Looking to cut costs for 2021 budget, Aldermen consider charging Northwestern for fire services

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Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) likened Northwestern’s unpaid $650,000 worth of fire services to “murder.” “The line has to be drawn,” she said.

Jason Beeferman, Reporter

Aldermen discussed ways to reduce the 4.9 percent property tax increase proposed in Evanston’s 2021 budget in a Monday night special City Council meeting, given the increased financial burden of the pandemic on many city residents.

One alderman pointed to an overlooked $658,986 bill to Northwestern for fire and rescue services.

“They get away with murder,” Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) said. “They cannot continue to get away with free fire service. We are paying for their fire service.”

Rainey said eliminating Northwestern’s six-figure expense from the city’s budget would alone be enough to significantly reduce property tax levies.

“This would save us from a tax increase, this amount of money right here,” Rainey said. “This has really got to stop. I am proposing that we just finally draw the line and say no more free fire service. No more.”

In 2019, the Evanston Fire Department responded to 513 calls for service at the University, Rainey said.

Of those calls, 246 were ambulance transports, which are paid back to the city at a rate of $1,500 per transport. The remaining 267 calls came out of Evanston taxpayers’ pockets, Rainey said.

According to a city memorandum, each of those 267 calls, mainly fire and rescue related accidents, costs the city approximately $2,500, a bill that is usually not charged to individual residents.

“I think a simple invoice has got to start being issued to all of the calls that are covered by EMS, and that’s about it,” Rainey said. “I don’t want to say that we should withhold fire service, but the line has to be drawn.”

The city has already instituted staff layoffs, furlough days and a hiring freeze on vacant positions to limit budget shortfalls, but aldermen are still probing for more ways to cut the 2021 budget in order to lessen the tax burden on residents. The city is also looking to fill a $8 million projected loss in city revenue due to limited economic activity during the pandemic.

Amidst a city-wide call to defund the police, some residents also called for the city to cut contributions to fire and police pension funds to alleviate the tax burden this year.

However, Alds. Donald Wilson (4th), Eleanor Revelle (7th) and Melissa Wynne (3rd) all said they were hesitant to cut funding from pensions out of a fear that compounding interest could cause even greater tax hikes in the future years.

“I feel pretty strongly now about not wanting to change that pension funding,” Wilson said. “It buys us a tax increase next year and for many years after that. It’d be unfortunate if we took steps backwards on that. It’s our single biggest financial threat.”

Aldermen signaled they would continue to look for new ways to reduce the budget in order to lower, or even eliminate, a tax increase before the start of the fiscal year.

“I’m absolutely a hard no on anything at all that raises our taxes,” Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th) said. “If we are discussing affordability and maintaining our diversity and inclusion here in the city, it is very difficult to propose a budget that will make the city more unaffordable.”

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Twitter: @jasonbeeferman

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