Aldermen urged the city manager Monday night to negotiate with Evanston’s two hospitals to take over as many of the city’s health department services as possible.

At a budget policy committee meeting the aldermen saw the Health and Human Services Department’s $4.3 million budget — about 5.5 percent of the city’s general fund spending — as a key target for cuts.

Evanston has had a health department since 1874, making it the second oldest in the state. But it’s one of only four municipalities in suburban Cook County that still maintain their own health departments. The others are Oak Park, Skokie and Stickney Township.

The rest of suburban Cook County is served by the Cook County Department of Public Health.

The city faces rising budget costs for utilities, pensions and employee health benefits and anticipates some revenue declines as the housing market cools.

Hospitals statewide are under increasing pressure to demonstrate that they’re doing enough charity work to justify their tax exemptions.

“The time to get serious is now,” Mayor Lorraine Morton said, “The hospitals are under fire over the free care issue.”

“The health department does a wonderful job,” Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, said, “but many of these are services the hospitals can provide. We’ve gone into the health care business, and should now ask them to help out by meeting their charitable service requirements.”

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said the new chief executive officer at St. Francis Hospital “is very communicative. We should have no problem talking to them.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste said discussions with the hospitals go back to at least 2001 and that it’s time to achieve some results.

But he said he hoped that any arrangement with the hospitals would provide work for current health department employees who might otherwise lose their jobs.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she hope some monitoring can be provided to make sure there’s no reduction in current service levels if the hospitals take over portions of the health department’s role.

Health Director Jay Terry said the city has recently had some preliminary discussions with Evanston Hospital, and City Manager Julia Carroll said she hopes to meet with officials at St. Francis Hospital before the end of the month.

“I hope we can work out some agreements in time to plug them into the budget planning process,” Ms. Carroll said.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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