COVID-19 hangs over budget discussions as city prepares to finalize plans for 2021

City+Council+introduced+the+final+version+of+the+2021+budget+for+adoption+at+the+next+council+meeting+on+Nov.+23.%0A

City Council introduced the final version of the 2021 budget for adoption at the next council meeting on Nov. 23.

Andrew Myers, Reporter

Evanston aldermen and residents discussed the proposed $299 million budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which is set to be voted on and adopted before Thanksgiving, at a meeting Monday.

Residents expressed concerns about Evanston Police Department funding, a proposed increase in property taxes, and a lack of constituent input.

“Why are we increasing the Evanston Police Department general fund by $800,000?” Evanston resident Sean Peck-Collier said. “We’re below the average in violent crimes per capita, so why do we have such a bloated police force?”

The city plans to cut 11 currently vacant officer positions this year in an attempt to reduce costs, bringing the total number of officers down to 154. However, the department is still scheduled to see its budget increase by 2 percent, or about $819,000 in 2021.

However, in a separate budget summary, the city proposed a revision that could decrease the department’s budget by $1 million.

Additionally, the city plans to increase property taxes for those homes with a value greater than $100,000, which Evanston resident Mike Vasilko was disappointed to see.

“People don’t have extra cash this year,” Vasilko said. “Many people don’t have extra cash any year. You have each and every year that council asks for a property tax increase, which the council gladly approves,” Vasilko said.

While Vasilko conceded the current proposed tax hikes are only in the low hundreds of dollars, he stressed that the pandemic was stretching many residents’ budgets. The city should instead prioritize budget cuts in consulting fees or a tax reduction.

On the whole, many residents said City Council has not been transparent about schedules for budget meetings, which has made it harder for constituents to participate in the process. Some residents said there had been little meaningful back-and-forth before the budget was presented to the public.

Yet what loomed largest over budget discussions was Evanston’s fiscal instability because of the pandemic. The city is planning for a $20 million budget cut in 2021, along with a $12 million revenue shortfall in 2020 and a predicted $8 million revenue loss for 2021.

Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) voiced similar concerns about the proposed property tax increase, and suggested several areas where additional budget cuts could be made.

“I would say for the pension contributions that I know we are over-funding from what the state requires,” Fleming said. “In a healthy financial year it’s a good policy, but this is a year where we need to really be thinking about how to tighten up some spending.”

Fleming also suggested additional cuts to some of EPD’s recommended training. All of her suggestions were aimed at staving off more city employee layoffs, which have increased during the pandemic.

Currently, there are no other budget meetings scheduled before Nov. 9, when the 2021 fiscal year budget ordinances and tax levies will be introduced. City Council will add meetings as needed before the Nov. 23 deadline to adopt the 2021 budget.

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