Lara Biggs.

Evanston’s alders were told again Monday night that the city hasn’t spent enough to maintain its parks and buildings.

But with no consensus on what to do to reduce the maintenance burden, it appeared the Council is likely to continue the pattern of the past into 2023.

City Engineer Lara Biggs noted, as an example, that the city has 52 playgrounds. Playgrounds, she said, have a useful life of 15 years before they need to be replaced — but 37 of the city’s playgrounds are already more than 15 years old and a dozen are more than 25 years old.

The city also owns about 60 buildings, all of which need periodic upgrades — but just 10% of those buildings are projected to absorb 88% of capital improvement debt funding next year.

And just two of those — the civic center and the municipal service center — are expected to need a total of $80 million in additional work over the next several years.

Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) suggested that the Council’s new Finance and Budget Committee, though it has been meeting for a year, hasn’t had enough time yet to come up with solutions for the capital improvement program issues.

But he said he was uneasy about a proposal to spend $3 million to replace 419 windows at the Civic Center, although Biggs said the windows, last replaced 28 years ago, are failing and allowing water to seep into the building’s brickwork.

A related issue of water infiltration from failing gutters has already required an expensive rebuilding of one section of the civic center’s exterior walls.

Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) said she also opposed spending money to replace the civic center windows.

Kelly was joined by Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) in questioning spending to repair the new fountain in Fountain Square downtown when the city is in litigation with the contractor for the project over who’s responsible for the fountain’s failure.

Jonathan Nieuwsma.

Nieuwsma suggested building a new, smaller, above-ground fountain for the square.

But Burns said the now-failed fountain aligned with Climate Action and Resilience Plan goals that Nieuwsma champions. Burns added that he liked that children could play in the new fountain, and preferred that to the older fountain designs.

If the city were to issue $25 million in new general obligation bonds to fund capital improvement fund projects in 2023, Chief Financial Officer Hitesh Desai estimated that it would cost just under $2 million a year for the next 20 years to pay them off.

That, he said would increase the annual property tax levy on a home valued at $300,000 by about $55.

Biggs said that given staffing limitations the city probably couldn’t manage the full $25 million worth of projects next year, and she sought guidance from the council about which projects should be prioritized.

It appeared clear guidance on those priorities will have to await future City Council budget discussions.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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9 Comments

  1. Why replace civic center windows? Leave them open and the fresh air may bring fresh ideas to the occupants. Seriously, time to unload the “never built to be a civic center” school building. Do an RFP for a developer to take the old school building over and build a new efficient civic center on the library parking lot with a parking garage included. Might also benefit ailing downtown businesses.

  2. It amazes me that the City Council is having these discussions when we look at all the other things they shovel money out the door for. Maintaining public buildings and playgrounds is Governance 101.

    1. As our moms used to tell us kids, “Hey, don’t spend all of your allowance on candy, pop, and records – save some for a rainy day!” Apparently some of our elected officials didn’t have moms like that 😉

  3. I am a fiscal conservative but roofs and windows deserve special consideration as they prevent water damage. City needs to decide are they keeping the buildings or not and if so, maintain the roof and windows as a priority. Not funding items that cause water damage sounds like sabotage of the preservationists by causing eventual need to rebuild or relocate.

  4. This is the cumulative effect of years and years of throwing money around at things that don’t make a measurable impact to the general residents quality of life. A recent article showed how the tax levy has increased over the past decade. Why do Evanston residents pay more and get less? The City is certainly in a bind as it tries and fails to meet its capital improvement obligations, but I think one needs to take a step back and ask, where has the money gone, where does it continue to go, and what measurable improvement in quality of life has resulted from those expenditures in the past? It reminds me of School Districts current debacle unfolding with deferred maintenance at all of the existing schools and projections for declining enrollment, but by all means lets construct a new school – not because one is needed, but because it makes us feel good now at the expense of our future.

  5. Deferred Maintenacr is a problem that becomes more serious over time. The city has to properly budget for these repairs in their annual budgeting just like any condominium building. You have to plan for that expense so that you don’t get in this situation if having spent your wad with no monies left to pay for what is essentially the backbone of owning the building, the school. The City of Evanston has been operating in “Crisis Mode” for the whole 28 years that I’ve lived here, always crying poor and never having enough money. Just like needs to happen at the State level, we need to dismantle our financial structure and see where we are over spending and repair our spending. That will likely be a great first step. Then, we can look at what monies we have and create a new bucket called “capital improvements to structures”, as a long term planning bucket that has revenues dropped into it each year. If I’m not mistaken, nobody has ever done an accountability study of each building owned by the city to understand what monies should be invested against future repairs. If that fund is then invested to grow over time in stable markets, we could likely see an 8% annual return on those funds on average for said major projects. We have to save for them, and not overspend in the wrong areas with the revenue streams we now have. Again, until we can be good stewards of our existing real estate, I don’t think we have proven that we are worthy of spending millions to build a new piece of real estate. Let’s first manage what we have responsibly. I’m speaking without preference for any group but as a business woman, real estate investor, and residential advisor for 35 years.

  6. Perhaps local companies, or leaders of companies who live in Evanston, would like the opportunity to sponsor/pay for the repair or replacement of parks if they got some sort of elegant recognition for their sponsorship. Kind of like adopting a stretch of road and the adopter gets a sign on the road, and then the adopters help with upkeep like picking up trash periodically.

  7. As an early career person planning to start a family soon, I am tired of driving on streets that are falling apart and wading through intersections after rain since the stormwater drainage is so poor. The City’s long-term goals are admirable, but seem to have come at the cost of immediate needs. Dilapidated infrastructure and underinvestment in public safety is forcing us to leave Evanston.

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