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Finance chief rejects zero-based budget

Evanston’s new Finance Director Marty Lyons says he doesn’t believe zero-based budgeting is feasible for the city.

That approach to setting the city budget is one of the main recommendations being considered by the blue ribbon committee appointed to develop strategies for dealing with the budget crisis created by the $145 million shortfall in public safety pension funding.

Martin LyonsLyons told the committee Wednesday that many city services — like fire and police and snow removal — simply can’t be eliminated.

"You’re not going to stop those services," he said.

Beyond that, he said, many support services, from information technology to personnel, are essential to the functioning of the core services like police and fire.

But committee member Peter Morris said while the city clearly isn’t going to stop providing police or fire service, a zero-based budget would let decision makers more carefully evaluate what services are actually required and what the citizens really want.

Lyons said it would be very difficult to establish what the baseline for city services should be, although he conceded that the baseline now is established "by inertia."

"Are there inefficiencies? Yes, things could be done more efficiently," Lyons said.

But he said those changes tend to take a lot of time to bring about, noting that it took two years to develop the recently approved commercial waste hauling franchise agreement, which officials believe will raise new money for the city while reducing hauling costs for local businesses.

Lyons suggested the city would better focus on services rather than departments in trying to improve efficiency.

Morris said, "The big thing is inertia. When you truly dig in and examine something you find bags of cash that could be saved, or find you could do a substantially better job with no more cash."

Lyons said he doesn’t anticipate making any major changes in the city’s budget documents during his first budget review cycle that will end in February.

"Evanston has received a peer review award" from the Government Finance Officers Association for its budget documents, Lyons said. "I think the internal processes" of preparing the budget "will have some changes and a lot more inclusiveness this year," he added.

"But I wouldn’t see in my first six months saying we need to change the document until the City Council has had a chance to weigh the goals and objectives. They drive the budget."

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