Disputes over money topped city government news in Evanston this year as aldermen struggled to balance the budget and the library board decided to impose its own tax on property owners.

The year started with aldermen funding the city’s two branch libraries for just six months. That led to a campaign by branch lovers that drummed up private funds to keep the two neighborhood outposts operating through next February.

The branch backers also lobbied the library board, persuading board members in August to assert their own taxing authority, in an effort to get out from under City Council control.

But upon further reflection, the board decided there was insufficient time to implement its own tax levy before 2012 and voted in September to plan for only slight increase in spending in 2011 — disappointing the branch backers.

Aldermen — unable to agree on whether the branches should be closed — voted in November to let the library board decide how to spend the funds the city manager had budgeted for the library department.

And as the year ended the library board itself voted to close the south branch for lack of funds — and lack of a new location for the branch after the building’s landlord refused to further extend the city’s lease.

Continuing controversy over the lack of branch services for less affluent and less white parts of town and the fact that less than 40 percent of the city’s residents live within walking distance of any library outpost was reflected in a refusal by some library board members to shift more funds to branch operations, amid sharp criticism of the branches from some aldermen.

The library board also voted this month to seek additional funds from the city — beyond the tax levy it plans to impose itself for 2012.

Meanwhile, the city got into a heated dispute with the firefighters union over staffing and pay levels that led to an exchange of unfair labor practice charges and, briefly, to the layoff of three firefighters.

Ultimately that dispute was resolved on terms not unlike those agreed to more quietly by the city’s other employee unions.

With property tax hikes running double rate of inflation over the past decade and the city committing to an 11 percent boost in payments for public safety pensions as it tried to close the huge gap between the money set aside for pensions and the potential pension liabilities, Evanston faced a $3.5 million gap between projected income and spending for 2011 that would have meant a 13 percent increase in property taxes if it hadn’t been closed.

After adopting most of the city manager’s proposed budget cuts, the City Council ended up raising the property tax levy about 3.5 percent — still well above the rate of inflation.

But it wasn’t all dollars and cents for aldermen. They also voted to let residents keep chickens in their back yards, reversing a ban that had been in place since the 1970s.

And they approved the city’s first mobile food truck and, it’s first distillery — continuing a trend to relax restrictions on liquor in the home of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union that began about the same time chickens were banned here.

The also started a debate on whether to tax plastic grocery bags in an effort to encourage recycling.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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