City budget debate mostly drama-free this year

Last year the proposed closing of a fire station was one of several hot budget issues. The station remains open.

This time last year city officials were being flamed over proposals to close a fire station and lay off other employees to close a $7.4 million funding gap.

But half way through the 2020 budget planning season there's mostly silence around the budget -- despite its call for a 10.9 percent increase in the property tax levy.

Two key differences this year: 

First, the new budget calls for no layoffs and some expansion of city staffing.

Second, city officials believe the recent reassessment of Evanston properties that has increased valuations of commercial properties by a dramatically greater margin than residential properties means homeowners may see their tax bills decline slightly, despite the large property tax hike.

Despite a few critical statements during council public comment sessions from budget scolds, and a cranky editorial in last week's Evanston RoundTable, it appears so far that the vast majority of Evanstonians aren't motivated to object to the 2020 city spending plan.

The city's total annual spending, after excluding the impact of interfund transfers, is projected to decline slightly next year, to $260 million. That's an increase of just 3 percent from five years ago.

At least one alderman has expressed fears about the impact of the property tax hike on renters -- who may see landlords hit by higher commercial property assessments try to recoup their higher tax bills by imposing hefty rent increases. But providing relief to tenants would inevitably shift the tax burden back onto homeowners -- who are generally more likely to turn out to protest at City Council meetings.

Aldermen have already imposed a quarter-percent hike in the sales tax -- raising the total sales-tax rate to 10.25 percent.

And the budget calls for raising on-street and surface lot parking fees from $1.50 to $2 per hour. If that increase isn't imposed, it would create a roughly $3 million hole in the budget that would likely require layoffs or other tax hikes to close.

Aldermen are scheduled to  discuss the budget at the City Council meeting on Monday, Nov. 11, and may continue that discussion the following week. They're scheduled to adopt the budget and tax levy on Monday, Nov. 25.

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