Tighter budget belt

By Vanessa Morton

While Chicago is faced with a $635.7 million budget deficit for the upcoming year, the mayor is determined to bring the city out of its financial hole. Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to save money through the use of creative reform methods, an increase in revenue taxes and cutbacks on spending.

Emanuel unveiled a 2012 budget proposal at a City Council “special meeting” on Oct. 12, which included consolidating police and fire departments, management layoffs and a raise in water fees.

As he delivered his first annual budget speech, he told the council it was a time for serious change.

“Chicago cannot afford this kind of government any longer,” Emanuel said. “A budget is about priorities, and this deficit is an opportunity to get it right. We can either start shaping our city’s future or let it shape us.”

During the speech, Emanuel stressed that city taxpayers would not see an increase in property and sales taxes, nor will a new city income tax be utilized, which will help cut the city’s head tax in half, as previously reported by The Chronicle on Oct. 10.

“What we cannot do, however, is protect the status quo by asking more of Chicago’s taxpayers,” Emanuel said. “Raising taxes will drive more people and families from our city and discourage businesses from coming here—or those already here from staying.”

Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th Ward) praised the mayor in his efforts to save the city money while avoiding a property and sales tax increase.

“The proposed Chicago city budget is a good one, and there are no sales or property tax increases,” Laurino said. “And while there’s pain to share, the budget offers stability for future years by making some hard choices today.”

Chicago residents would see a water fee increase if the proposals are approved by the City Council sometime in mid-November. The fee increase is a result of the 100-year-old pipelines that threaten the city from producing quality water. The proposed plan is to replace all 900 miles of water pipes and upgrade the sewage system.

According to Emanuel, Chicago residents currently pay the lowest price for water out of any big cities in America. Despite the fee, not only would Chicago water rates continue to remain among the cheapest in the Great Lakes, but accelerating the repairs would protect health and create 18,000 jobs during the next 10 years.

“This is one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country initiated by a city,” Emanuel said.

Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) said she wasn’t opposed to an increase in water fees and believes that people could probably learn something from this.

“Nobody likes to see things raised, but I don’t really have a problem raising that particular fee when you look at the fact that water fees in Chicago are among the lowest in the country,” Dowell said. “I think it will go a long way to help people, perhaps, realize the importance of water as a commodity and seek to conserve it.”

Emanuel also proposed a consolidation of the Chicago Police and Fire departments, which he said simultaneously work together in responding to 60–75 percent of all emergencies.

He also wants to combine 25 police districts to make 22; five CPD offices along with five detective bureaus into three: North, Central and South; and remove police vacancies from the budget. The reorganization is projected to save the city $82 million.

“Chicago will be the first large city in the United States to combine police and fire services into one coordinated public safety headquarters,” Emanuel said. “We will lead the nation with this new model for keeping our public safe.”

However, Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (27th Ward), whose ward includes one of the police districts, was left to question the specifics of such a proposal. While he said he understood the reason for consolidation, he worried how his community would feel about it.

“The superintendent told us we’re going to get more cops and a little more service; we just won’t have the buildings and I understand that,” Burnett said. “But I’m concerned because I know my community is going to be concerned. There are just some folks [who] feel more comfortable with having police buildings close to them.”

Dowell felt differently and explained this proposal was one she was most pleased with, but as for communities becoming less safe, she disagreed.

“Buildings don’t protect people,” Dowell said. “It’s the policemen [who] protect and serve the people of Chicago. What we need is more policemen on the streets, and I know my residents want them to respond to their calls faster and be more visible. We want to see police patrolling.”

Emanuel also proposed a $2 congestion tax on parking lots downtown and in River North during the weekday, which is expected to save $28 million. He also added that heavier cars or trucks will see an increase in city sticker prices, now requiring them to pay $135 instead of $120, raising $14.8 million for the city.

Libraries will close for four hours on Monday and Friday mornings, which is estimated to save $7 million.

The mayor also plans to raise hotel accommodation taxes to avoid eliminating any events that travelers from all over the world come to see. In doing so, he will raise the total hotel tax from 15.4 to 16.4 percent— $1.78 as the average tax per room per night—raising $14 million.

After adding up all of the cuts, reforms, efficiencies and savings—in the 600-plus pages—of the proposed budget, an anticipated total amount of $417 million would help eliminate the city’s deficit by two-thirds.

“In all of these reforms, we will be guided by principle, pragmatism and progress—not politics,” Emanuel said. “What we simply cannot do is to temporize any longer. We can’t kick the can down the road because we’ve run out of road. If we can summon the political courage to address these challenges through new thinking and tough choices, I’m convinced that we can build a strong future for Chicago families.”