Like most cities Evanston, Illinois is struggling with budget problems. Its solution was to ask residents what to do about the problems. Any solution was fair game. The results are interesting.

Please consider Evanston goes Web route for budget help.

Most communities don’t advertise proposed budget cuts on their Web site — much less invite residents to vote on what they want trimmed.

But an unusual experiment in Evanston showed that citizens have plenty of proposals and are willing to cast a ballot to get their message across.

Mike Vasilko was among about 40 residents who toiled in workshops to develop ideas on how to close a gaping $9.5 million hole in next year’s budget. Some of those same proposals were recently posted for an online vote, with everything from trimming staff and work hours to closing two of the city’s three libraries on the table.

In all, about 1,000 people participated in the online voting earlier this month, said city manager Wally Bobkiewicz. The city also telecast the four budget workshops on its public-access channel.

Though such community involvement is rare, Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Larry Frang said increasing budget pressures will spur creative tactics in dealing with shortfalls.

Bobkiewicz, who said he unsuccessfully searched for similar community engagement closer to home, wound up finding inspiration for Evanston’s program in Cologne, Germany. The first step, he said, was creating a Web site that allowed participation at every stage.

“I gave (the German) Web site to our internal developer. I said, ‘This is what I have in mind … use the technology that we have available,’ ” he said.

The city then solicited in e-mails and on its Web site citizens who might be interested in participating, he said, and did its best to convince everyone that the plan was no dog-and-pony show. Residents, Bobkiewicz said, had to believe their opinions would be valued.

The budget Web site, http://www.cityofevanston.org/budget, is here to stay, Bobkiewicz said, and officials hope to encourage even more participation next year.

Bobkiewicz said he took the votes culled from the process into consideration when drafting the budget “road map” he offered to the council Dec. 18. He recommended 41 layoffs in full-time, temporary and contractual employees.

“Putting it out there to the public, I hope, (improves) the transparency of the budget deliberation process,” she said. “The most valuable part was the process.”

Residents like Brugliera said they’ll reserve judgment about how worthwhile their efforts were until the council’s final vote on the budget.

“You can be optimistic about it, or you can be cynical about it,” he said. “Recommendations have been made,” and all that can be done now is to wait and “see what they’re going to do with them.”

I wholeheartedly endorse this process. There is a lot of talent that citizens in communities have and many are willing to volunteer that time. Also, who better to decide to raise taxes or close libraries than the community itself.

The above from the Evanston 2010/11 Budget Process

Click on above link to participate.

However, reading through the recommendations, I am disappointed that Evanston is only cutting around the edges without addressing the crucial issues. Those issues are the same virtually everywhere: Union salaries and pension benefits that are simply out of line with the private sector.

These paragraphs helps frame the problem.

And though most of the residents disagreed with some of the top vote-getters, all appreciated being able to share their opinions. Reducing staff expenses — in a combination of layoffs and hour reductions — was a tough recommendation, some of them said, but one they couldn’t avoid.

“If you look at it rationally, if 75 percent of your budget is people, you know what you have to do,” said Vito Brugliera, who has lived in Evanston since 1965.

Why is it that layoffs and hour reductions are the first things that come to mind instead of lower wages and benefits? In this environment, people should be more than happy to have a job at any reasonable wage vs. the private sector.

Furthermore, hour reductions, even layoffs, do not even fix the structural problems of pension benefits out of control.

Closing a library is a onetime event. Reducing the cost of office space is likewise a one time event. Reducing hours can only go so far. When all the quick fixes are in, what then?

The three biggest salary expenses for most cities are

  • Police
  • Fire
  • Teachers

Cities will continue to struggle unless and until wages and benefits for those groups are addressed. Indeed, the single most important thing any city can do immediately is scrap all defined benefit pension plans for future hires.

Cities and municipalities must address union wages and the pension time-bomb, or as the saying goes they are “just pissing in the wind”.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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