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.

Media Center

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.

Branch libraries

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.

Ecology Center

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.

Fire staffing

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.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation

25 Comments

  1. Preferred: Close one of two Central Street Fire Stations
    Why not close one of the two Central Street fire stations, located a little more than one mile apart on the same street and cut staff?

    The city could cut staff at the closed fire station and then sell the building. The city could save millions right there.

    The response time might increase a little but neighboring towns can pick up the slack, which they often do anyway in a major emergency.

    I think the station furthest west on Central Street should get the ax.

    New York City just closed 20 fire stations (15 percent) and other towns are doing the same. Why is Evanston any different?

    When you’ve got union employees retiring at age 55 receiving I understand on average $100,000 in retirment each year, there is something seriously wrong. The pension retirement system is unsustainable and leading the state and cities like Evanston to bankruptcy – a problem that can only be resolved on the state level.

    However, Evanston can do something about it – cut back on union employees, including public safety staff. A good and reasoanble start would be one of the two Central Street fire stations.

    If anyone disagrees, take another look at your property tax bill. The wily Democrats, which are in bed with the unions, JUST increased our taxes to 55 from 50 percent of last year’s first installment bill.

    In other words, my friends, the Democrats raised our taxes in a severe Recession and the fourth consecutive year of property value decline. Our property values are sinking and our property taxes are rising. How’s that working out for ya?

    Every single member of the Evanston City Council are Democrats. The president of the city employees union was appointed by the mayor to sit on the budget task force, doling out budget recomendations.

    Remember, so far, NOT ONE UNION CITY EMPLOYEE HAS BEEN LAID OFF. And, Wally B. is now recommending a merit pay freeze only for non-union employees – Union employees would still get their annual merit increase. How fair is that? Do ya think unions are getting preferential treatment?

    Is anyone surprised the fire unions so far are not putting any skin in the game during these very hard times?

    Also, most of our fire and police staff DO NOT LIVE IN EVANSTON. Think about that when the city closes down the library branches and possibly next year, the Ecology Center.

    I find it unconscionable that our city leaders seem to be looking out for the best interest of the unions rather than the best interest of the ordinary Evanston homeowner.

    We are in this mess in part because we have NO political diversity in our town and that our political leaders are beholden to the unions. Perhaps the taxpaying public will remember these budget shenanigans next time around.

    I sure will.

    1. taxes have not been increased
      Democrats (wily or otherwise) did not raise property taxes to 55%. The first installments was raised to 55% of your property tax bill, with the remaining 45% due in the second installment.

      Meaning, maybe you’ll be a happy Republican when you receive your reduced percentage property tax bill in the fall. Or not.

  2. Editorial: Stay the Budget Course
    Why is it that this editorial completely ignores the $200,000 budget cut for human services? This too is a highly controversial cut.

    Sure, there aren’t large numbers of residents turning out to protest these cuts the same way that is true for the libraries and media center.

    Largely because these are the residents that are the most in need of help and are often the poorest and least connected to the processes of government funding.

    At hearing times they are the ones home trying to feed their family, working non-traditional hours in low wage jobs (if they have a job)or as a senior citizen not willing to come to an evening hearing.

    The mental health board funding for these individuals is critical. The proposed cuts equal a 24% cut for each agency. This will mean fewer clients served, programs scraping to do more with less or possibly closing programs.

    This is one area where if Evanston doesn’t choose to support people now, will no doubt be paying later in higher costs.


    Reply:
    Stay tuned. Still more research to do on that subject. Hope to have more to say about it within a few days.
    — Bill

  3. Stay the budget course
    Couldn’t agree more. Close the branch libraries, they are not a necessity they are a convenience. There is still the main branch-easily accessible by public transportation. As for the firemen, don’t compromise public safety, but do compromise on raises. Who gets raises these days–join the rest of us and deal with the reality of the economy.

  4. One library, one Evanston
    Sounds great. I guess to get the city to do what needs to be done we’ll need a logo, signs, protests, etc.

  5. Oblivious to Reality
    Wally B’s proposed budget is moving the city government closer to collapse. He is doing little to address the systematic problems facing our community. He is doing nothing to solve the real problems within the Fire Department. The worst of the city staff are not affected by his cuts. The majority of the terminations are against the service departments while the administrative bureaucracy is strengthened by his plan. The most competent members now have a further incentive to leave as soon as possible as one did last week. It is foolish for Wally B to tell the residents that their local government will be better or more efficient after his restructuring is completed.

  6. Editorial: Stay the Budget Course
    While I do no envy the position of the aldermen who must decide to approve a budget that includes cuts, the City Manager has come up with a budget that does not increase real estate taxes, to his credit. Resident sentiment does favor no tax increase during this recession – a particularly deep recession.

    Balancing the budget will take compromise and the will of the aldermen to make hard decisions. Perhaps we won’t be able to make large overpayments to reduce unfunded pension obligations or restore our reserves back to an acceptable level in one year, but only fail to meet these expectations when the public deems a service to be a vital part of the fabric of the community. Keeping the branch libraries open appears to pass this litmus test. All else is in play.

    Two future activities are most important, once the present budget is settled:

    (1) The Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Budget Committee should (in my opinion) examine major service areas in detail, with the help of each department or division head. Make appropriate recommendations that will look well into the future, and provide compelling arguments to the Council for implementation. This activity will easily fill a year’s worth of monthly meetings, so start thinking about more frequent meetings! Start opening some new doors of opportunity, such as a commitment to find additional communities for water sales.

    (2) We’ve heard a lot about how we missed revenue targets this year. Well, in a down economy, one could expect reduced revenue, and I’d expect 2010 to be similar to 2009. Do learn from 2009. Evaluate major revenue and expenditure line items. Where did we really fail? Any positives? How’d they do it? Any mid-course corrections? Deferred spending? Additional grants or ARRA funding?

  7. Al and his union obsession
    “Remember, so far, NOT ONE UNION CITY EMPLOYEE HAS BEEN LAID OFF. And, Wally B. is now recommending a merit pay freeze only for non-union employees – Union employees would still get their annual merit increase. How fair is that? Do ya think unions are getting preferential treatment?”

    Al, surely you realize that any pay freeze with union employees cannot be imposed unilaterally by the City. Union employees are covered by contracts, and these can only be modified with the agreement of both sides.

    I agree that the terms of many union contracts – especially the retirement benefits – are not sustainable. But we can’t have the Council just arbitrarily tossing out valid agreements made by the City – if we let them do that, then the current NIMBY majority will start downzoning every piece of land in the city.

  8. “Remember, so far, NOT ONE
    “Remember, so far, NOT ONE UNION CITY EMPLOYEE HAS BEEN LAID OFF. And, Wally B. is now recommending a merit pay freeze only for non-union employees – Union employees would still get their annual merit increase. How fair is that? Do ya think unions are getting preferential treatment?”

    This claim is simply false, many of the positions being cut are unionized (most of the library staff for example). Layoffs do not spare members of the unions, though the terms under which it can be done are stricter than for non-union positions (seniority, severance, etc.)

    As for the merit raise, yes it is unfair for the non-union employees, but the city has no option but to pay it for union members because it is their contract. As new contacts are negotiated such provisons will be subject to change. The city playing games with cost of living raises for non-union members a few years ago was a major part of the impetus behind the increase in unionization among city staff.

    The city may be providing services that we can no longer afford, but in this instance it is not the fault of the employees or the unions.

  9. No layoffs yet
    Today is Feb. 1, 2010.

    How many union employees in Evanston as of today have been laid off after three years of a severe Recession?

    None. Nada. Zilch. Zero.

    My statement that “NOT ONE UNION CITY EMPLOYEE HAS BEEN LAID OFF” is completely true as of today, and probably Feb. 2, 2010.

    Yes, I understand unions have a contract with the city. My point is that unions in the government pose a conflict of interest and lays the groundwork for corruption and cronyism in the system when you have a political party and their politicians receiving untold amounts of money and support from unions and all the while these politicians make policy decisions that are prioritized on the interest of the unions that support them over the taxpayers who they are suppose to serve.

    How can a government organization with employees operate efficiently when its employees greatly influence who runs the organization?

    What kind of contract do you have with employees when you are unable to freeze merit pay during hard times? What kind of contract do you have when employees can retire at 55 and receive a very generous pension (the average is 100k a year) that now clearly is bankrupting cities and states?

    The sweetheart union contracts clearly says to me – “I’ll rub your back if you politicians rub mine.”

    This is why we find the PRESIDENT of the city union appointed by the mayor to sit on the city budget task force, making budget recommendations.

    This is why we find only Democrats on the City Council.

    This is why we find that our taxes continue to rise while property values plunge in a severe Recession because government leaders (Democrats) are pressured and influenced by unions and must finance the most expensive item in any budget – labor.

    This is why NOT ONE UNION CITY EMPLOYEE HAS BEEN LAID OFF in Evanston. That is why NOT ONE STATE UNION EMPLOYEE HAS BEEN LAID OFF!! Remember, unemployment in Illinois is above 10 percent.

    These facts alone are unconscionable.

    We can see how the unions get preferential treatment and milk the system in Cook County, Chicago, Illinois and even on the federal level where Obama and the Democrats behind closed doors just gave the unions a tax freeze on the proposed healthcare bill I understand was designed in part by unions.

    I have no problem with unions in the private sector. But when the unions literally decide who gets elected and then get sweetheart deals in the public sector that are not sustainable or equal, compared to the private sector then as a taxpayer I become second fiddle. I don’t like that.

    Yes, Wally B. says he’s going to layoff some union employees. But in these hard economic times what have the fire, police and city unions sacrificed? Unpaid time off? Nope. No overtime? Nope. A merit pay freeze? No again.

    Wally B. to my knowledge does not plan to layoff existing firefighter positions? This despite the fact we have two fire stations on Central Street just a little more than a mile apart. And the best I can tell, the proposals so far, including shutting down the libraries, does not come close to filling the $9 million and growing budget hole.

    For the past several years, the city has avoided making hard decisions, and the problems are just shoved aside to the following year. That’s because our Democrat politicians DO NOT want to layoff their union constituents.

    How can Wally B. do his job – freeze merit pay for union employees, no overtime and unpaid time off and layoff employees and close down a fire station when the unions are running the show?

    Does this kind of stuff happen in the private sector?

    I like Evanston. I think change MUST come. And it will come in the guise of another political party – Republicans – so that we once and for all can get some sane fiscal policies enacted in our city government and where our government is run efficiently and taxpayers for once are not burdened by the costs of sweetheart union contracts and bloated bureacracy.


    Reply:
    Let’s all concede that:
    1. About 40 city jobs have been eliminated in the past couple of years through early retirement incentives and decisions to eliminate vacant positions. True, those are not technically layoffs, but they are reductions in force.
    2. If the City Council adopts the city manager’s budget proposal, in the neighborhood of another 40 positions will be eliminated March 1, mostly through actual layoffs.
    Thanks, and on with the discussion.
    Bill

    1. Oh Yes They Have
      In fact, City employees in the first round of layoffs have been encouraged to leave the City as of February 1st. So you are wrong – as of TODAY several union and non-union employees have been laid off from the City of Evanston.

      Real people who paid their union dues, worked diligently for the City for decades and who had absolutely nothing to do with the current fiscal crisis. And who still have mortgages and property taxes to pay. Sad, really.

    2. party dogma
      Your claims of Republicans holding the flame of fiscal responsibility wring very hollow.

      Where were you between 2000-2008?

      Let’s not get into the stale argument of which party is more fiscally responsible. I could give you dozens of examples of fiscally responsible Democrats. Both parties have shown that living beyond your means is not beholden to any one particular
      party line.

      The sooner the voting public understands this the sooner we can make intelligent decisions about who we want to lead us, not based on party dogma but on specific candidate credentials.

  10. Let’s hear the details on these so-called layoffs
    Anonymous,
    You say city employees have been encouraged to leave and then the next sentence, you say they were laid off. Which is it?

    How many of these employees were laid off as you claim? And from which departments did they lose their jobs? How many were union and how many non-union?

    Let’s hear the details.

    1. More on layoffs
      These employees were told that they would be laid off at the end of February. However, they were given the option of leaving at the end of January and being paid for February. They were in many different departments (look at the first round of budget cuts from the City Manager.) Some were union, some not.

      Yes, there really are layoffs happening in the City of Evanston. Yes, there really are union employees losing jobs. Yes, it really hurts when it happens to you.

  11. layoffs not approved yet
    It’s my understanding the budget cuts are proposed and have not been approved.

    So, if these employees are gone they left on their own. Nothing is set in stone until the Council approves the final budget, and anything could change until that happens.

    In any event, if what you say is true, I have little compassion for the union employees who took early retirement. I mean who gets a lifetime pension in the private sector and gets to retire and collect their pension at age 55? I say that with the knowledge that state unemployment is above 10 percent – most of which comes from the private sector. Government in Illinois, believe it or not, is a growth industry.

    Also, let’s not forget, we are in the fourth year of a Recession. Evanston should have been cutting staff years ago.

    But hey, Democrats just keep raising our taxes to pay for the employment of their constituents.

    We can keep the branch libraries open if we close down one of the two Central Street fire stations.

    1. You’re Changing the Subject
      Who’s talking about union employees taking early retirement? We’re talking about union and non-union employees who have been told that they will be laid off if the proposed budget is accepted. Most of these people can see the handwriting on the wall. They aren’t in positions where someone is going to have a petition drive to save their jobs. They know that they will not be reprieved and so have chosen to leave rather than work an extra month.

      No the budget is not set in stone until the Council votes – but what magic fairy is going to fly in and bring a big bundle of cash to Evanston? These cuts will be made and these staff members will be losing their jobs. That’s reality.

      You have a problem with unions. We get it. But the 46 City staff members who are losing their jobs aren’t the ones who caused the budget crisis, they are merely the innocent victims of it. Too bad you have no compassion.

    2. two party spending
      Both parties are and have been fiscally irresponsible for a long time.

      Democrats = tax and spend
      Republicans = borrow and spend

      Choose your poison.

  12. Critical services vs quality-of-life
    During times of economic difficulty, it is critical to make every single tax dollar count: we can’t forget that many of our neighbors are struggling. A quick internet search shows the toll of high housing costs: Zillow.com lists 271 foreclosures in the Evanston market. Within a 3-block radius of my home (not including Chicago) I counted no less than 10 homes that have been repossessed for resale. Neighbors who are struggling to find work risk losing their homes if taxes increase.

    No one wants their quality of life disrupted, especially in difficult times. Since we cannot raise taxes, the only realistic way to manage the City budget is to reduce services. I am concerned that critical services which impact the safety of citizens and property in Evanston are being overlooked in favor of services that enhance our quality of life. You will have no argument from me that quality of life services are valuable – the question on the table is: is it worth risking life and property to keep them?

    I wonder if those who favor quality-of-life services have considered the consequences of some of the proposed critical service cuts:

    For our emergency services, time is critical. Current response times have been carefully calculated to save lives and property: Cardiac arrest patients are unlikely to survive if they do not receive CPR within 3-5 minutes, or defibrillation within 8 minutes. Fires can double in size every 45 seconds – response time and equipment are equally critical for fire supression. Taking a vehicle out of service, even temporarily, is gambling with both life and property.

    The Police Department’s summer plan not only increases public safety in “problem” areas of town by sending police where they are most needed: it provides critical protection in high-traffic areas. Remember the rash of “wildings” or “goonings” a few years ago in Downtown Evanston? Random innocent victims, frequently senior citizens, were beaten by mobs. This threat was reduced by a proactive response of the Evanston Police Department using summer plan police officers.

    Building inspections may seem insignificant in light of the budget crisis. While property standards do overlap with quality-of-life issues (yes, it isn’t critical if someone’s yard is full of weeds,) before we consider cuts in this department, we need to remember deadly accidents we’ve seen in the news – all outside of Evanston. Deadly porch collapses are unheard of here – but not because all porches are safe: building inspectors found and addressed a problem porch in my neighborhood before anyone was endangered.

    There is no question that branch libraries, ECMC, and other non-critical services will be sorely missed, but we simply can not afford these services as we have in the past. For this reason, I ask that the City Council and the City Manager balance the budget – but as they do, I ask that their primary consideration be the safety and security of the citizens of Evanston.

    1. Mandate Evanston must pay off $159 million Pensions by 2033
      Daily Northwestern 2/10/10 reports [as if we did not know] the pension liability.
      Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights.
      Long before 2033 Evanston will probably be known as Town_Formerly_Known_as Evanston.
      Parts will belong to Wilmette, parts to Chicago [if either will have us] and parts a no-mans land.
      The [library] branch lovers will be able to read about it all, including the high crime rate and number of houses burning down daily from inadequate fire and police coverage. Likewise the media center will have live video of the crimes and fires for those remaining in the ‘city’ and those who still care about what was once the city. Of course these people will be long gone.
      If the Council continues to pass their obligations down the line [or as they say because of state law] to their grandchildren perhaps the next step is to privatize all city services and schools and use 401-k instead of pensions. At least freeze all city and school promotions ahead of retirement by a year so these all too common ‘bumps’ are outlawed and pensions honestly reflect length of service and responsibility.

      1. More Mandated Pension Reform Coming ?
        A story reports that a re-analysis of state and local pension obligations and funding levels is being undertaken—including the interest rate assumptions. It could increase the obligations and the need for increased current funding levels by 20%. 3/29/10 Wall Street Journal
        Hopefully the city/state and actuaries have already shifted to the new assumptions or our pension crisis could grown even wider—however I doubt it, they are too busy trying to find ways to burn money and hope the tooth-fairy will replace it.

  13. The Democrats raised our property taxes
    Racer X,

    If you pay property taxes then you will know that the second installment is almost always higher than the first installment.

    So, when our politicians (Democrats) decided to sneak in the increase in the first installment they did that knowing that the second installment would increase on most tax bills. We didn’t even hear about this first installment increase in the media until after the fact.

    In other words, Democrats are wily. Is there a Democrat candidate running on the platform of CUTTING TAXES?

  14. Raises?
    The firefighters want “substantial pay increases” in this economic climate??? When many (if not most) of them receive annual compensation including benefits of well over $100K per year?

    I think the City should cut everybody’s taxes and then declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy and get it over with. Then the unions can negotiate their salaries with the bankruptcy judge.

  15. More Bureaucracy, Less Services
    More Bureaucracy, Less Services – This is the essence of Wally B’s proposed budget. Even now he is hiring staff for new positions for the back office while the front-line departments are being hacked apart. The quality of life in Evanston will suffer for many years to come.

  16. Bloated City Staffing

     A recent book about "Higher Education" by Andrew Hacker would make good reading for taxpayers and the City administration.

     While about colleges it makes a number of points that could be applied to cities.

      How many departments and committees [including Boards,Commissions, Policy Review, Zoning] do we really need ?  Do they really contribute to the operation of the city and making it a better place to live or just get some special interest off their back [e.g. for college, "Substainability Director, "Communications Coordinator", V.P. for Student Success" and on and on] ?  Are they set-up because someone wants power to make decisions, put ‘administration’ on their resume or next election campaign ["Look at all I’ve done and number of committees I served on"]. 

     Whether unpaid or not each committee requires rooms, generating reports [lots of paper], one or more paid Administrators [or Councilmen] to meet with them or at least read their report and probably then call public meetings to discuss with the necessary cost of notice, meeting rooms, etc..  All the while wasting money and a  lot of peoples times when they could actually be doing their jobs and time of citizens who must attend to keep bad legislation from occuring.

      The book points out how little "good sounding" departments and committees actually contribute to the success of the university esp. teaching. As schools should consider cost per hour of teachers, and per student, they should also consider the number and cost of all administration per student [taxpayer].   I don’t think the analysis of administration per taxpayer or effectiveness would prove positive.

      We could probably cut 25% of city committees, boards and departments and no one would notice—no I take that back, taxpayers would notice lower tax bills, less harassment of business and citizens, less time needed to attend fruitless and meaningless meetings to hear endless talk about trivial/meaningless topics.

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