City manager talks finances
Wally Bobkiewicz of Evanston, working in his office, has been Evanston city manager since 2009. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media
Read more from the interview with Wally Bobkiewicz online at www.evanston.suntimes.com
Updated: December 16, 2012 6:15AM
EVANSTON — Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz believes the city is in a better position entering this budget, his fourth since being named city manager in 2009.
Bobkiewicz was asked about the city’s fiscal picture and other issues in an interview in his fourth floor office at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center on Thursday.
Q. What would you say are the three major issues facing the city currently?
A. 1. “Economic development – focusing on growing revenues for the city.
2. Quality of life.
3. The budget, dealing with pension reform and capital debt.
Q. Given the economy, how would you describe the city’s financial situation?
A. “I think our operating budget is fairly strong. We’ve been able to make adjustments over the past few years to help match expenditures. We’re lucky I think in Evanston because we have very diverse community, so we’re not depending on one type of revenue. That’s very helpful to us.”
Q. What place does the budget play in the running of the city?
“It really the framework for everything we do. We start with the city council goals and council revisits them every year. We make sure the goals and budget are connected and linked in ways. Also, I think the budget process is an opportunity for us to annually reach out to residents and ask them what they would like. We often get good ideas in that process and it gives the council some time to reflect on their priorities, beyond the goals.”
Q. One former city manager once described Evanston’s budget struggles as “structural,” that it would always be a struggle balancing revenues with expenditures because of built-in cost of living increases, etc.
A. “I think we’ve largely fixed that. I think the changes we made the last few years has been in response to that structural deficit. And I think it’s because of the political leadership of the city council. They understood that and they were able to make the tough decisions that eased away from that structural deficit.
Q. Can you elaborate?
A. “Economic development is one way we can grow the pay pie without raising taxes on our residents. If we grow the base, that brings in more money and that’s what we’re trying to do.
“But this council also has made cuts. And it’s my understanding that past practice in Evanston there had not been a history of significant cuts – in other difficult budget times raising revenues have been maybe more substantial than cuts have been.
“But in the last three years we have made cuts of 10 percent to the work force, 10 percent to the budget. If we needed to make more we would have made more.”
Q. What about the notion that this year’s budget eases back from that -- that it is more of an election year budget (with all city council members facing election in the spring?)
A. “I think it probably more recognizes that the council has cut so much and the economy is coming back. How that is impacted by the national election, state elections, local elections, I’ll let others determine. We feel this is a real budget. This is not a smoke-and-mirrors budget. We’re not using one-time revenues to cover ongoing expeneses. That’s my definition of an election year budget.
Q. What has been the effect of the state’s pension crisis on the city?
A. “It affects the city in that once the state makes some decision on the state pension, those decisions will likely have impact to changes to the local pensions – not only for IMRF (the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund which covers general employees) but police and fire pension programs.”
Q. You warned the council the other night that the city needed to take steps now to protect itself against a state meltdown in general?
A. “Pensions is a key element in balancing the state budget but there are also other operational costs that are still difficult for the state to manage. At some point they’re (the state’s) ability to pay debt is going to come home to roost. There may need to be adjustments in funds the city receives through the state (such as the indirect portion of income taxes, a major revenue generator.) So that’s my concern and I hope it balances out over time.”
Q. Do you think the city is doing a good job of conducting its business transparently?
A. “Absolutely. We’ve won several awards, both state and national awards as really being a leader in the area of transparency and civic engagement, so we’re very proud of our efforts there.
Online, “we have our personnel costs, what people get paid – all of our contracts. Credit card transactions are all on the Internet. All our payables for goods and services.”
Q. There was little of that before you came. But what about the criticism of some residents that they get stonewalled on requests for information on some sensitive topics”
A. “We abide by the laws of the state of Illinois and we make information available pursuant to those laws. (From time to time) we have residents who are looking for information above and beyond that. Is it germane to how we conduct business on a day-to- day basis? Probably not. Is it something that people want because it’s there. Sometimes. We try to balance that.“