NW Side aldermen discuss votes on city budget
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Northwest Side aldermen discussed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget, which will increase property taxes for residents over 4 years and impose fees for garbage collection and other services and which was approved by a vote of 35-15.
Northwest Side aldermen voting in favor of the budget are John Arena (45th), Nicholas Sposato (38th), Ariel Reboyras (30th), Emma Mitts (37th), Margaret Laurino (39th), Patrick O’Connor (40th) and Ameya Pawar (47th).
Area aldermen who voted against the budget are Anthony Napolitano (41st), Debra Silverstein (50th), Gilbert Villegas (36th), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Christopher Taliaferro (29th), Milly Santiago (31st) and Deborah Mell (33rd).
Napolitano, who voted on his first budget, said that as a freshman alderman the situation in the City Council chamber was "intense" because aldermen did not know if the budget would be packaged as a line item vote or as an entire package. "I think that people already knew how they were voting, and no amount of passionate speeches was going to swing them in a different direction," he said.
Napolitano said that he did not think that the budget "was all that bad considering the issues we are facing as a state, but my problem was that it hurts the residents in my ward. People came in by the hundreds, literally walked into my office and sent message on social media saying, ‘Don’t even think about voting for the budget,’ and many of them were police and fire fighters, so my ward didn’t want me to vote for it."
"Some (aldermen) kept saying that we have to make the hard decisions," Napolitano said of the debate in the City Council. "Well, look at what decades of ‘hard decisions’ have done for us. It’s time to start making the right decisions."
"I think that in the past there weren’t that many ‘I tried (to stop it)’ votes," Napolitano said. "I’m not saying 14 or 15 aldermen is some kind of a movement, but now people are making the choices for their wards and vote based on what the constituents want instead of what the status quo wants."
Arena said that he voted three times against the mayor’s budget in the past because it wasn’t addressing the issue of debt. "This is the time when I felt that it was time to vote in favor of the budget," he said. "When I vote yes, it’s because I have a good reason for that."
Arena said that that the budget process was more open and that conversations between the mayor and the Progressive Caucus were more input based.
"It was a much deeper conversation this time around," Arena said. "Some people like to think in black and some people like to think in white, but I like to operate in the gray area because we need to have the ability to compromise."
Arena said that the Progressive Caucus continues to push for an alternative minimum property tax for the Central Business District where the city can set a minimum valuation for large properties to prevent reducde property taxes on expensive buildings. He said that the city loses millions of dollars in property tax revenue because owners of large buildings save money and that the costs eventually get passed on regular home owners.
Sposato said that the vote was a painful one because he initially was going to vote against the budget, along with other members of the council’s Progressive Caucus. "In the end we had to vote for it," Sposato said. "We have a fiduciary responsibility to make those payments and not kick the can down the road. It pains me to have to vote for a tax increase, but I think that it was the right thing to do."
Sposato said that he voted against Emanuel’s budget in 2013 because he wanted the city to hire more police officers. Emanuel recently announced that he wants the Police Department to hire more minority officers next year.
"We had received fewer calls against it than there were for it, and this year, by far, it was the most open budget process that I’ve been a part of," Sposato said. "I felt that there was good communication between the administration and the aldermen.
"I did not base my vote for political reasons, because I think I had a lot of input from the community and I’ve been at town halls and budget hearings, and in the end I felt that this was the right thing for the city," Sposato said.
"Some called me a rubber stamp for the mayor, but if you look at my voting record, that’s not the case," Sposato said. "Some called and said they won’t vote for me again and even some firefighters and police officers wanted me to vote against it.
Laurino said that she met with businesses and community groups and listened to their concerns. "I think I had the information and the understanding of what people wanted and that’s how I made my decision," she said. "In the end it was about raising fees and taxes or cutting services.
"I think that we have an opportunity here for home owners to have an exemption, but if that fails in Springfield, then a ‘Plan B’ is to look at a city rebate program," Laurino said. "We have had a rebate program in the past, and this is one of the reasons I feel more comfortable supporting this budget."
Laurino said that business leaders expressed concern about how the tax increase would affect them and their businesses, "but in the end they were more concerned about the prosperity of the city."
"I understand that many people are against the increase," Laurino said. "People are not happy with the circumstances, but I’m convinced that this is not the easy thing to do but the right thing to do."
According to Alderman Christopher Taliaferro, tax bills for city properties will increase by 7.1 percent this year, to 9.6 percent next year, to 10.8 percent in 2017 and to 12.2 percent in 2018.
The current home owner’s exemption offered by the state is $7,000. The City Council authorized the doubling of the exemption from $7,000 to $14,000.
Some aldermen have said that constituents are calling their offices because they are confused about how much they would have to pay if the General Assembly does not act. For example, with the current home owner’s exemption, for a home valued at $250,000, the tax bill would increase from $4,195 to $4,495 next year, to $4,598 in 2016, $4,648 in 2017 and to $4,708 in 2018.
Over the 4 years, the property tax increase would be $170 for a home worth $100,000, $284 for a home valued at $150,000, $398 for a home valued at $200,000, $513 for a home valued at $250,000, $627 for a home valued at $300,000, $856 for a home valued at $400,000 and $1,084 for a home valued at $500,000. Doubling the exemption would result in an increase in savings by about $450 and some residents could save money or not be affected at all.
"With the doubling of the homestead exemption that’s contained in this budget, the most vulnerable residents of our city will be protected," Emanuel said. "Now, it’s up to Springfield to do its part, and we will continue working hard to make that happen."
Emanuel said that homes valued at $250,000 or less would not see an increase and many actually would see a decrease in their bill.
"Opposition to this budget centers around the impact these fee and tax increases will have on working class residents in my ward," Mell said in a statement. "I’m concerned about the young family that has purchased their first home, the senior citizen living on a fixed income, the small-business owners who are struggling to stay afloat, and the renters who are finding it more difficult to make ends meet in this great city. This property tax increase asks too much of these residents, and not enough of those in Chicago who have the means to absorb a larger share of the tax burden."
Mell said that residents are not convinced the City Council has exhausted all other avenues to generate revenue before levying the largest property tax increase in the city’s history.
"With the passage of this budget, Chicago is by no means out of the woods," Mell said. "In the years to come, the City Council is likely to face another round of tax and fee increases. When that time comes, I will judge each of those proposals on their merits and make a decision that is best for our city and the people of the 33rd Ward."
"It takes courage to cut your six-figure pay," Ramirez-Rosa said in a statement. "It takes courage to turn to your big and powerful corporate donors and ask them to pay. It’s easy to turn to those with the least power and ask them to empty their pockets; that’s what bullies do on playgrounds every day. City Hall should have cut its six-figure salaries and emptied out hundreds of millions in TIF funds before raising property taxes and fees on Chicago’s working families."
The freshman alderman proposed a cut on the aldermen’s salary and an increase in the use of funds from tax increment financing districts.
"I could not, in good conscience, vote for the mayor’s property tax increase and budget when so many reforms to ask the rich and big corporations to pay their fair share and so many efficiency measures were left on the table," Ramirez-Rosa said.
Silverstein said that it was a difficult decision to vote against the budget but that her constituents were opposed to the property tax increase.
The $543 million budget features phased-in property tax increases of $318 million for 2015, $109 million in 2016, $53 million in 2017 and $63 million in 2018, all to cover police and fire pensions payments. A separate property tax of $45 million will fund school construction projects.
The budget also features a $9.50 monthly fee per household for garbage pickup, with a discount for senior citizens and streamlined building permitting. The aldermen also approved access by ride-sharing companies to the city’s airports, with a charge of 52 cents per ride for the new access, rather than requiring a chauffeur’s license as is required for cab drivers.
The budget also includes $170 million in savings and reforms, including health care reforms and savings for active employees and retirees to save $40 million, eliminating 150 vacant positions to save $14 million, street sweeping on a grid system to save $3 million, closing central business district tax increment financing districts to get $113 million, enhancing garbage collection to save $9.5 million, reducing personnel to save $21 million and saving $16 million in energy costs.
According to the mayor’s office, in order to make its required pension payments, the city would have to reduce the size of the Police Department by 20 percent, lay off 40 percent of firefighters and eliminate critical services such as rodent baiting, pothole repair and graffiti removal.
"Four years ago we began charting a new course for Chicago’s future, and with today’s vote we took a big step toward finally finishing the job," Emanuel said in a statement. "I want to thank the members of the council who voted to take decisive and determined action to right our financial ship and put progress ahead of politics. We have a lot more work to do and I look forward to continuing working together to create jobs and ensure that economic opportunities reach every neighborhood of Chicago."