $15 million to $20 million of annual tax revenue for Evanston. The proposal is currently being reviewed by the Economic Development Committee of Evanston.

“I’ve just been very concerned that for the last several years we have made budget cuts and service cuts,” Vasilko said. “(Evanston) is becoming a town we’re not familiar with. That was the catalyst for getting involved to this degree.”

Vasilko also said Northwestern representatives, namely Ron Naylor of facilities operations, “clearly” implied support for his idea.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said although people at Thursday’s session have been particularly passionate about the health department, there are many other issues to consider.

“The mental health board is certainly priority for people here today, but there are also costs in police and fire, parks and recreation that make up lots of competing priorities,” he said.

Bobkiewicz said the next step is to present a budget proposal and begin the first workshop on it after Thanksgiving.

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