About a dozen Evanston residents and city workers met with city officials at a Central Street coffee shop this morning to discuss proposed cuts to next year’s city budget.

It was one of a series of informal budget meetings that will continue through Wednesday, Oct. 24. City officials say they need to close a $7.4 million gap with a combination of spending cuts and fee increases.

Several residents asked about the city’s public safety pensions, which have been consuming an increasing share of the budget as the city tries to make up for funding shortfalls from decades ago.

Overly optimistic rate-of-return assumptions and state-mandated increases in pension benefits have left most municipalties in Illinois far behind on their pension obligations. To make even the slightest progress toward improved solvency, the city plans to spend more than $22 million on police and fire pensions next year.

Several current and retired firefighters turned out for the meeting to voice concerns about the proposed closing of Fire Station 4, which would result in the layoff of one firefighter and the elimination of eight vacation positions in the department.

A resident reads a budget summary document distributed at the meeting.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said that to avoid property tax increases the city needs to make some decisions about what spending to trim. He noted that many nearby communities don’t have positions Evanston does — such as an equity coordinator or a sustainability coordinator.

At last week’s City Council meeting, several members of local arts groups criticized proposed cuts in city spending for the arts.

But at today’s session one resident suggested much arts spending — like the ‘Stitch’ sculpture at the Emerson Street Metra viaduct — was a waste of money, and no one objected when Bobkiewicz mentioned his proposal to eliminate the job of the city’s cultural arts coordinator.

Stephen Vick.

On the other hand, Stephen Vick, executive director of the Infant Welfare Society, was present to object to plans to reduce the funds the Mental Health Board distributes to local agencies.

He said his city-funded program to assist teen mothers and their babies is important in part because it reduces the chances that the kids will end up getting into trouble with the police when they grow older.

One man objected to spending on what he called “the ice palace,” the new Robert Crown Community Center. But Bobkiewicz explained that that project had been discussed for 20 years or more before finally winning approval to begin construction this year with more than a quarter of its funding expected to come from private donations.

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Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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