Evanston aldermen hold a public hearing on their 2011 budget Saturday morning.

They will hear many complaints from folks who want more spent on a favorite program.

We predict they will hear less from the quiet majority of Evanstonians who are being squeezed more each year by property taxes that rise faster than either inflation or incomes.

The pain for them is more diffuse and the discouragement over the seemingly inexorable rise in the tax burden is more profound.

But that progressive tightening of the screw on property taxpayers is a policy that this progressive community can no longer afford.

As Mayor Tisdahl has acknowledged, it is driving moderate income residents out of town — decreasing the diversity that the city prides itself on.

The budget prepared by City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz includes many carefully crafted spending reductions and sound proposals for new operating efficiencies.

But it still, after all is said and done, will require a property tax hike of roughly 4 percent next year, at a time when inflation is running at 2 percent or less.

What’s the right number? Well, the majority of Evanston Now readers voting in an admittedly unscientific online poll said they favor no tax increase at all or a cut in the property tax levy.

We suggest a more moderate approach — limiting the increase in the property tax to the increase in the inflation rate during the previous year — or to smooth out variations — to an average of the inflation rates over the past three years.

Let’s say the inflation number was two percent. That would require cutting roughly $800,000 more in spending than the city manager has proposed, or generating $800,000 more in non-property-tax revenue.

We believe this can be achieved in large part by given residents more control over what they pay for city services.

Many city programs — notably its recreation programs — already cover much of their operating costs through user fees. Moderate increases in those fees — moving closer to full cost recovery — could trim the property tax increase and give the city an opportunity to test the impact of higher fees on demand for those services.

These fee-based programs are used by varying subsets of the city’s population, and it’s only appropriate to charge those users what the programs cost, after making provisions to subsidize use by residents struggling at the poverty level.

We also believe the city needs to reduce the proposed $350,000 subsidy to the solid waste program by adjusting usage-based fees there to more closely reflect actual costs.

Of course, any plan to increase fees needs to be coupled with an even more rigorous search for operating efficiencies to control costs.

And, a user fee approach is not practical all city services — police and fire protection are among the most obvious exceptions.

But where it can be used, it should be fully implemented to maximize the amount of choice residents have to match their spending on city services to the services they actually use.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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2 Comments

  1. Economic Development Department

    The City cannot only cut expenditures. The Council must begin thinking about generating revenue beyond the fee increases on the backs of the already hurting citizens. Where’s the Economic Development investment that is needed to bring more business and more property tax revenue into the City. In reviewing the current budget proposal for the Economic Development Department, staffing represents a Full Time M/W/EBE Coordinator, a Human Relations Specialist and a Secretary II. Those titles sure don’t appear to be investments in the future growth of the City. Specifically, why a full time M/W/EBE Coordinator? The City appears to have very few contracts going on right now. This should be either cut to part time, or better yet, contracted out. Also, a Human Relations Specialist. In Economic Development. I don’t get it. The economy will turn around. In my business we are already starting to see it. We need to invest in the future now. I’m willing to pay a little extra taxes or sacrifice some services now to reap the gains in the future. We must start thinking beyond today. Let’s hope the Council can show some leadership and invest and think about tomorrow.

    1. The City Council can cut expenditures in a lot of places

      Not true, the city can cut expenditures.

      Let’s start by closing down one of the two Central Street fire sations about one mile apart.

      Or, close down the Township Assessor’s Office – a duplicative service that the county provides.

      But nope, the City Council this year spends about another $1 million for a 311 call center and increases the Township Assessor’s Office budget by 80 percent.

      And so, the city will raise the taxes again. Our property tax bills will come in and it will go up. The state will raise income taxes.

      I’ve been hearing from a lot of people that the county assessor wholesale rejected property tax appeals in the first round.

      The people who are really hurt by these tax increase are low-income. It’s maddening.

       

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