Evanston aldermen need to follow through on the goal Mayor Tisdahl says they hired City Manager Bobkiewicz to achieve — a balanced budget with no tax increase.
Only a relative handful of the budget cuts proposed by the manager have proved highly controversial, and here is an assessment of some options for how to address them.
In concept, city funding of the Evanston Community Media Center is a classic "nice to have," and we’re in a time when the city can only afford the essentials. In practice, as an independent non-profit, the media center is a chronic underperformer that has totally failed for decades to find meaningful financial support in the community beyond its city handout.
Preferred: Cut deeper than the manager proposed. End the $350,000 city subsidy to ECMC from the franchise fee. Use city staff or independent volunteers to cablecast and webcast city meetings. Split the $90,000 access equipment surcharge Comcast pays between the city and the two school districts to assure that each entity can continue to make videos of its meetings available to the public. This should result in a net savings to the city, after staff costs, of at least $300,000 — 50 percent more than the manager proposed.
Acceptable: Proceed as the manager recommended with the $200,000 funding reduction. Demand that ECMC become self-sustaining within two years and phase out the remaining subsidy over that period.
Unacceptable: Continue anything resembling the current level of subsidy.
The branch libraries, while significantly more valuable than the media center, are a "nice to have" in this time of financial austerity. They also provide convenient service only to portions of town, leaving other segments of the community unserved. The city has failed for decades to right that wrong and is in no financial position now add more branches.
Preferred: "One library, One Evanston." Close the branches and save $425,000.
Acceptable: Establish special service area taxing districts so that those who live conveniently close to the existing branches pay for them.
Acceptable: Relocate the existing branches so that they better serve the entire city.
Undesirable: The city manager’s new proposal to close the main library on Fridays and otherwise trim its hours to keep the branches open. To substantially cut hours at the library used exclusively by 75 percent of the population to maintain service at the branches used exclusively by 17 percent of the population makes little sense, except as a stop-gap to give time for the fantasy that large amounts of private funding from branch backers will magically appear in the next year to play out.
Unacceptable: Creating a separate city-wide library taxing district. That would certainly result in increased costs to all taxpayers.
The Ecology Center appears to be reasonably successful at gaining financial support from private sources.
Preferred: Spare the Ecology Center this year, but direct city staff and the center’s supporters to implement strategies to make it fully self-sustaining within a year or two.
Undesirable: Close the Ecology Center this year.
This represents perhaps the most difficult challenge the aldermen face. There could be real public safety consequences to reducing fire staffing below current levels. But the firefighter’s union is said by a knowledgeable source to be asking for a substantial pay increase this year, which is totally unreasonable given the current economic climate.
Preferred: The firefighters union agrees to accept no pay increase in its new contract, and in return the city agrees to maintain current fire staffing levels.
Acceptable: If the firefighters union ends up receiving a pay increase, the city should impose the staffing reductions proposed by the city manager.
Unacceptable: Agreeing to a pay increase and not reducing staffing.
In any case, the city needs to aggressively explore options for additional regional cooperation strategies to reduce public safety costs and increase efficiency.
Update 4:15 p.m.: Brian Scott, president of the Evanston Firefighters Association, called to say the union is not seeking a substantial pay increase. But he decline to indicate what the union is seeking, saying it would be an unfair labor practice to discuss it.