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 Lyons

Lyons 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.”

Related stories

Pension panel wants zero-based budgeting

City names new finance director

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Zero based budgeting was already tried!
    Mr. Lyons has not been here long enough to know what he is talking about – the council already did this years ago – and they did nothing – they ranked everything – and cut nothing – which is typical of their approach –

    Fire and police could cut things also – other city department could cut things – there are employees that should go – the council members should cut their corrupt health care benifit. ( but that is not likely) there is plenty to change –

    What direction has the council given the “new” city manager for the budget this year? As we all know they will tell her nothing and leave her to come up with her idea. I would suspect the city is falling behind on revenue thus we do not even have the funds to pay for this years budget – ofcourse that will be not be discussed.

    Mr Lyons should familarize himself with the city approach that is to keep on figuring out ways to add fees and additional taxes on the people of Evanston – that is about the only plan the council understands. What will be the tax increase this year another 13.33%?

  2. zero Based Budgeting can work
    I have been involved in several Zero Based Budgeting (ZBB) projects and can tell you from experience – that they can work. It does take a lot of time and a core group of ‘outside’ people who work with each department to structure what the core benefits are – from the minimal level to current staffing and then one of two levels beyond today.

    This city clearly needs a hard and critical examination of where it is spending it’s money. ZBB forces departments to open up themselves to show what they are doing FOR THE PEOPLE – and what resources it takes to deliver these services. By building up levels of services provided – the council can more easily make trade off decisions and not just blindly gut 10% across the board.

    If the new financial manager fails to see this as a good mechanism – then he should be replaced and someone who is open to this method of budgeting brought in.

    John Kennedy

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