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Key questions for 5th Ward candidates

Evanston Now asked 5th Ward aldermanic candidates Bobby Burns and Carolyn Murray to respond to questions about several key issues in the city.

Bobby Burns and Carolyn Murray.

Two candidates — Bobby Burns and Carolyn Murray — are running for 5th Ward alderman in the April 6 general election.

The name of a third candidate, Tina Foster, will appear on the ballot. But Foster has withdrawn from the race and endorsed Murray.

Evanston Now asked Burns and Murray to respond to questions about several key issues in the city.

QUESTION: Do you support the 7% reduction in sworn police staff implemented this year by City Council? Do you favor more police staffing reductions in the future, and if so, what would you do with the money should there be any savings?

BURNS: Trusts that the police chief and PD leadership left positions vacant because services can continue properly without filling them. “The truth for me is not just policing but everything needs zero-based budgeting” for city spending. Put all issues on the table and ask what are we doing and is there a more efficient way to do it? Must ask “what are our public safety goals?” Decisions must be data-driven. If a better use of some public safety money is social services, such as social worker response teams, then that can be done.

MURRAY: Police budget has already been cut in previous years. “This whole issue of defund the police? They have been defunded in so many ways,” such as loss of victim witness advocate in PD and social service officers. Need to weed out “bad apples,” improve training, and “change the culture.” Believes the current chief is accessible and open to suggestions. Concerned about police overtime budget. Not so much with the current chief, but it has been a problem “ripping to the core” of the budget.

QUESTION: What specific steps, if any, can be taken to help Evanston businesses recover from the pandemic? Separate from the pandemic, what steps can be taken to improve the local economy? Do you favor the use of incentives such as tax breaks, subsidies, or zoning changes?

MURRAY: 5th ward businesses have “complained for years” about lack of resources compared to downtown. City staff should be “a lot more resourceful” in following up on state and federal dollars to help businesses through post-covid phase. Would meet with small business owners on a regular basis in order to try to assist them. Should look at “anything we have not ventured into before” as a possible option for helping businesses.

BURNS: Ask businesses what they need. City can help with technical assistance and professional services. Public-private partnerships are important. 5th ward businesses which survived pandemic “changed business models.” Learn from how these businesses made it through tough times. This is a “once in 100 years opportunity to rethink how we use commercial space,” especially downtown. Need “experiential” businesses, not competition with national chains. TIF ok to use but not generally in favor of other tax breaks. Subsidies and zoning changes case by case.

QUESTION: What specific programs, if any, do you favor to increase the amount of affordable housing in Evanston, and should any city subsidy be involved?

BURNS: Should allow off-site construction under inclusionary housing ordinance. Planned development downtown could help fund affordable housing on an approved community site. Would like to see “project-based vouchers,” so a unit can remain affordable even if renters with a voucher move out. OK with non-conforming smaller lot sizes and tiny houses as long as neighbors are “brought into the conversation.” OK with accessory dwelling units. “Tipping point” for home purchase price seems to be $180,000 and $1,000 a month rent for 2 BR units. Need more. “Ask people what they can pay,” then base potential future projects on that.

MURRAY: “Evanston has basically turned its back on low-income families and their quality of life.” Against new large commercial residential housing in 5th Ward. Need more affordable homes and rental units. Have to look at ways to support landlords now, due to COVID. Must be aware that social service agencies such as Catholic Charities and St. Vincent DePaul are helping low-income families. Affordable housing should be spread throughout the city rather than being concentrated in a few areas. “We don’t want Evanston to be a lip service community promoting diversity but not doing the actions to make it take place.”

QUESTION: Do you think that the 1% property tax increase, the lowest in many years, was too high? If you would like a tax cut, what services would you reduce due to lower income? Do you see any untapped sources of revenue, including the sale of city assets such as perhaps the Civic Center?

MURRAY: Start looking at city’s operational costs. Do an audit to see how we can scale back “to reinvent the budget.” I know Council said they did the best they could in limiting tax hike to 1%, but perhaps should look at no raises or no COLA. “We need to make a little more aggressive decisions that we’ve been shying away from.” Need “serious come to the table” discussions with NU about covering city’s university-related costs. Would consider sale of assets as a revenue opportunity, but not if it means bypassing the equity lens the city is trying to work towards.

BURNS: Council should not have had to raise taxes. If council was able to find enough savings to get the tax hike down to 1%, “imagine what we could have saved if we did this year-round.” Use zero-based budgeting. Need to identify every non-profit in Evanston (NU and others) over a certain threshold (possibly $15m). Enter into a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) to provide revenue. Weighing pros and cons of Civic Center sale. Not a seller’s market right now. Could keep and rent out rooms, but if sell and put City Hall downtown, would bring more people to shop and dine.

QUESTION: Do you favor increasing the reparations program/fund, leaving it the same, reducing it, or even eliminating it?

BURNS: Should be increased, but not necessarily via city money. Communities/businesses need to pitch in. Concerned about the first $400,000. At $25,000 per housing-related grant, it would only help 16 individuals. Depending on how many people are determined to be eligible, “this would take 100 years” to cover all potential recipients. What if the person is a renter and not homeowner? Should be able to opt out of this round and not be ruled out of future benefits. Could have different “tiers” of grant amounts, as with the Tuskegee settlement.

MURRAY: Current amount “not even close to being equitable for the vast number of people affected.” Need to go “back to the table” and look at a variety of distribution qualifications, not just what is in effect now. Money should be handled by a Black-owned bank. City should sponsor a minority-based group to try to get a cannabis dispensary, as cannabis tax is the public funding source for reparations.

QUESTION: Are there any 5th Ward-specific issues you would like to mention?

MURRAY: Wants a “comprehensive, strategic plan to deal with gun violence.” Her son was a homicide victim in 2012, and she has been involved in gun buyback programs. 2020 made me realize not much has changed. “The issues are as fresh as they were before.” Need to “collectively look at our response.” Equity is not just a safety issue. Also includes mental health, clean air and clean water.

BURNS: People are “upset and frustrated” with out of town landlords who do not maintain properties. Need to support policies to help families buy property. Ward has “sites causing adverse health outcomes.” Need ComEd transmission lines at Emerson and Dewey put under ground. That’s “non-negotiable.” Need more facilities and infrastructure in 5th Ward. City spent $50M on Crown, possibly could do TIF for 5th Ward project.

QUESTION: A survey by Evanston Now about how well city government serves residents’ needs saw a majority of respondents saying they were at least reasonably satisfied, on a scale of 1-7. If you are a non-incumbent, how do you convince voters to elect you when many of them are satisfied with how things are? If you are an incumbent, do the survey results indicate that changes are not needed?

BURNS: I would not say Evanston is bad. I would say “here are the issues I have identified,” such as lead levels in water, and transmission line locations. As a political consultant (career), my job is to “help elect good, honest leaders to local government.” I have the “qualifications to take on those who are responsible” for problems, and will run a “professional ward office” to track issues.

MURRAY: Many people she knows are not happy with how things are being done. “You don’t want somebody on council who doesn’t know the history of Evanston.” Will work to see that a property tax increase will not “raise its ugly head again.”

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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