City Council supports fully funding pensions, motor fuel tax increase


Jonah Elkowitz/Daily Senior Staffer

Police Pension Fund President Timothy Schoolmaster speaks at Monday’s City Council meeting. The council voiced support for fully funding police and fire pensions in 2022 – one of the most controversial issues in this year’s budget negotiations.

Saul Pink, Assistant City Editor

Continuing its 2023 budget negotiations, City Council voiced support for fully funding the city’s police and fire pension debt and voted to raise Evanston’s motor fuel tax by one cent in the revised budget at Monday’s meeting. 

While the council has yet to approve the budget, police and fire pension funding has been one of the most highly-debated issues throughout the negotiations. Following an October presentation on the progress of the Climate Action and Resilience Plan, the council also committed to reflecting the city’s sustainability goals in the budget.

Public safety pensions

The city’s funding for police and fire pensions currently stands between 50% and 60%, according to Chief Financial Officer Hitesh Desai. Evanston is currently not on track to achieve the state’s deadline of funding 90% of pension obligations by 2040.

While council did not officially vote on the issue, Mayor Daniel Biss conducted a straw poll in which every councilmember expressed support for prioritizing full funding for pensions in the 2023 budget. 

“We’ve heard loud and clear there’s tremendous interest and will to turn that pattern around and to begin fully funding,” said Ald. Clare Kelly (1st), who brought up the issue.

Kelly estimated the city will need to allocate an additional $4.5 million this year to keep the city on the path to fully funding the pensions. She wants to use surpluses across various categories of the budget and unassigned funds, rather than property tax revenues, to pay for the pensions.

Police Pension Fund President Timothy Schoolmaster said because the city has successfully funded the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, which gives retirement benefits to Illinois local government employees, it should turn its attention to public safety pensions. 

Schoolmaster gave public comment at the meeting with seven current and former Evanston police officers and firefighters behind him showing support for paying off the pensions.

“We appreciate your efforts to properly fund both (the police and fire) funds,” Schoolmaster said. “You funded your IMRF in social security obligations faithfully throughout the years … we need to get back on track.”

Motor fuel tax increase

Ald. Devon Reid (8th) originally proposed a two-cent increase to the motor fuel tax, which currently sits at five cents per gallon, at the meeting. Reid received pushback from Biss and Ald. Juan Geracaris (9th) who brought up affordability concerns.

Reid said the city can use the additional revenues to fund sustainability goals outlined in CARP. City Council approved CARP in 2018 to lower carbon emissions by 50% by 2025 and 100% by 2050. The revised budget allocates $802,893 to the Sustainability Fund.

While Geracaris said he is worried a motor fuel tax increase would negatively affect working class citizens and local gas stations, Reid responded that communities affected by the tax would most benefit from the increased funding the tax would bring to CARP. 

“The same communities that are most impacted by this policy are also most impacted by our lack of action in our climate resiliency planning,” Reid said. 

Reid said a two-cent increase in the tax would still keep Evanston below Chicago’s 8-cent per gallon motor fuel tax.

Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator Cara Pratt agreed with Biss and Geracaris.

“More gas-guzzling vehicles would have to consume more gasoline at the pump,” Pratt said “Therefore, this would be exactly the definition of a regressive tax, where a lower-income person is disproportionately impacted versus higher-income folks.”

Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd) asked Reid if he could support a one-cent increase. Reid was initially hesitant, but agreed on the compromise.

Harris said she wants to make sure Evanston residents support Evanston gas stations.

“I will pass three gas stations trying to find the cheapest one,” Harris said. “While I live in Evanston, I will go to Skokie if it’s cheaper, and so will our residents.”

The amendment passed 7-2, with Geracaris and Ald. Thomas Suffredin (6th) voting no.

Reid also proposed a $5 increase in the wheel tax to fund CARP’s goals, which the council quickly rejected in a 6-3 vote.

The council will hold a special meeting on Nov. 21 to discuss the budget in-depth. The final approval deadline for the budget is Dec. 31.

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Twitter: @saullpink

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