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Recap: Evanston City Council

Here's a recap of our live coverage of tonight's Evanston City Council meeting at which aldermen adopted the city's 2021 budget.

Here’s a recap of our live coverage of tonight’s Evanston City Council meeting at which aldermen adopted the city’s 2021 budget.

Going into the meeting, the latest version of the proposed budget called for pandemic-driven cuts in city staffing and a 4.5% increase in property taxes.

The meeting is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m.

A packet with information on tonight’s agenda items is available online.

Meeting called to order at 5:38 p.m.

Mayor’s announcements

Mayor Steve Hagerty says Thanksgiving without usual gatherings will be lonely and difficult — but need to do it to control the pandemic.

Says restrictions can make a difference, if we comply with them. Says Evanston numbers are “moving up really quickly” can’t assume we’re different than any other part of the state or country.

Public Comment
36 people signed up so 1 minute 15 seconds for each to meet the 45 minute limit for public comment.
Public Comment starts at 5:49 p.m.

Most of the comments focused on the 1900 Sherman project, with six people speaking in favor and 13 or so against it.

Public comment ends at 7:02 p.m.

Special Orders of Business

SP1 – 2021 Fiscal Year budget

City Manager Erika Storlie says no formal presentation … move to discussion.

Now at 4.5% proposed property tax increase.

Changes from last week

  • Hold two positions vacant in police department
  • Eliminate $50K funding for human services program

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, repeats several suggestions she’s made in the past for further budget cuts … eliminating police training funding, reducing public safety pension funding, etc. (There’s been no consensus from other aldermen to move forward with those proposals in previous discussions.)

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, asks about building permit revenue.

Community Development Director Johanna Nyden says has been budgeting at $4.2 million for several years. Stopped trying to predict when big projects would come in several years ago. Says permits have come it somewhat stronger than expected this year about $1M extra — apparently people have been staying home and doing more home rehab work.

Storlie says expects building permits will be great again next year with people continuing to stay home. But great uncertainty because of issues with vaccine expect won’t be on strong road to recovery until 4th quarter of 2021.

Rainey repeats argument that NU should pay for fire calls … over $600K a year.

Storlie says NU has provided funding for new fire equipment as part of the Good Neighbor Fund. Says doesn’t have agreement from them to change that, but will continue discussions.

Mayor says should do some research about what other communities with big universities do.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, also suggests pushing harder on Northwestern for help.

Rainey says would like to not raise taxes. Talks about reserve fund and line of credit with Byline Bank ($15 million — that haven’t tapped into.)

Says the city is desperate right now, but no where near as desperate as some of our residents.

Suggests taking $1 million out of reserve fund. Says will commit to “fixing this” in the next year.

Suggests no increase in public safety pension fund payments this year. Claims can fund it next year in part with “new money” from Northwestern for fire services.

Mayor notes that reserve — which is supposed to be at roughly $16.6 million, was down to $14M by last year, are pulling $2M more from it this year.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, asks how can commit a future council to make repayments a year from now.

Storlie says haven’t had two months of reserve since 2015. Were in middle of three year plan to restore the funds when the pandemic hit.

Says rating agencies will know there’s an election coming up, so questions whether rating agencies would believe a promise.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, says there’s potential things will get even worse next year — if that happens, community will be relying on the city to provide even more services than we’re doing.
So need to stay as financially stable and secure as can now.

Eviction moratorium is going to expire in December, looking at food and housing insecurity issue through the winter.

Wynne says could be very different group of aldermen by next May who might not feel bound by a resolution the Council would adopt now.

Says expects closures and problems to economy to continue. Asks what kind of taxes would have to raise next year to fulfill a commitment to repay the funds next year. Agrees with Wilson about food and housing insecurity issues.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, says doesn’t want to raise anyone’s taxes. Suggests making reductions in capital spending.

Mayor says because that’s borrowing, cutting a $1 million capital project is going to only save a small amount of money in the first year — since it’s paid off over 20 years.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, says she’s opposed to any tax increase.

Fiske says she’s very concerned about what’s going to happen next year. Says credit rating is very important — every citizen will have to pay more in taxes if the credit rating drops.

Says city has made terrible mistakes in the past by not funding the pensions. Says can’t promise anyone when will be back to normal. Says doesn’t want to dig the hole any deeper than it already is, so supports the tax increase.

Storlie says the city started with an $8.5 million budget deficit. Have laid off more than 20 people. Got more than $4 million in grants. Did furlough days. Retirement incentives. All told have come up with over $6 million in savings.

Suggests making smaller contribution toward rebuilding reserves and the human services fund. Then would start 2021 with $11.3 million in reserves, or about 12.5%

Mayor says rating agencies want to see how fiscally responsible you’re being — made a lot of other cuts. That would reduce the tax increase from 4.5% to 3.6%.

Bond rating now AA with Moody’s and AA+ with Fitch. Fitch rating is one notch below the top AAA rating.

Braithwaite suggests postponing $1.4M in new vehicle purchases.

Public Works Director Dave Stoneback says the public works vehicles on the list are extremely old and in need of replacement.

Storlie says could consider moving $500K of the vehicle purchases to be raised from bonds.

Rainey says she disagrees with using capital bonds. Says could postpone buying some of the police cars. But leave public works trucks in the budget.

Wilson says he doesn’t have a problem with bonding for heavy-duty public works vehicles and with postponing purchase of some of the newer, mostly police vehicles.

Wynne says have to replace the public works vehicles. Agrees with Braithwaite about delaying the police vehicles. Doesn’t want to bond for vehicles.

Storlie says could bond for $500K and let fleet and facilities staff to figure out how to further reduce the expenditures for vehicles by about $100K. Overall would reduce tax levy by $600K.

That would reduce the property tax increase to 2.7%

Braithwaite suggests cutting another $400K in equipment purchases (not cutting the larger public works vehicles). Fleet manager says could possibly do that.

That would reduce the property tax increase to 1.9% … or $1.07 million. Or about $9.21 per $100,000 of property value on residential property.

Council approves those changes on a roll call vote.

Fleming moves to not increase public safety pension payments for this year. Rue Simmons seconds that motion. That would amount to about $585K. Keeping the contribution the same as this year. But would still be $2.8M more that the state minimum.

Wynne notes it will cost more to repay next year. Fiske says it’s like only paying the minimum on a credit card bill — just compounds the debt.

Motion fails 5-4 with Rue Simmons, Suffredin, Rainey and Fleming voting in favor of it.

At this point Rue Simmons suggests deferring rest of budget discussion to a future meeting.

Suffredin says could wait until Dec. 29. Storlie says that would would be very tough on staff. Would like to see a decision by the end of this month.

Wilson says he’d be fine voting on the budget tonight.

Wynne says have done some really good work tonight. Doesn’t think can get to a zero tax increase. That would jeopardize services. Would be OK passing the budget tonight.

Rainey moves reducing the reserve fund by $500K, says the fund is there for times like this.

This would reduce the property tax increase to about 1%.

CFO Hitesh Desai says expect to end this year at $13.7M in reserves.

Rainey says it’s rigid to not to reduce the reserves to further lessen the tax increase.

Says things for people are really bad here. A tax increase is like adding one more rock on top of the head of residents who are suffering.

Motion passes 5-4 with Wynne, Wilson, Revelle and Fiske voting no.

Storlie notes that reserves could be less if expenses for what’s left of this year end up being higher than projected.

Council at 9:43 p.m. votes to take a short recess because the meeting has reached the maximum duration of the video recording system being used.

To resume at 9:50 p.m.

Meeting resumes at 9:55 p.m.

So at this point the total tax levy increase is 1.0% or $4.85 per 100K of property value.

To have not tax increase would require another $571K in cuts

Braithwaite says the increase on a $500K house would be $12.12 every six months. Says that amount is not likely to throw someone out of their house. Says have an obligation to pay the pensions.

Fleming and Rue Simmons say the city can get to a zero increase.

Fiske suggests using sale of city assets to build reserves. Says is extremely concerned that are harming more people than helping unless succeed in building the reserves.

Rainey asks how come the library closed branches but its levy is the same. Storlie says they have contractually obligated salary increases and other costs.

Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons says library has had COVID-related expenses, employee salary increases, book price increases.

Wynne moves approving the budget at $296,146,104. Revelle seconds.

Motion fails 5-4. Wynne, Wilson, Revelle and Rainey voted for the motion.

Fiske says she wants a plan to rebuild the reserves to be able to support the budget.

Wynne says she agrees. Should commit to putting the sale of some city assets toward rebuilding the reserves.

(This done in the form of a referral.

Fiske moves reconsideration of the vote Braithwaite seconds for discussion.

Motion to reconsider passes 6-3. Rue Simmons, Suffredin and Fleming vote no.

Wynne again moves approval of the budget.

Motion approved 5-4. Braithwaite, Rue Simmons, Suffredin and Fleming vote no.

SP2 – Tax levy ordinance

Rainey moves. Wilson seconds.

New levy figure is $34.2M … down from $35.7M. Rainey moves that amendment. Revelle seconds.

Amendment passes 9-0.

Ordinance passes 9-0.
(Fleming later changes her vote to no. So approval margin is 8-1.)

SP3 – General assistance fund tax levy

Approved 9-0.

SP4 – Library fund tax levy

Approved 9-0.

SP5 through SP8 – Special service area tax levies

Approved on separate 9-0 votes.

SP9 – MOU with Cook County re pandemic housing

Approved 9-0.

SP10 – CDBG-CV funding to address food insecurity

Approved 9-0

Consent agenda

Off consent: A4, A6, P3, and R1.
With those deletions, consent agenda is approved.

A4 – Vehicle purchases

Original amount $1,441,500.
Wilson moves amendment reducing total to just over $1M.
Amendment approved 9-0.
Purchase as amended approved 9-0.

A6 – Electric energy supply agreement for city accounts
Pricing as provided today and posted on city website.
Approved 9-0.

P3 – 1900 Sherman planned development
Fiske announces that she’s recusing herself from the vote because a long-term friend, Jeanne Lindwall, is employed by a consultant to the Housing Authority of Cook County.

Rich Monocchio, executive director of HACC, says HACC will be at least a 99% owner of the project. Says private developer they’re working with is the John Buck Company, although they don’t have a signed agreement with the Buck firm yet.
Says the existing 1900 Sherman building was fully rehabilitated a few years ago. Says is everybody in the building thrilled about the new development? Probably not, he says, but they have expressed support for goal of proving more affordable housing in Evanston.

Says Evanston residents will have preference for the “missing middle” housing units.

Sarah Flax, city’s housing and grants staffer, says the project significantly exceeds the affordability required by the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance.

Approved 8-0-1 Fiske abstains.

R1 – Compensation for City Council
Rainey proposes amendment aldermen eligible only for single coverage may receive a cash amount equal to the city’s PPO option. That allows aldermen to shop on private market for insurance that may be better tailored to their individual needs.
Rue Simmons seconds.
Amendment 8-0. Suffredin votes no.
Ordinance as amended approved 9-0

Call of the wards

Braithwaite … 2nd Thursday in December, 2nd Ward meeting.
Wynne … zoom office hours coming …details in newsletter TK.
Revelle .. 7th Ward meeting, Wednesday, Dec 2, 7p by Zoom.
Fiske … 1st Ward meeting, Tuesday, Dec. 1 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Zoom.

Meeting adjourned at 11:24 p.m.

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