As Evanston aldermen grapple with how to balance the city’s budget one issue that’s likely to come up is how much people who choose to use city services should have to pay for them.

As Evanston aldermen grapple with how to balance the city’s budget one issue that’s likely to come up is how much people who choose to use city services should have to pay for them.

The answers to that question vary widely from one program to another. Residents who call the police for service don’t pay, but residents are expected to pay the full cost of water and sewer services based on how much water they draw from the tap.

Today we look at some services that are in between those two extremes. They aren’t essential to life itself, like water. And, unlike police, they aren’t something called upon in an emergency.

And none of them are used by everybody — each appeals to different, though sometimes overlapping, segments of the community.

We look at the city’s organized recreation programs, its ecology center programs, its cultural arts programs, and its library services.

The proposed budget for 2011 shows the city plans to spend $8.3 million on recreation programs and recover about $3.7 million from user fees.

For the Ecology Center the plan is to spend about $411,000 and recover $327,000 of that in fees.

According to the budget, the city will spend $869,000 on Cultural Arts programming and recover $640,000 in user fees.

And the city will spend $3.8 million on the library and recover about $217,000 of that from user fees and overdue book fines.

What do you think? Should the city — faced with its revenue shortfalls — raise service fees for those who actually use these services? Or should more of the cost be spread across all property-tax payers? Or is the current cost-sharing level about right?

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Evanston Community Media Center

    Could you add the ECMC costs to this graph?  The ECMC has managed to stay clear of the ongoing debate about city programs and I’m interested to see how they look in comparison to these other programs.

  2. Personally, never using those

    Personally, never using those services my vote is obviously to charge those who do use them rather than me. Of course not having children and not being in need of schooling for said children, I also feel that I should be exempt from those charges that pay for the schools I am not using. But understanding ultimately takes over and I do realize that there would be no way for that to really work. It would be nice if we could break down all taxes and decide wheter or not we wanted to be able to pay for such services, but it just won’t work.

    Maybe what would take the sting out of higher taxes is if we could see what they were being spent on, like this (never going to happen) concept. Then we’d know exactly what the government was doing with the money and we could better access what they need vs. what they want to spend.

    1. Let’s just talk city programs

      Let’s try to keep the discussion simple by limiting it to city government programs.

      Once you start talking about schools you’re talking about different taxing bodies. But it’s an interesting NPR chart you’ve linked to.

      — Bill

      1. Point. It just was the only


        It just was the only clear example I could think of at the time that illustrated my general point.

  3. Cultural Center

    Why in the world is the city [i.e. taxpayers] giving any support to the Cultural Center.  True north shore residents like to think they are cultured but is that really something we have to, as taxpayers, support ?  We have NU that certainly provides more culture than this.  Let the elite pay for tickets [many free] at NU.

  4. How about increasing (or

    How about increasing (or adding) fees for use of services people choose to use but at the same time providing a means for those with limited resources to access those services at a reduced or no fee? 

    1. Rec program subsidies

      The city’s recreation programs offer discounts already for kids from poor families. Amounts to about $140K in fee waivers a year.

      — Bill

  5. votes v. purchases

    Interesting question.

    The user-fee-based model of government services is not appropriate for all services, and maybe not for most. It is most appropriate, ironically, for services that government perhaps should not be providing at all.

    The idea tends to ignore common good and related concepts, like positive externalities. In so doing it’s got a strong anti-democratic streak at its heart, coated in a candy shell of oversimplified economic models of human behavior.

    Why anti-democratic? By ignoring common good and common interest, and discounting the value of what we share, user fees can be divisive along any number of fault lines. Almost no one uses everything. Would you want to start charging crime victims for crime investigations? Or do it by neighborhood? How about speed bumps? Sidewalks? (we could make them all into toll sidewalks and send some Chicago Schoolers into bliss by charging a congestion fee during peak walking periods).

    One appeal of the user-fee concept is that it does force some inquiry into utilization, and thus into appropriateness. The hazard of such inquiry is that it can grab snapshot rather than big picture.

    What we think of as "user fees" are sometimes also really controls on demand, where if a public good was free, it would be overused, abused, or degraded (such as the use of a picnic grove). The imposition of such a control makes no sense where the "good" is something where we want the public to consume more of. Knowledge, intellectual stimulation, and culture often fall into this category because of widespread, long-lasting, ripple benefits. It would make a lot more sense to charge by the pound for waste removal than for borrowing a book or viewing a sculpture.

    Then there’s the basic tension of individual v. community decision-making. I prefer democracy to auctions as a way of making collective decisions. It is sometimes more unwieldy but efficiency is not the highest value, and sometimes not a value at all (since it’s possible to do something stupid or even evil with extreme efficiency).

    A vote is different than a purchase. The latter is better for private decisionmaking, the former better for the public sphere.

  6. City Services

    Given the financial mess we find ourselves in, the basic services provided by the City should be limited to only things that citizens otherwise would have no way to organize or take care of if acting on an individual basis.  Those items such as police, fire, garbage pickup, water service, street maintenance (along with traffic lights and street lighting), building safety for public buildings and multi-family buildings, restaurant and food service safety, public tree maintenance and park maintenance. All the other services can either be purchased individually as needed or from other similar facilities in the private sector. Examples of areas that the city can no longer afford to support are owning/maintaining/programing (in some) the Evanston Art Center, the Noyes Cultural Center, The Levy Senior Center, and the Ecology Center.  Also, if the City continues to offer the recreation programs, they must be self sustaining (i.e. service charges must cover the cost of the service including maintaining the facilities).  Only if extra funds are raised through the fee structure, programs could be developed for the folks that cannot afford these programs.  Or, private fund raising groups could support donations for income eligible residents.  This includes the beaches.  The sooner the City faces up to the reality that we can no longer afford to fund services that are available elsewhere, or not public safety essential services, the sooner it will begin to hurt less.  But, given the branch library discussions, it appears that we are a long way from dealing with reality….

    The branch library discussions have reached the point of being absurd.  The City cannot meet current obligations without more layoffs and a property tax increase.   We have a large, beautiful library in downtown Evanston, accessible by buses, elevated trains, bikes and walking (for some) and oh yes, even by car – with thousands of parking spaces within 3 blocks of the building.  To speak of closing the branch libraries  – the branch libraries; not the main library mind you – it is as if we are speaking against Mother and Country!   These people in favor of keeping the branch libraries need to face reality and move on. 

    1. The city mess

      The City mess is the council’s doing – it has nothing to do with having services beyond the so called basic severices.   The real issue is are we getting value for the money we pay on the services the city is providing.  How many screw ups can the budget take? 

      The waste collection is a basic services – is it being provided efficiently?  Why wasn’t the whole operation privatizated?  Are there other models of fire service delivery that are less expensive? Or is the police department operating efficiently? The large departments here have for years been run by the directors and many of these people have done what they wanted to do regardless of taxpayers.

      In asking about the 311 center two council members have told me they get alot of call related to waste collection.  The answer is not a 311 center it is fix the problems in that department! The problem here is council members have no real idea how to solve problems. Their approach in the past has been to just keep spending money – that solution is now gone – they have deal with the real issue not side step the problems.  The 311 center appears to be just spending money that does not address the real problems!

      The real issue is cost effective services. 


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