Evanston aldermen today discussed, but reached no agreement on, possible budget changes that could slice the proposed property tax hike from 15 to 4 percent.
The changes, suggested by City Manager Julia Carroll, fall into four categories:
- $1.6 million in spending cuts including stopping the Dutch elm disease tree injection program and closing the city's two branch libraries.
- Up to $1 million in additional one-time transfers from the general fund balance to the fire and police pension funds.
- $700,000 in new taxes and fees -- including $500,000 from a proposed tax on restaurant meals and $200,000 from requiring city stickers on bags used to dispose of yard waste.
- $567,000 in revised revenue assumptions, led by a $500,000 increase in projected personal property replacement tax receipts.
Parks Forestry and Recreation Director Doug Gaynor told aldermen the city would save $338,000 by not having to buy materials needed for the Dutch elm tree injections and that there would be no change in labor costs -- forestry workers who have been doing the injections would shift to cutting down and replacing more elm trees instead, as they did before the injection program began.
He said the city had been losing about 250 elms a year and the injections had cut that loss to about 100 trees per year.
Gaynor said that in considering cuts to his budget he faced a tough choice -- make more cuts to recreation programs serving children, or eliminate the tree program.
"When you consider a choice between elm trees or kids, it's a fairly easy philosophical choice," he said.
The parks department would still lose three recreation workers for a budget savings of $216,000 if all the proposed cuts are implemented.
Carroll said she hopes to save $300,000 by dropping a contract with a health insurance brokerage firm and having the city negotiate health coverage contracts directly.
She said that closing the north and south branch libraries would result in a net savings of $284,700 after some compensating additions of staff at the main library.
Marybeth Schroeder, president of the library board, said the group opposes closing the branch libraries and also a planned $50,000 reduction in funds for acquiring new library materials and a planned increase in library fines.
"We see our budget as really small and stretched to the max as is," Schroeder said.
The city manager said the city could save nearly $300,000 by cutting one position in the health department and reducing the mental health board's grants to non-profit agencies by 25 percent.
Jane Grover, a long-time member of the mental health board, said she opposed the cuts, arguing that a significant portion of Evanston's population lives in poverty with great needs and that the services the board funds should be considered core services.
Carroll said the city could save about $161,000 by eliminating a civilian position in the police department that focuses on maintaining the department's national accreditation, by combining the job of retiring emergency preparedness director Max Rubin with a division chief's job in the fire department and with what she called other minor adjustments.
The budget squeeze is largely driven by a need to catch up on payments to the fire and police pension funds, and the aldermen agreed to appoint a "blue ribbon" panel of experts to recommend pension funding solutions.
The food and beverage tax proposal is expected to draw opposition from the city's large base of restaurant owners and the aldermen had earlier rejected a staff proposal to impose the yard waste sticker fee.
As the meeting was ending, Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he feared that if the City Council isn't able to reduce the size of the proposed tax increase, it may drive middle income residents out of the city -- leaving only the wealthy who can afford high taxes and poor people living on government subsidy programs.
The council is scheduled to continue its budget discussions next Saturday.