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City eyes capital spending cuts

Evanston aldermen tonight will be asked to approve cuts in planned capital improvement projects to slow projected increases in property-tax-funded debt.

Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons says that even if the city stopped all such capital spending, the amount required from property owners each year to fund existing debt would increase by half a million dollars to $10.6 million by 2012.

Before the full impact of the budget crisis hit, the city had tentatively planned to issue $15.3 million in property-tax-funded general obligation debt during the fiscal year that starts next month.

The city staff now is proposing reducing that to about $7.8 million, by postponing some projects and taking others off the capital improvement list completely.

Major projects that would still be funded under the staff plan include replacing the Civic Center’s roof for $1.7 million, repairing the firing range and a parapet wall at the police station for $1.3 million, and making $1.1 million in improvements called for in the lakefront master plan.

The biggest project that would be postponed under the plan is $1.7 million to replace aging fire department vehicles.

Capital projects funded by bonds repaid from property tax revenue amount to well under half of the city’s total capital improvement spending each year.

If the cuts proposed by the city staff are approved, the city would still spend a total of more than $31 million on capital projects this year.

The rest of the funding comes from a mix of grants and revenue sharing from other levels of government and revenue from fee-based city services including water, sewer and parking.

The city now is close to its self-imposed limit of $90 million in property-tax-supported general obligation debt, at $85 million.

In a memo, Lyons says the city "can clearly not sustain" the level of debt increase originally proposed in the capital plan, especially given its increasing pension debt.

He notes that the city made a start at bringing its debt burden under control by not issuing any new debt during the current fiscal year.

But he also warned that water and sewer rates will have to rise in the near future if those programs are to continue to fund  the cost of needed infrastructure improvements to the city’s water and sewer system.

Agreement on the capital improvement plan appears to be the last obstacle standing in the way of final adoption of the city’s 2010-11 budget, which also is scheduled to take place at tonight’s City Council meeting.

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