Aldermen were told Monday night that Evanston has a lot of public buildings for a town its size and hasn’t been spending nearly enough to maintain them.

As a special meeting at the Civic Center, city staff recapped the $18.5 million the city has invested in its buildings over the past five years and laid out the plans for another $4.5 million in spending next year.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the staff doesn’t have precise figures yet on how much needs to be spent to keep up with ongoing needs for improvements, but that “on an order of magnitude basis, it’s probably two to three times what we’re spending now.”

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl asked the new city engineer, Homayoon Pirooz, “how much do other cities our size spend?”

Pirooz said he’d need to do more research to provide a firm comparison, but that Ann Arbor, Mich., where he worked before coming to Evanston “didn’t have as many facilities” as Evanston does.

Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, has about 114,000 people in 46,000 households, compared to 75,000 people in 30,000 households in Evanston.

Stephanie Levine, senior project manager for facilities and parks, said the city has plans to increase spending on parks next year. It’s spent $891,000 on parks over the past five years and plans to spend $866,500 on them just next year.

The aldermen readily agreed to have staff do more research on the repairs needed to existing buidings and on developing a model for evaluating whether any existing facilities should be consolidated or closed.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said the city needs to have a public discussion of the need for all its facilities.

And the recent bruising debate over what to do with the Harley Clarke mansion was much on the minds of the aldermen.

Rainey said that debate “was a classic example of how not to do a public process. It was managed shamefully, dealt with shamefully by the community, not managed by the council and it didn’t produce a good result.”

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, argued that though the debate over the mansion was “messy,” she felt it was focused on the public saying “what’s the best use of the property and how much will it cost.”

“I found that discussion really interesting and much more mature than I would have expected previously,” Fiske added.

But Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, call the mansion debate “the most embarrasing thing this council has done since I’ve been on the council.”

What “the public” did to Col Jennifer Pritzker, the private investor who responded to the city’s request for proposals to use the mansion with a concept for a boutique hotel, “could not be more wrong,” Burrus added.

Jean Bonander, the consultant and former city manager in California brought in to facilitate the City Council’s goal-setting discussions, said “the process is always messy, especially when the public is involved.”

But she said the aldermen have time to set their priorities and have a public discussion, because when it comes to capital projects, “you can’t do them all at once.”

“Even if you had unlimited funds,” Bonander said, “you don’t have unlimited staff resources to manage the projects.”

Top: Aldermen Don Wilson and Judy Fiske getting the not-very-encouraging news about the state of the city’s facilities.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Spend limited taxpayer funds wisely

    It's true that the City of Evanston has a lot of buildings which require City Council and staff to prudently spend our taxpayer money wisely for appropriate upkeep. Many would agree that well maintained buildings, parks, and sound infrastructure are important to our community.

    But money is limited. It's a scarce resource. Staff and City Council should make any and every decision thoughtfully and after analyzing the alternatives. But time and again we witness the City of Evanston spending our money like there's no limit.

    Look at the renovation at Fireman's Park. We're spending $255,000 !! For one park and a small park. I'm all for investing in our parks, but do it prudently. Couldn't this have been done for $155,000?

    I'm not complaining about the quality of the renovation, or the need for the renovation and i think it will enhance the neighborhood. BUT, I am complaining about the amount of money spent, especially as it's becoming more apparent of the numerous other projects that need money.


  2. How sad

    When the Council comes to grips with the number and condition of public buildings, the conversation turns how to fund the repair instead of realizing the bureaucracy is too big and we have too many buildings and staff.

    Of course each official from supervisor to manager will tell you the city could not operate without them and they need more people, more space, a larger budget. Look how hard they fight even getting rid of the Township. 

    We have several times the number of aldermen per resident than Chicago!  If they don't get enough money, they make up for it with getting power [real and imagiined] instead of realizing how low an opinion the public has of them—except of course those who get gifts and projects.

    They need to first start looking at how to trim government.  The city hall monstrosity needs to be abandoned—with a proper trimmiing of staff the 1890 Oak building should have been more than enough space or trim the employees and partitiion off half of city hall for government and seal off the rest [or tear that down].

  3. If Northwestern paid property taxes…

    The solution seems rather obvious to me. Get Northwestern to start paying property taxes. None of this would be an issue then.

  4. Could we see the list

    Could the taxpayers of Evanston be provided with the complete list of properties that the city of Evanston owns?  The land and buildings would be detailed as assets on the balance sheet that the city maintains.  I don't think this would require an FOI to be filed.   Also, what is the fair market value of each individual property? 

    1. If they would only sell

      Then we could put the buildings on the tax roll instead of them being on city employee's resumes as buildings they manage—-even though not needed.

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