Aldermen talk budget, tax increases with state funding still in question


Daniel Tian/Daily Senior Staffer

City manager Wally Bobkiewicz attends a City Council meeting. He told aldermen at a special City Council meeting Saturday that Evanston needs to prepare for likely state funding cuts and a potential property tax freeze across Illinois.

Julia Jacobs, City Editor

Illinois Budget Crisis

Aldermen began discussing Saturday morning the 2016 budget and this year’s proposed tax levy increase of about 2 percent.

At a special City Council meeting that included public hearings on the proposed budget and tax levy, Ald. Jane Grover (7th) asked if city staff would consider reducing the tax levy, which was proposed at $800,000 more than last year. Although staff will return to council with the new scenario mapped out, city manager Wally Bobkiewicz told aldermen the city must prepare for a possible cut to state funding and a potential property tax freeze across Illinois.

“It’s the specter of the state of Illinois that’s over us,” Bobkiewicz said. “We want to make sure that the city of Evanston is positioned in such a way that we have the least impact possible should a freeze come to pass.”

Because the state has been without a fiscal year 2016 budget since July, Evanston staff built into its proposed budget a series of recommended cuts amounting to $1.5 million.

Aldermen voted unanimously to introduce the $28.5 million tax levy, which will be up for adoption at the Nov. 23 City Council meeting along with next year’s budget.

Marty Lyons, the city’s chief financial officer, said Evanston was challenged by increased payments to police and fire pensions based on modified recommendations from the state. This administrative change to pension payments contributed to the 10 percent growth of next year’s proposed budget.

There was also a 4 percent proposed increase in the tax levy for Evanston Public Library, which asked the city for additional funding to expand programming and maintain the two-decades-old Main Branch.

In contrast, Lyons said the tax levy for the city’s General Assistance Fund — which provides financial help to residents who are not eligible for other state or federal financial programs — has plummeted because the Affordable Care Act now covers participants’ prescription drugs, reducing the financial burden on the city. The tax levy for the fund, which was about $1.35 million last year, dropped to about $800,000 this year.

Evonda Thomas-Smith, director of the Health and Human Services Department, said the department is now focused on reducing the cost even further by finding medical homes for the participants in the program rather than relying on emergency care.

“Acute care is more costly than maintenance and wellness care,” Smith said.

City staff also presented to aldermen a capital improvement plan of about $56 million, over half of which would be funded from debt.

Lara Biggs, the city’s new capital planning bureau chief, said the plan includes major improvements projects scheduled for next year. The city allocated nearly $4 million for Sheridan Road improvements, starting with water main construction, and more than $8 million for work at the Emerson/Ridge/Green Bay Road intersection.

The plan also built in $200,000 for police body cameras to prepare for potential adoption of a program some time in 2016, Lyons said. Evanston police chief Richard Eddington told The Daily in September that implementing body cameras at the department is estimated to cost $400,000 for the first year and $200,000 each year afterward.

Lyons told The Daily at the meeting that although City Council would have to approve implementation of the body cameras, staff allotted funding in next year’s capital improvement plan to prepare for the eventuality.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Lyons said.

The main concern among the few residents who spoke at the public hearing, however, was allocating funds for renovations on the Harley Clarke Mansion, which earlier this month an aldermen proposed should be paid for by the city. Evanston resident Jeanne Lindwall said the city should build funds into the budget to turn the deteriorating mansion into an inclusive recreation center.

“It’s long past time to have a recreation and community center along the lake where everyone feels welcome,” Lindwall said at the meeting.

City Council is set to vote on further action on the Harley Clarke Mansion at Monday’s regular meeting.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @juliarebeccaj