Most NW Side aldermen back 2015 budget
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Alderman John Arena (45th) was the only Northwest Side alderman who voted against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $8.9 billion budget for next year, which raises fines and fees but does not increase property, sales and gasoline taxes.
The City Council voted 46-4 to approve the budget, with Arena and Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd), Toni Foulkes (15th) and Scott Waguespack (32nd) voting against the proposal.
"My vote was consistent with what should be our priorities in this city and in my ward, but this mayor seems to be on a different track," Arena said." He said that one of the reasons that he voted against the budget is because it does not provide funds to hire more police officers and instead uses overtime hours to police the streets.
"We are spending $100 million in overtime, but we only budget $77 million for dealing with it," Arena said. "That’s not good budgeting. They can’t just keep flooding the area with blue shirts when there is a shooting."
Arena said that he supports the efforts of community policing because "if people know their officers they can help in solving neighborhood crimes."
Arena said he also voted against the budget because Emanuel has not dealt with making tax increment financing districts more transparent. "We need too look at our TIF’s in a more enlightened way," he said. "There is a lot of money in there and we need to be transparent about how we use them. We can use some of that money to deal with pensions and our shortfalls.
"He hasn’t shown much creativity with his budgeting, and all we get is more fines, fees and taxes," Arena said.
According to the mayor’s office, the budget deficit was $635 million in 2012, and it was projected to grow through 2015.
"The 2015 budget not only continues to reform government, but it also continues to invest in our neighborhoods, our children and the future of Chicago," Emanuel said in a press release.
The nearly $300 million shortfall was "closed through a mix of savings, reforms, revenue growth and fiscal discipline," the press release said.
Those measures include $54.4 million from closing tax loopholes and revenue enhancements such as the elimination of the luxury skybox amusement tax exemption and cable television fees, $49.7 million through non-personnel savings and spending reforms, $27.2 million in health care savings, $27 million from sweeping aging revenue accounts and grant funds, $26.1 million from improved debt collection, $17.6 million from tax increment financing reform and $15.9 million from more accurate cost allocation to enterprise and grant funds, according to the mayor’s office.
Alderman Nicholas Sposato (36th) said that he did not have a problem voting for the budget this year. Sposato voted against last year’s budget because more police officers were not being added.
"I would like more police officers, but we don’t seem to have funding to fund that, and since I did not have any solutions I voted for it," Sposato said. "I think that this is the best we can do for right now."
Sposato said that he requested a 3 percent pay rise for city workers. "My staff and other city workers have not had a raise for 5 1/2 years," he said, adding that the raise was included in the budget.
The budget increases funding for children and youth programming by expanding summer job and after-school opportunities for young people and pre-kindergarten for low-income children, according to the mayor’s office. The spending includes $16.1 million in summer jobs for 24,000 youths, $15.5 million in early education opportunities and $14.3 million in after-school programs for nearly 17,000 children.
About $10 million will be used to double the size of the city’s pothole and street repair team to provide year-round road maintenance and doubling the number of police officers who are trained to patrol on bicycles. Funding also will be increased for graffiti removal, rodent control, tree trimming, tree removal and the planting of 7,800 trees, working to end homelessness among veterans, and increasing support for homeless families, domestic violence victims and unaccompanied immigrant children.
However, Arena said that the budget is "all smoke and mirrors" and that while there is no property tax increase this year, there are fines and fees that will be passed on to taxpayers.
"Another fee we will see increase is the cable television fee again," Arena said. Now it’s almost double. This is the kind of thing that I mean when I say we hold a wool over people’s eyes."
Arena said that many aldermen vote for the budget in exchange for improvements in their wards. "We need to work together to improve this city and not cut deals in personal fiefdoms," he said.
Arena said that the Progressive Caucus that he is a part of in the City Council conducted a budget analysis that found that extra workers are not being hired to deal with potholes or tree trimmings. "For every so called ‘addition,’ there are cuts in other departments," he said.
Sposato said that he does not know if the cell phone and landline fees are "luxury" items any more. "Is it a luxury or a necessity these days? I don’t know, but if all you want to do is sit at home and watch TV then that’s going to cost you," he said.
Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th) said that the budget continues the mayor’s mission of reducing the city deficit.
"We are adding services and making investments in tree trimming and pothole filing, and we can pay for that through overtime," Laurino said. "It’s not an election year budget. This is a budget that addresses debt and reduces the deficit.
"We have no property taxes or gasoline taxes," Laurino said. "Budgets are not etched into stone, and they can be tweaked when necessities arise."
Alderman Timothy Cullerton (38th) said that he voted for the budget because it seemed fairer to him to raise fines and fees than property taxes. Cullerton warned however that the budget that will be proposed to aldermen next year would be "a tough pill to swallow."
"The one to watch out for is next year, because the hammer will fall," Cullerton said. Next year the city is required by law to make a hefty pension debt payment, which could require a property tax hike.
"I think the attention should be paid to the property tax hike, and I’m glad that I won’t be around next year to deal with it because that one is going to hurt," said Cullerton, who is not running for re-election.