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Task force tiptoes into privatization

The Mayor’s Budget Task Force this week tiptoed into the touchy topic of privatizing city services.

Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons told the group that Evanston already has privatized several programs.

The Mayor’s Budget Task Force this week tiptoed into the touchy topic of privatizing city services.

Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons told the group that Evanston already has privatized several programs.

As examples he noted that management of city-owned parking garages is handled by a private contractor, engineering for major road repair projects is contracted out, the city contracts with Downtown Evanston to promote the downtown business district and it has worked with a variety of private groups to provide affordable housing.

Lyons offered examples of towns that he said have gone much further down the privatization road.

"Glenview is privatizing left and right," he said, saying that suburb has even hired an outside accounting firm to do all its finanical reports.

Other communities, he said, have outside engineering firms do the building inspections that are performed by city workers in Evanston.

And some have outsourced their ambulance services, although he added that a community that he previously worked for had decided to take ambulance service back in house after deciding that the cost of increased employee turnover outweighed the immediate payroll savings.

Some other towns have even outsourced outreach and counseling services that Evanston provides through its police department, Lyons added.

Lyons said his list wasn’t meant as a set of recommendations — just examples of what other communities have done.

Committee member Steve Engelman, a former 7th Ward alderman, said that objections to privatization come partly from concern about maintaining control over how a job is done, and partly from the ability that providing the service in-house gives towns to assure that more local residents are hired for the jobs.

City workers who live in town, he said, spend more of their wages in Evanston, helping stimulate the city’s economy.

And committee member Jeanne Lindwall, a planning consultant and former city planning staffer, said that, as part of its privatization push, Glenview outsourced all of its plan reviews to a company in Iowa.

"So those dollars are not even spent in the state," she added.

But Lyons said that the city could make hiring city residents a condition of an outsourcing contract.

Lyons noted that the city is also looking at options for "in-sourcing" work from other municipalities in hopes of spreading out costs and increasing net city revenue.

Those options range from selling water to more communities to collaborating on fire protection and 911-dispatch services.

The Tuesday night meeting ended without any clear indication of whether the committee was inclined to pursue any particular outsourcing concept. 

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