Special Segments

Suburbs in debt face tough choices

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Local communities are millions of dollars in debt and watchdog organizations, including the Better Government Association, say tough choices could mean a new reality in your hometown.

"I think there are a lot of tough decisions out there that have to be made," said Alexis Eyler.

At Eyler's Evanston Children's Clothing Boutique, customers are worried about their city's financial situation.

"It's absolutely frustrating and annoying to think that we have to take on debt that we didn't necessarily create, I recognize that there's nobody else to do it," said Liz Hletko.

For their new report, the Better Government Association and the Institute for Truth in Accounting studied Evanston's 2010 financial statements.

They found the city's debt and outstanding obligations total more than $331 million, that's $5,300 per resident.

"That's a lot of money, I don't know what they're going to do," said Evanston resident Kim Hoopingarner.

"When there's a cut in city services, you lose a lot of the programs that are essential for people that live in the community," fellow Evanston resident Katharine Graves said.

"Evanston is a perpetuity we're not going to close," said Evanston assistant city manager and chief financial officer Martin Lyons.

Lyons says the debt is leading to tough choices, such as eliminating more than 60 positions since 2008.

To save money, city sanitation crews handle only recycling, trash collection has been privatized.

And when city crews have to cut down trees afflicted with the emerald ash borer, they won't be replaced.

"A lot of the things that make up a suburb that really provide the quality of life, already those are in jeopardy," said Robert Reed from Better Government Association. "The next wave will be deeper and more hurtful cuts."

The Better Government Association also looked at the financial situation in Des Plaines. The group found the city is $168.5 million in debt, or $3,800 per resident.

Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan says city workers are digging deep to find the least painful cuts.

"Our employees are doing more with less," he said. "When I talk to other mayors, they're concerned about the same issues that we have."

Melanie Wilson is concerned that further cuts in city services might hit the parts of Des Plaines she loves the most.

"When you're at your house and you have a budget, you have to live with your budget," she said. "I don't see why a city wouldn't have to as well."

Much of this debt is unfunded pension liability and retiree health care costs.

The Better Government Association plans to analyze the best and the worst financial situations across the Chicago area.

Des Plaines and Evanston's debt-load falls in the middle for local suburbs.

bettergov.org

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