The four candidates for mayor of Evanston agreed Wednesday night that the city faces a budget crisis.
But it wasn’t clear from the Levy Center forum how far their ideas might go in actually reducing spending.
Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, suggested the city needs to re-think its affordable housing program.
“Fifteen units have been subsidized at a cost of $89,000 per unit,” Tisdahl said, but most of the units have not been sold because would-be buyers can’t qualify for funding.
She said the program has failed to meet its goal of providing workforce housing for Evanstonians.
Re-thinking the program may make it more efficient. But since the housing program is funded through special-purpose federal grants and targeted affordable housing fees levied on developers, changes are unlikely to achieve a net reduction in city spending.
Planning consultant Jeanne Lindwall said the city might reduce interest costs by doing more of its street repaving projects on a pay-as-you-go basis, rather than making them part of the capital improvement program.
But that solution would only increase costs in the short term, by requiring that the full cost of projects be paide immediately rather than being financed over a period of years.
Fire the consultants
Marketing consultant Barnaby Dinges suggested many consulting contracts included in the budget might be eliminated or postponed. Tisdahl seconded that notion, saying she’s taken a “no more consultants” pledge.
But Plan Commissioner Stuart Opdycke said he wouldn’t go that far — that the consultants on the downtown plan and other recent projects brought a “very high level of expertise” to the work that would be difficult or impossible for city staff to match.
Lindwall suggested that more professionals who live in Evanston could be persuaded to volunteer their time to advise on city issues — as was done with the blue ribbon panel that reviewed the city’s public safety pension problems.
None of the candidates offered figures on how much would be saved by reducing or eliminating consulting contracts.
Squeeze water buyers
Tisdahl suggested the city should seek volunteer legal help from Northwestern University’s law school to break out of its long-term contract to provide water to neighboring communities at what has turned out to be favorable rates for the other towns.
But Opdycke, an attorney, said if the other towns don’t want to renegotiate, “We’re stuck.”
Twenty years into the 40-year contract, the city has so far failed to win major concessions from the other communities despite frequent discussions.
Squeeze city employees
Opdycke and Dinges both suggested that the city should offer its employees smaller salary increases than what’s currently proposed in the draft city budget. But Tisdahl said that under state law the city could be forced into arbitration over pay hikes, “so it may be somewhat out of the City Council’s control.”
When the meeting was opened to questions, some audience members asked about specific programs — whether the candidates saw those as essential services that should be preserved or non-essential ones that might be trimmed to balance the budget.
All four candidates quickly agreed that branch libraries — a perennial target for elimination budgeted next year at $405,000 — are essential.
And, as cameras from the Evanston Community Media Center rolled to record the event, the candidates also agreed that public access television — which is budgeted to receive $353,000 in city funds next year — also is something they favor.
The mayoral candidates forum will be shown in full on Evanston Cable Channel 16 on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. and Fridays at 8 p.m. during the month of February.