EVANSTON, IL — The Evanston City Council Monday gave preliminary approval to a draft 2021 budget that would reduce funding to police and raise the city's property tax levy by nearly 5 percent to help cover revenue lost during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a pair of 6-3 votes Monday, aldermen approved a first reading of the budget and tax hike, with Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, and Ald. Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, voting against the budget. Ald. Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, Rue Simmons and Suffredin opposed the tax hike.
The proposed 2021 budget totals $297,246,100 — more than $23.4 million below the budget aldermen approved last year. Compared to 2019, the city's revenue was down by $7 million through August, leading city staff to find a way to cover a projected $12 million loss in revenue — 10 percent of the city's budgeted income — by the end of the year.
The property tax increase means taxpayers would pay an additional approximately $25 to the city for every $100,000 of taxable value of their home. The owner of the median residential property could expect to see the city's share of their property tax bill rise by more than $100, according to the city and assessor's office.
The 4.9 percent property tax increase will provide the city an additional $2.5 million in revenue. Of that, 2.6 percent will go to make debt services payments, 0.9 percent to the human services levy, 0.7 percent to the fire pension and 0.4 percent to the police pension fund.
The budget proposal includes more than $1 million in cuts to the city's approximately $40 million police budget, although it proposes an increase of more than $1.25 million to the city's contributions to its police pension fund.
"We have made some pretty significant reductions to the police budget as it pertains to staffing, so 11 police officer positions have been slated to be reduced in this year's budget," City Manager Erika Storlie said.
In a normal year, Storlie said, that money could be reallocated to social or human services.
"But this year, with the reduction in the revenue that we're seeing to the tune approximately $8 million, that revenue just does not exist. It is not available to us. It is gone," she said. "That is why we are holding 50 positions either vacant or eliminating them this year. That is why we are doing all the other cost-cutting proposals that you see in this year's budget."
According to a memo to the City Council from Chief Financial Officer Hitesh Desai, the proposed 2021 police budget includes the elimination of several positions: a records input operator, a towing coordinator, an assistant communications coordinator and 11 police officer positions — four of which had been left vacant for the past two years.
Two commander positions would be held vacant, one of which was also left in last year's budget as a vacancy. Four service desk officer jobs will be held vacant in 2021 under the proposed budget.
While the proposed 2021 police budget is lower than the 2020 adopted budget, it represents an increase of more than $1.6 million to the amount that is estimated to have actually been spent by the end of the year.
Storlie said her office is continuing to negotiate with the two unions that represent the Evanston Police Department. The union contract includes 2.25 percent raises for officers and 2.5 percent for sergeants starting Jan. 1. The budget memo anticipates $140,000 in savings from the concessions.
Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, asked Storlie to send a message to representatives of the police unions.
"I would like a communication to the council from the cops about what they plan on doing about contributing to helping us out here," Rainey said. "It's always done behind closed doors and it's always private conversations between lawyers and city managers, and we're never involved in it, and we're always told what the outcome is.
Other unions that represent city workers have already made concessions. The International Association of Firefighters, or IAFF, agreed to put off any wage increases until the end of 2022. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees agreed to take 10 furlough days last year, saving the city $650,000. Non-union employees were required to take 10 furlough days last year and will pay a higher percentage of their health insurance premiums next year.
"I think they ought to know that we want to know what they're going to give up or help us out with. You can tell them at least one alderman would like to know what are they thinking and why is it taking them so long," she said. "We're going to pass this budget in the next month, and we haven't heard from them."
Fleming suggested the police department take a closer look at its discretionary training budget and suggested the city also reconsider the vehicle allowances staff receive, which sometimes total more than $300 a month, in an effort to avoid having to raise property taxes.
In a memo to the council, Police Chief Demitrous Cook laid out about $125,000 worth of training he recommended for the coming year.
They include: Over $25,000 for eight supervisors to take courses at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety; approximately $20,000 for a customized department-wide course to teach officers how to effectively manage stress, fears, anxiety and trauma; $18,400 for two executives to attend a conference in Massachusetts; $16,000 to $20,000 for traffic and special operations group training, $3,900 per person to certify more staff to be able to operate the department's Cellebrite cellphone cracking device, $2,600 for supervisors to attend a conference on managing media relations, unspecified amounts for crowd control, defensive tactics and more.
Storlie said the city is making good progress toward launching a pilot program next year to explore alternatives to sending police officers when people call 911 regarding a mental health crisis. She said additional reductions to the police budget were likely in 2022.
"We receive lots of 911 calls, and until we have a plan in place, and personnel in place — whether that be city personnel or contracted non-profit providers or for-profit providers in the community — we still need to respond to our 911 calls. There is an expectation that a response will happen when somebody dials 911, and until we have a better plan in place we have to continue to provide that service," Storlie said.
"We're doing all the right things, but it won't happen overnight," the city manager added. "I think we are being very strategic, we're being very thoughtful, we're looking at all the best practices, and we're trying to devise a plan that is right for Evanston."
Aldermen considered potentially tabling the Nov. 9 first reading of the budget until a future meeting. But because the budget and property tax levies were introduced as a "special order of business," the City Council's rules forbade them from being held over until the next meeting — although Deputy City Attorney Nick Cummings falsely claimed they could be before acknowledging the error.
The City Council is scheduled to continue discussion of the budget at a special meeting Monday. Mayor Steve Hagerty, who has presided over three years of increased local property taxes and has ruled out running for re-election in April, said he expected a final vote as early as Nov. 23.