City looks at upcoming budget — and cuts

Evanston Mayor Kent Williams talks about the upcoming 2020-21 fiscal year budget with city council members during a May 26 meeting at the Roundhouse. (HERALD PHOTO/Kayne Pyatt)

EVANSTON — A discussion over the City’s budget for the fiscal year 2020-21 was the only item on the agenda for the May 26 Evanston City Council work session. Treasurer Trudy Lym led the discussion and noted that what they were looking at was just a tentative budget summary.

“The general fund budget is based on what we expect to receive and on the numbers from last year,” Lym said. “In the last two years, the interest we have received has been more than we budgeted for so we decided not to increase any general fees at this time. The revenue from the ISA purchase of the land for their manufacturing plant will be included in next fiscal year’s budget (2021-22).”

Community Development Director Rocco O’Neill suggested that the council may want to increase the fees for building rentals. He also mentioned that the party interested in the Evanston Hotel is working with an underwriter and that the Urban Renewal Agency is very interested in a sale of the building.

O’Neill also suggested that the contribution the city agreed to give to the Uinta County Economic Development Commission website could be included in the Economic Reinvestment Fund Revenue budget. A certain percentage could be set aside annually to go toward that contribution. He reminded the council that after initial installation and four years of payments, the website would be free.

Lym asked Mayor Kent Williams if he had received anything from the Federal Cares Act yet. Williams said he had not received any notice of funds or the rules and guidelines concerning the receipt of those funds yet.

“The revenues for the city are down,” Lym said, “and the numbers shown on the handout are based on last years’ operating budget. I haven’t heard from all department heads yet, and they are trying to cut where they can.”

Williams said, “Next year is the real unknown. We will put department requests in the budget, and then we will see if we have the finances.”

A question was raised if it was possible to use grants from the lodging tax for other advertising or marketing purposes since the events the grants were earmarked for had been canceled? The three Lodging Tax Board members present — Evan Perkes, Rocco O’Neill and Diane Harris — said they would check on board policies and regulations and get back to the council with an answer.

As Lym went over the budget for capital improvements, she asked if she should leave in the $60,000 grant to purchase China Mary Road. 

Williams said they have been in discussion with Union Pacific regarding the possibility of a gift to the city of the powerhouse located near there and then the city would purchase China Mary Road. He suggested they leave the amount in the budget just in case the negotiations work out.

Lym asked if she should have included the request from Uinta County Museum Director Kay Rossiter that had been brought up at the previous work session in May to help pay for the restoration of the Joss House under capital improvements.

It was brought up that the Historic Preservation Commission has $12,000 in reserves and perhaps they should be approached to help with the shortfall of funds for the Joss House restoration. The council decided to pursue that possibility and not include the request in the capital improvements budget. 

Under parks and rec capital improvements, Evanston Parks and Recreation District Director Scott Ehlers said he was disappointed in the bid for new lockers. He said it was way too high so he suggested not including an amount this budget year until he could research and find a more reasonable bid.

Lym mentioned that the cemetery usually goes in the red as there is no way to tell what will be needed.

“We might look at other city cemeteries and see what they do,” she said. “Some cities charge more for cemetery plots when the people requesting them are not local residents.”

There was much discussion and concern that most of those people had been raised locally or were burying relatives who did live here and it would not be fair to charge them a higher rate.

There was also some discussion as to the different departments that are involved in the care of the lawns and upkeep of the cemetery. The Parks and Recreation department takes care of the sprinkler system rather than Public Works because they have employees who have specialized training in that area. This means the cost for the work done at the cemetery comes under different department budgets.

Lym said the budgeting amount for the software database may come in less than the amount currently budgeted.

Listed under the Economic Reinvestment Fund were four projects: ISA fill placement (the fill dirt for the ISA manufacturing project); Roundhouse courtyard Phase 1; the State Hospital feasibility study; and the Avalon manufacturing project. Lym said all of these are dependent on grants and that the Avalon project will only proceed if the city receives a grant.

In discussing the water fund budget, the amount of $8,620 for water plant cameras and $9,700 for water tank cameras was noted by Evanston Public Works Director Gordon Robinson that those cameras are mandated equipment by the end of 2021. He said divers had inspected the water tanks and they looked fine. Robinson said seismic work is needed, and the columns would need to be rebuilt, which will be much less expensive than replacing the entire water tanks.

Under Wastewater fund, the Union Center sewer extension project has already begun, and the amount budgeted of $420,000 will be carried into the next year. The $100,000 budgeted for a portable generator was carried over from the last year’s budget and will continue to be on the 2020-21 budget.

Evanston Director of Engineering and Planning Dean Barker said the work is almost finished for the Harrison Drive storm drain and will not need to be carried over to next year’s budget.

Lym also reported that the water fund budget always appears in the red but at the end of the year when all fees are collected it balances out.

Next the council reviewed the contract series/community grants budget requests. 

Lym said the airport board was meeting the first week in June and she would know then what their request would be. She added that the Evanston Cowboy Days Committee was still having a hard time finding sponsors and requested $12,500 this budget year up from $10,000 last fiscal year. The Evanston Chamber of Commerce, Young Musicians and Evanston Housing Authority budgets remained the same. The budget request for dispatch and jailing fees increased by $5,000.

There was a long discussion regarding whether to even include the Evanston Housing Authority in the budget, as they had only used the money once for a new boiler. EHA had asked that the amount of $20,000 still be included as an emergency buffer. 

Councilman Mike Sellers addressed the housing authority budget.

“My concern with EHA is they reject some people who need it,” Sellers said. “We need the EHA, but they shouldn’t be making money off of poor people. They charge the renter 30% of their income and get the balance of the $950/month fee from the federal government. They keep switching managers because they are under pressure to fill subsidized housing.”

Councilman Tib Ottley said, “My concern is they compete with the private sector. I do think it is run much better now than it was. We see their financial statements now.”

Lym asked if she should leave it in the budget, and Mayor Williams said to leave it in and see what happens.

“The [Evanston] Youth Club had sent a letter we talked about in a former work session, and [they] were requesting $70,000 and the reasons given were pretty vague. I put the same amount of $45,000 in from last year,” Lym said, “as I understood from our previous discussion that is what you wanted.”

Mayor Williams responded, “They know they need to become self-sufficient and yet they asked for an increase of $35,000. I think we need to leave it as is.”

Lym moved to the Evanston Rodeo Series budget and explained they had already received $6,600 out of the budgeted amount of $8,928. Since the series has been canceled for the 2020 season, she did not include any amount for the new fiscal year.

When discussion began on the nonprofit agencies funded by the Tripartite Board, Williams said that during 2014-16, the city had paid out more than the county for the contract services. It was decided to leave the amount the same as last year’s budgeted amount of $135,000 as some of the organizations also receive federal grant funding — then wait and see what the county will do.

The last budget item to be discussed was city employee salaries.

“With COVID-19 and the fact that local businesses are hurting, I don’t think we should give across-the-board raises this year, only the natural advancement raises,” Williams said. “We can keep the option in for a January discussion and see if things change for the better.

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