Emanuel tackles budget

By Editorial Board

Mayor Rahm Emanuel summed it up perfectly on Oct. 12 while presenting his first budget to the City Council when he said, “Chicago cannot afford this kind of government any longer.” Most city residents already realize this, yet it has taken 10 straight years of red ink to finally get someone to take action. That someone is Emanuel, who deserves credit for tackling this $635 million beast of a deficit without any tricks or gimmicks.

The mayor’s proposal cuts $417 million from the budget while raising an additional $79 million in fees. Neither are a death knell for residents—Emanuel avoided raising property or sales taxes and opted out of creating a city income tax. These would have affected all residents, caused more flight from the city and exacerbated Chicago’s problems.

That isn’t to say that Emanuel isn’t taking bold steps—many of his proposals will likely hit opposition in the City Council. The mayor plans to scrap ward-based garbage collection for a grid system, which most other cities use. It’s a fine idea, but many power-hungry aldermen have balked at the thought of giving up that authority in the past.

Other tough proposals the mayor is urging laying off 510 management level positions; consolidating Fire and Police departments headquarters as well as turning five police districts into three; adding congestion fees for downtown motorists; raising the price of city stickers on SUVs and large trucks; and nearly doubling water and sewer rates by 2015.

Emanuel, who never likes to let a crisis go to waste, used his budget as an opportunity to fix Chicago’s fiscal woes as well as its infrastructure. Many of the new fees are practical ones. Anyone who drives in the city knows the roads are in shambles, and it’s SUVs that cause the majority of this damage. It’s reasonable, then, to ask those drivers to pitch in more to fix the crumbling roads. The congestion fees for people who park downtown are an incentive for drivers to take public transportation, with the extra money going to fix the aging transit authority. It also places more of the burden on suburbanites who clog the Loop from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

There’s plenty more in the 600-plus page budget that aldermen will oppose. Yet it is these same aldermen who consistently voted for past budgets that dug the city into this hole. They need to finally take a stand and pass Emanuel’s budget, or come up with better solutions. With no more rainy-day funds to raid or assets to sell off, there probably isn’t an easier way. Make the tough decisions now, so Chicago doesn’t end up as another Rust Belt ghost town.