Faced with a proposed budget that calls for a nearly 12% spending increase and a 7.9% boost in property taxes, Evanston City Council members Monday night gave no indication they would support significant cuts to the city manager’s spending plan.

Instead they debated how fast the city should burn through its budget reserves.

Staff projects the city will end this year with roughly $30 million in so-called “excess reserves” in the general fund — money above the minimum reserves called for by city budget policies.

That’s money that accumulated thanks to conservative budgeting during the pandemic and an influx of federal aid dollars.

The staff forecasts that the city — even with the proposed property tax hike — will consume more than $10 million a year of those reserves going forward, exhausting them by 2026.

Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) and Ald. Devon Reid (8th) suggested eating up the surplus more rapidly to reduce the size of next year’s planned $45 million general obligation bond sale.

Unless overall spending is reduced, that just leads to bigger tax hikes sooner in future years.

Bobby Burns.

But Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) argued that — given the size of the city’s tax base — its debt level is not excessive and the size of the new bond issue is appropriate.

The city also has managed to avoid issuing any new general obligation bonds for 2022 or 2023..

Burns also noted that the city has avoided any increase in property tax rates for the last two years.

Devon Reid.

Reid criticized the proposed property tax hike — saying that because rental properties pay a higher tax rate than single-family homes, the increase would hit renters harder than homeowners.

But his solution was to suggest replacing that increase with an array of more than a dozen new or increased taxes and fees — an idea that did not appear to pick up support from any other members of the Council.

Reid also pushed to continue funding for the city’s new participatory budgeting program — paid for with $3.5 million in pandemic relief funds this year — a program not included in the proposed 2024 budget.

Juan Geracaris

Ald. Juan Geracaris (9th) said he’d favor some funding for participatory budgeting, “but I don’t think that using reserves is the right way to do it.”

“We had a windfall” to fund it this year, Geracaris added, “and the forecast for reserves doesn’t look great in the near future.”

Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd) said she loved the community engagement generated by participatory budgeting but that she wasn’t prepared to provide new funding for it immediately.

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said he believed the $500,000 in administrative costs for this year’s participatory budget program was excessive, but that he did like having the participatory budgeting program “to help us establish our priorities.”

The Council took no votes on the budget during Monday’s session. It is scheduled to have a public hearing on the budget next Monday.

More budget discussions will continue into next month, with a final vote on the budget expected Nov. 27.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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