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Budget brigade fades

Fewer than half as many people turned out for Thursday’s second Evanston city budget workshop as appeared for the first one Saturday.

It was unclear whether the rest had been bored to tears by Saturday’s string of presentations by city department heads, despaired of the workshop process leading to the budget results they wanted, or were just distracted by the chance to watch the Chicago Bears lose to San Francisco on television.

It probably didn’t help that city officials permitted no substitutions from the citizens’ bench — banishing anyone who hadn’t shown up Saturday at the Levy Center to the spectator’s gallery for Thursday’s session at the Crown Center.

But around 30 of the roughly 75 who showed Saturday did return to be led through a series of exercises by consultant Lynn Montei apparently designed to build solidarity around attitudes about Evanston before getting down to the potentially divisive process of deciding whose ox should get gored.

You probably will not be surprised to hear that the workshoppers agreed that Evanston is an excellent place to live with ethnic and economic diversity, arts and culture, good transportation options and a great university.

There was a bit of counterpoint to that theme though, with some suggesting we have a hubris or arrogance about how great our town is that leads us to neglect to seek out the best ideas from other places.

Many agreed that the city lacks fiscal responsibility, tries to be all things to all people and doesn’t do enough to retain businesses or create new jobs.

Reading from a list prepared by people at her table, Joan Hickman said the city needed to maintain justice and equity but not raise taxes and be business friendly.

From his table’s list Carl Bova said the city needs to develop a passion for fiscal responsibility, recognize that doing nothing sometimes saves money and try to make whatever personnel cuts may be needed over the next several years all at once, presumably to reduce the adverse impact on the morale of the city’s remaining workers.

Toward the end of the evening the discussion edged closer to specifics with former 7th Ward aldermanic candidate John Zbesko asking about options for privatizing government services like garbage collection, while adding that he didn’t necessarily favor the idea.

And residents at one table wrestled with the question of whether cuts should totally avoid social service programs or try to be balanced so as to not disproportionately affect the needy.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz promised as the meeting ended that the next workshop, at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center, would really get down to specifics about how to close the projected $8 million gap in the $90 million general fund budget for next year.

The agenda says it will focus on "Idea generation and development around service levels and efficiencies, cost containment, non-revenue tax sources and other innovations."

In the meantime Bobkiewicz promised to have city staff continue to post information about the budget and city services to the budget workshop section of the city’s website.

Program note

A tape of the Thursday budget workshop will be replayed on Comcast cable channel 16 in Evanston on Saturday at about 2:40 p.m., Sunday at about 4:40 p.m. and Tuesday at about 2:40 p.m. Or, you can watch the video online here …

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