City Council discusses hot-button issues in 2022 proposed budget


Madison Smith/Daily Senior Staffer

City Council. Members discussed the 2022 proposed budget at Monday night’s meeting, diving into issues including understaffing and beach fees.

Lucia Barnum and Jorja Siemons

City Council discussed the 2022 proposed budget Monday night, diving into hot-button issues like Robert Crown Community Center maintenance costs, citywide understaffing and beach payments for Evanston residents. Here’s how the conversation shook out. 

Filing vacant city positions 

The city grapples with a staffing shortage — last year, 29 positions were held vacant. But many councilmembers pressed against using money from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund new city employees.

The additional $43 million from ARPA is a one-time add — it will not be available for next year’s budget. As a result, councilmembers expressed caution about hiring for new jobs without looking at a multi-year budget projection. 

“We don’t want to put ourselves in the position of having to lay off staff in a few years because there’s not enough revenue,” Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said. “If that’s the case, we’re talking about probably a tax increase unless we can find savings elsewhere … and that requires a deeper discussion than I think we’re willing to have tonight.”

When Ald. Devon Reid (8th) asked for a list of prioritized positions to fill in 2022, interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski said it was like asking her which of her children she likes the least. 

All of the jobs in question are important to the upkeep of the city, she said, and need to be filled as soon as fiscally possible. 

“I just need the council to understand that we are stretched at the maximum capacity at this point,” Gandurski said. “And that’s not something I would readily say.” 

Maintaining Robert Crown Community Center

City Council members debated whether the cost of new staff at the Crown Center should come out of the maintenance fund for the building or out of the 2022 city budget. 

The Crown Maintenance Fund has received $175,000 annually from the city since 2020 and is slated to receive another $175,000 this year. The 2022 proposed budget would distribute approximately $378,000 in additional funds specifically for new staff. Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) said because new staff are mostly maintenance roles, the maintenance fund should cover the positions. 

“Our residents have shouldered such an enormous expense already on this center,” Kelly said. “If we can avoid layering more expense … we should avoid it.” 

After the former community center was shut down due to lack of consistent, preventative maintenance, the maintenance fund was a major selling point for donors when fundraising for the Crown Center, Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) said. Some councilmembers were unsure that staffing would be an appropriate use of the fund from the donors’ perspectives.

Other councilmembers did not support using the maintenance fund for staffing costs because it could make future maintenance more difficult down the line. Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) said the initial projected budget for the Crown Center should have foreseen current staffing shortages.

“The fact that we need two or three more staff because the building is taking more effort to run just shows that we had a huge miss somewhere,” Fleming said. 

Extending free access to city beaches 

Councilmembers were in favor Monday night of extending free access to Evanston beaches into the 2022 fiscal year. 

The council moved in May to make all city beaches free to residents every Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the 2021 beach season. The pilot program launched in response to community advocacy against token sales, given the system’s history of barring Black residents from beaches.

In a memo, Director of Parks and Recreation Lawrence Hemingway presented two options for moving forward: retain the current policy of three days a week free-of-charge or allow all beaches to be free for the entire season. According to Hemingway, the former option would reduce revenue by $200,000 and the latter by $650,000 to $750,000.

While councilmembers did not reach consensus regarding which option the 2022 budget should reflect, they did brainstorm ways to address revenue shortfalls. 

Kelly suggested launching a public relations campaign encouraging Evanston residents to donate money for beach access if they have the means. She said her constituents want to keep the beaches free and “would love to support that.”

Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) shared the sentiment, saying that every year when she buys beach tokens, she buys double the amount her family needs as a donation. 

According to Hemingway, the city keeps track of these donations, which can be as much as $15,000 a year.

To qualify for free tokens under the city’s proposed plan, Reid said he worries beachgoers may be required to register their residential status upon entry. He warned against that possibility, saying the potential requirement could create additional barriers to beach access and may put a burden on city staff.

“I think we can do an honor system, particularly with a pilot program,” Reid said. “If things don’t work out, we can troubleshoot from there.”

Wynne disagreed and emphasized pursuing this system would risk revenue loss from Chicago residents or residents of other towns. She suggested people should show attendants their driver’s license or gas bill to enter.

While the city currently has an agreement with the Skokie government that enables Skokie residents to pay for beach tokens at the same rate as Evanston residents, people from other places must pay to access beaches.

Hemingway said he wants to create a system that works for residents and does not create conflict, as oftentimes, beach attendants are 16-year-old children.

Mayor Daniel Biss said he welcomes sitting at the table with Skokie officials to create a mutually beneficial agreement. 

Funding school crossing guards

City Council discussed whether to fund school crossing guards for Evanston Township High School District 202, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and several local private schools in the 2022 budget. 

Reid pointed out parts of District 65 do not fall within Evanston city limits and said the city shouldn’t fund crossing guards for that reason. Many councilmembers also said the city should not pay for private school crossing guards.

The consensus, as Mayor Biss articulated, was that councilmembers find it appropriate to pay for crossing guards through the end of the school year. The city would then begin to phase the crossing guards out of its budget, instead letting individual school districts cover the cost. 

Creating a dedicated climate action fund 

Nieuwsma also suggested the council create a dedicated fund for the Climate Action and Resilience Plan, which sets a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

He emphasized having a discreet fund with distinct sources of revenue for CARP, such as the tax revenue the city receives from natural gas and electricity sales. 

Nieuwsma said having ongoing, predictable revenue would allow the council to plan CARP-related projects well past ARPA’s deadline and constraints. 

Revelle seconded Nieuwsma’s suggestion. 

“I think it would be very helpful to be able to know that we were regularly seeing money going into that fund,” Revelle said. 

Next Monday, the council will host its second public budget hearing. The 2022 budget must be approved by Dec. 31.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @JorjaSiemons 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @luciabarnum_

Related Stories: 

City Council hears resident concerns in first public hearing on 2022 budget

2022 Capital Improvement Plan budget highlights environmental justice upgrades

City department heads pitch ARPA employee additions in 2022 budget