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New budget plan avoids tax hike

Evanston’s finance director told aldermen today that the staff has developed a plan for eliminating the city’s budget deficit without raising property taxes.

Marty Lyons outlined a series of 11 changes to the budget, including a mix of transfers from reserves, cost shifts to other taxing bodies, use of one-time revenues, spending reductions and a tax hike that he said would close the $1.8 million funding gap.

In addition aldermen suggested declaring furlough days for non-essential city workers to achieve more savings.

The plan, Lyons said, would also avoid cuts in city services, but it is heavily dependant on city employee unions agreeing to relatively small wage increases in contract talks now underway.

The changes include:

  • $230,000 saved with an additional half-percent reduction in projected employee wage increases. The original budget proposal had already called for trimming the increases from 5 percent to 3 percent. A combined 5 percent increase in cost of living and annual step-based increases has been typical for the city in recent years.
  • $300,000 transfered from reserves in the Economic Development Fund to the General Fund.
  • $200,000 saved in interest costs by postponing borrowing for the Capital Improvement Fund for six months. Lyons said that fund has enough money on hand to cover the borrowing delay.
  • $200,000 to be transferred from Evanston Township’s fund balance. City staff said the aldermen can do that because they also serve as township trustees and the city provides some of the same services the township does.
  • $250,000 to be saved by asking School Districts 65 and 202 to pick up a portion of the cost of providing crossing guards and police liaison workers at the schools. Lyons said the school districts will be facing budget issues of their own this year because they operate under state-imposed tax caps and will be limited to a 0.1 percent tax increase. But City Manager Rolanda Russell noted that the schools will be receiving a total of $6.4 million in new revenue as the first of the city’s tax increment financing districts expires next year.
  • $10,000 to be saved by reducing the city’s travel and training budget. Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she believes the $412,000 budget item could be reduced even more.
  • $40,000 from anticipated increases in parks and recreation program revenue.
  • $50,000 from a proposed 1 percent increase in the athletic events tax. The tax is now at 11 percent. Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, suggested increasing the tax by 2 percent instead.
  • $75,000 saved by reducing the amount transferred from the general fund to the insurance fund. Lyons said staff members believe the city can negotiate lower premiums for one of its insurance policies to achieve that savings.
  • $140,000 saved by job realignments.
  • $270,000 saved by postponing hiring for some unfilled positions.

The aldermen did not formally approve the changes Lyons proposed, but they authorized city staff to proceed with talks with the school districts and township staff about the items that would affect those governmental units.

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 2.

Before Lyons unveiled the new budget-balancing plan, the aldermen heard from several residents worried about the chance of tax increases in the midst of a recession, and from union representatives who said they’re aware of the difficult economic climate, but declined to discuss possible financial concessions outside of the collective bargaining process.

More about those comments in the recap of Evanston Now’s live coverage of the budget hearing.

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