As Evanston’s city budget has dramatically increased in recent years, the city’s general fund property tax levy has carried a decreasing share of the total general fund expenses.
That’s the substance of a report to the city’s Finance and Budget Committee Tuesday night.
Committee Chair David Livingston said there was essentially no increase in the general fund property tax levy for budget years 2020 through 2023.
That creates what amounts to a structural deficit, he added, that “has hollowed out what was a much more significant element of revenue in the past than it is today.”
Livingston added that while the 2024 budget proposed by the city manager used in preparing the chart shows an increase in the tax levy to 9% of general fund revenue, the decision by the City Council Monday night to increase the assumed vacancy rate in next year’s budget and apply that savings to reducing the property tax levy would cut next year’s general fund property tax levy to about 8% of general fund spending.
He suggested that letting the property tax share of spending slide is akin to the city’s past practice of underfunding payments to the public safety pension fund and keeping water and sewer rates flat for several years while the city’s water mains aged and lead service lines went unreplaced.
Livingston said he’d like to see the general fund property tax levy increase at less than the rate of inflation, “but holding it at zero for four years is not sustainable.”
“Some degree of increase has to happen,” he added, “it’s not sustainable to freeze property taxes.”
The general fund property tax levy was $12.3 million in 2013 and has increased only to $12.8 million in the proposed 2024 budget.
The total property tax levy — including levies for public safety pensions, debt service, the library and general assistance — has grown from $42.5 million in a $256 million total budget in 2012 to a projected $60.1 million in a proposed $449 million total proposed budget for 2024.
So, over that time, the share of all city revenue raised from the total property tax levy has decreased from 16.6% to 13.4%
In other business, the committee voted to recommend City Council approval of staff-proposed transfers of money from the general fund to the insurance and fleet funds to offset reserve shortages in those funds.
And committee members indicated support for the proposed 17.55% boost in water rates to increase the pace of replacement of aging water mains and lead service lines.
Having fallen behind on water main replacement “is equivalent to how we got behind on pensions,” Livingston said.
“Holding combined water and sewer rates flat for 15 years” was unrealistic, he suggested. “It’s not like we’re immune from inflation.”
A large part of what needs to be done on the budget, he suggested, “is digging ourselves out of a hole with respect to a lack of foresight and planning and consideration for the future that should have gone into budgeting back when costs and interest rates were lower.”
The City Council’s Rules Committee is scheduled to vote next month on naming a chair for the Finance and Budget Committee for next year, and as Tuesday night’s meeting ended, several committee members said they favored having Livingston continue in that role.
Livingston, Ald. Devon Reid (8th) said, “has been a phenomenal chair.”