Waste watch: Evanston spent $700K on lobbying and promotions despite budget deficit

Waste watch: Evanston spent $700K on lobbying and promotions despite budget deficit

In an effort to close a $7.4 million shortfall, the city of Evanston’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year includes police and fire cuts along with a string of tax hikes – highlighting the need to trim government waste and push for structural reform in Springfield.

The city of Evanston is anticipating a $7.4 million deficit for fiscal year 2019. But a new Illinois Policy Institute report shows that wasteful spending in the north Chicago suburb remains near the highest among municipalities studied.

The city’s proposed $319 million budget would rely on $3.3 million in tax and fee hikes and $4.3 million in cuts – including cutting positions for police officers and firefighters – to the cover the anticipated deficit. These measures might find taxpayers questioning the necessity of the $700,000 the city has spent on lobbying and promotions alone since fiscal year 2015.

Notably, the budget proposal does not include a property tax hike. “The public has said loud and clear that they don’t want a property tax increase, so this budget does not have one,” City Manager Walter Bobkiewicz said, according to the Evanston Review. But the assorted cuts and fee increases on the table demonstrate the need for officials to eliminate waste in city government.

Wasteful spending

Much of the city’s wasteful spending might seem trivial on its own, but viewed in whole, the cost burden on local taxpayers becomes clear.

A new Illinois Policy Institute report found that Evanston spent nearly $218,000 – fourth-highest among municipalities studied – on promotions, advertising and events between fiscal years 2015 and 2018. One of those events was the inaugural “Marshmallow Drop,” in which the city spent $2,200 to drop loads of marshmallows from a helicopter into a field. Not all examples of wasteful spending are as ambitious as the Marshmallow Drop: The city also spent $30,000 on promotional t-shirts and $640 on a Snapchat filter. Evanston’s largest promotional expense ­– $100,000 – went toward producing Evanston Life, the city’s seasonal print magazine.

During the same timeframe, Evanston spent nearly $500,000 on “government affairs and lobbying.” Only the village of Arlington Heights spent more in that category, among the local governments examined by the Institute. This is spending that Evanston allocates toward influencing the policy outcomes of other governments. While it could be true that some of the measures for which Evanston has lobbied are laudable policy goals, spending tax dollars to petition other governments is hardly justifiable in the face of extreme budget deficits.

Wasteful spending can also take the form of excessive employee compensation. While Bobkiewicz has demonstrated an alertness to Evanstonians’ property tax pain, the city manager’s taxpayer-funded salary dwarfs that of the average Evanston taxpayer. Bobkiewicz, the city’s highest-earning employee, collects an annual salary of $209,400, eclipsing Evanston’s $71,317 median household income by nearly 300 percent – and outearning every U.S. state governor. Bobkiewicz is one of nearly 40 city employees in Evanston collecting a salary over $100,000.

Budget bind                                                          

Rising pension costs coupled with declining property tax revenue – the primary funding source of those pension costs – are foremost among the challenges that have put the city in a financial bind, according to the Evanston Review. The city also needs to come up with $1 million to meet its required debt service payment for improvements to the Robert Crown Community Center. Evanston city aldermen voted unanimously in June to raise the city’s debt limit by $37 million to revamp the community center. The projected cost of those renovations has spiked to $50 million from $30 million since 2013, according to the Evanston Patch.

Proposed cuts would include eliminating nearly 40 city positions, including five police officers and nine firefighters, and reductions in health and human services. Twenty-one of those positions are currently vacant.

Instead, new revenue sources under the budget would primarily consist of increases on a large patchwork of city surcharges. Parking permit rates, for example, would double to $30 from $15, and expired meter penalties would jump to $25 from $20. Residents would see also see annual “wheel taxes” increase to $85 and “transportation network” taxes more than double to 45 cents from 20 cents per ride, pinching both vehicle owners and users of ride-hailing apps. Other significant changes would include new fees for building and zoning permits and business license registration.

It starts with pensions

Local officials’ effort to avoid a property tax hike is worth recognition. But wasteful spending that has persisted amid the city’s financial crunch indicates the city is still responsible for some misplaced fiscal priorities.

While trimming waste alone would not be enough to stabilize Evanston’s finances, making a priority of eliminating costs that serve no public purpose would reduce the need for painful cuts and burdensome fee increases. The most important spending reforms, however, must come from the state level – reforms that enable municipalities to control pension costs.

Evanston is far from alone. The growth in pension costs for government employees has handicapped municipal budgets across the state. Unfortunately, the Illinois Supreme Court has struck down modest reforms due to justices’ strict interpretation of the Illinois Constitution’s pension clause.

When state lawmakers reconvene next session, they’d be wise to immediately work toward amending the Illinois Constitution to allow for sensible changes to the state’s pension laws. Until municipalities get real pension relief, residents can expect tax hikes, service cuts and increasing uncertainty for local government workers.

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