On Wednesday, in what some saw as a tepid debate, the Chicago City Council approved the budget proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his proposed historic property tax increase of $543 million, the highest in the city’s history, with a 36-14 vote. There were some surprises: Tom Tunney, in the 44th ward, and Michele Smith, in the 43rd, “ended up voting for the budget, despite concerns about how the property tax hike would disproportionately impact their area,” said Crain’s Chicago
This Council has earned the reputation among some residents as being yet another “rubber stamp” for mayoral intentions, in the tradition of Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, but those allegations were challenged with both the number of votes, and those that both supported it, like Tunney and Smith, but also those that defected, such as Debra Silverstein, 50th; Harry Osterman, 48th; and Brendan Reilly, 41st.
Younger members who had formed a progressive caucus and who had suggested alternative measures were defeated, but they were also joined by veterans such as Deb Mell in the 33rd ward, in what Emanuel said wasn’t a “piece of art,” but stressed that the city would be better off. In this case, he means being able to pay the soon-to-be due pension payments for the police and firefighters, to the tune of $20 billion.
Grassroots Collaborative, a local organization bemoaned this fact, and in a statement said, “Mayor Emanuel chose not to listen to numerous Aldermen. On Monday, with only one exception, each of the budget amendments put forward by the Chicago Progressive Caucus were tabled. The Progressive Caucus amendments would have generated millions in revenue through TIF reforms and forcing the wealthy to pay their fair share instead of squeezing neighborhood residents.“
Others are not happy with the results including the Chicagoland Chamber who told Crain’s: “it remains concerned’ that Emanuel is still trying to shift part of the property tax increase from residential owners to commercial owners and is worried that the mayor still is counting on help from Springfield to reduce the pension tab.”
Tunney in an email to his constituents said, in part: “My vote today was the most difficult one I have had to make as an alderman. I voted for the 2016 Budget and the associated property tax increase for three reasons. First, I have been assured that 35 additional police officers will be assigned to the 19th District in 2016, including 25 in the first quarter and another ten during the rest of the year. This is in addition to the eight officers that will be transferring to the 19th District in November.”
He also cited necessary improvements and a sizeable investment for the local high school, in his ward, but, in a summary, noted that “The final reason I voted yes today was because there is no doubt that the men and women of the Chicago Police and Chicago Fire departments are our “Finest” and “Bravest” citizens. Our city could not survive without them. The fact is that as their employer, the City of Chicago made contractual obligations to them with regard to their pensions that must be met, and this budget does that. It is unfortunate that the funding levels were allowed to dip so low and huge lump.”
But, despite Tunney’s statements the fact remains that despite the mayor’s efforts to “make the tax proposal more palatable by proposing a plan, which faces a dubious future in Springfield, to shift about $80 million of the hike from homeowners to owners of commercial property and rental apartments. But even without that shift, aldermen eventually figured out that a disproportionate share of Chicago property taxes comes from a handful of wards in and near downtown—the wards that, ironically, gave Emanuel much of his winning margin,” noted Crain’s, over his earlier rival Jesus Garcia, and forced him to a runoff election, another history making event in Chicago politics.
Osterman, reported the Chicago Tribune, noted, “I question are we doing everything in our power to shrink the size of government before we go and ask the homeowners to pay more, and I can’t say in good conscience that we have,”
In another first, city residents face an average bill of $110 for a garbage collection fee, that many aldermen in low-income neighborhoods protest, but “North Side aldermen are more upset about the $588 million property tax increase compounded by skyrocketing assessments and by Emanuel’s plan to double the homeowner exemption and shift the burden to commercial property owners and renters. They’re largely responsible for the Finance Committee’s 17-to-10 vote for the $543 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times.
Another bone of contention for this budget is the increase of $45 million for the beleaguered, and scandal dirven, Chicago Public Schools, whose former head Barbara Byrd Bennett, faces federal mail and wire fraud charges for agreeing to kickbacks from her former employer, in exchange for steering valuable city contracts to them. Emanuel, whose office faced criticism for the no-bid contract of $250 million countered by now requiring “CPS to make periodic reports to the City Council on projects bankrolled,” according to the Sun-Times, but Ald. John Arena in the 45th, said, “It is clear CPS has had the wrong leaders for decades that discount what principals, teachers and students need to achieve,” expressing doubt that the money would not be misappropriated.
Emanuel had to do some wheeling and dealing, that he might not have done, without the earlier run-off election, that left him somewhat humbled, with aldermen to get the agreements that he did; for example to secure Smith’s vote, he had to assure her that her residents would get a property tax rebate should the state legislature not approve his proposed homeowner’s exemption. Much of her ward contains posh blocks of condos and flats, in the city’s desirable Lincoln Park neighborhood.
There was some unqualified support, in the form of another North Side alderman, James Cappleman who said, “It’s a budget that I believe will keep our economy growing and place us back on track to having a healthy economic outlook.”
The garbage collection fee, although much maligned, is expected to bring in $62.7 million dollars and prevent any more borrowing, a fact that gave Wall Street rating agencies such as Moody’s, their recent downgrades, just above junk bond status.
These efforts, in total, will give city residents and businesses, $755 million, and while the total figure seems enormous, some observers say that this is a band-aid measure to stem the tide of red ink deficits, but still does not address Chicago’s overall budget crisis.