NW Side aldermen discuss votes on city budget
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Aldermen said that the City Council passed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget unanimously because tougher votes on tax and fee hikes had already been approved and because the city plans to hire more police officers to combat violence.
The council voted 48-0 on Nov. 16 to approve Emanuel’s $9.81 billion budget that includes $3.72 billion in the corporate fund, an anticipated $1.59 billion in grant funding, $728.2 million in special revenue funds, $1.03 billion in pension funds, $864 million in debt service funds and $2.65 billion in enterprise funds. The budget includes $77.2 million in debt payments and $697 million in internal transfers.
The city’s budget shortfall is $137.6 million, which is the lowest budget shortfall in nearly a decade and 80 percent smaller than it was in 2012, according to Emanuel’s office.
"Nobody was against it," Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th) said. "It was all yes, yes, yes. It wasn’t that tough of a vote. Most people were saying to me that they understood that there wasn’t much of a choice and that we’ve made the tough decisions before with other taxes and fees."
The budget includes a projected revenue increase of $148 million from last year driven by "economically sensitive revenues" such as an expected 3 percent growth in sales tax revenue and an additional $5 million from the personal property lease tax, as well as growth in vehicle sticker tax revenue and changes in the state’s remittance of the personal property replacement tax.
The city expects to raise $25.4 million from implementing a 7-cent tax on disposable shopping bags, reforming Downtown loading zone use and a pilot program to address parking in high-traffic areas to alleviate congestion including around Wrigley Field.
"I had concerns about the bag tax because I thought that 7 cents was too much rather than 5 cents, but in the end they got what they wanted," Sposato said.
Alderman Gilbert Villegas (36th) said that the bag tax should have been presented as a revenue source instead of as an environmental issue. Villegas said that the city ban on plastic bags did not work because grocery stores found ways around the ban by providing plastic bags that are thicker and reusable. He said that the thicker bags "pollute the environment more."
"Now it’s to generate revenue," Villegas said. "It’s the same with cigarette taxes. The city wants those taxes, otherwise we would ban smoking altogether if it was a health issue."
The City Council voted 40-10 in September to approve a 29.5 percent tax hike on water and sewer bills to help prevent bankruptcy of the Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund, which would have been unfunded by 2025.
The city will implement a tax next year on water-sewer usage that will be assessed on businesses’ and residents’ unified utility bills. Residents have seen their water rates double, along with a $9.50-a-month garbage collection fee that that was attached to that bill.
Starting in 2017, residents and businesses will pay a rate increase of 59 cents per 1,000 gallons used. The tax will be phased in over 5 years, ending with a rate increase of $2.51 per 1,000 gallons in 2020 and 2021, according to the mayor’s office. The current rate is $3.81 per 1,000 gallons used.
The average home owner will pay $53.16 more next year, $115.20 more in 2018, $180.96 more in 2019 and $225.96 more in 2020 and 2021, according to aldermen. The city expects to raise $56.4 million in the first year and $240.1 million in 2020.
The Illinois General Assembly will be asked to approve a plan to increase contributions by 3 percent for new hires and to lower the age of eligibility for full benefits from 67 to 65 for any employee hired on or after Jan. 1, 2017.
"I do feel like people are getting taxed a lot," Sposato said. "I’m getting taxed, too, but when people tell me that they are going to leave the city, well where are you going to go? (The suburbs) have high taxes as well."
The City Council approved a $544 million property tax increase over 4 years and other fees in 2015. Emanuel’s budget proposed a phased-in property tax increase of $318 million for 2015, $109 million for this year, $53 million in 2017 and $63 million in 2018, all to cover police and fire pensions payments.
The budget also included a $9.50 monthly fee per household for garbage pick-up, streamlining building permitting, a new ride-sharing and taxi fee to raise $60 million, and a tax on e-cigarettes to generate $1 million.
"For the first time in a long time, the city passed a budget free of an immediate pension crisis and free of the black cloud of insolvency that was threatening the retirements of city employees and the financial future of Chicago," Emanuel said. "Our work of righting the financial ship is not complete, and we will continue to invest in our future, tackle new challenges as they arise and safeguard prosperity in Chicago’s neighborhoods."
Villegas said that he voted against the water tax increase and the property tax and garbage fee increases. He said that he voted in favor of the budget because the budget process was very involved and "they did put in some economic development to the wards and other programs."
"The main thing I think the aldermen supported was the addition of police officers and how we would pay for it," Villegas said. "We have to do something to get some manpower. They are putting in 970 officers, 500 new cadets and 470 other officers to try to get to 13,500 officers."
The city has budgeted for 2017 to hire 250 police officers, 100 detectives, 37 sergeants, 50 lieutenants and 92 field training officers, according to the budget.
Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th) said in her ward newsletter that the budget makes a $60 million expenditure on public safety.
"In order to act in a more environmentally sound manner, along with the budget the city is imposing a 7 cents per bag charge for the use of paper and plastic bags at stores. In other places with this type of tax bag usage has been cut in half as people bring their own reusable bags. The tax does not apply to bags provided by restaurants, containing prepared or frozen food, or for bulk items. This tax replaces the city’s current plastic bag ordinance and is projected to bring in $9.2 million in revenue in part to help pay for the hiring of 500 additional police officers," the statement said.
"I voted in favor of this budget because it continues investments in Chicago’s police force, infrastructure, workforce, neighborhoods and communities while reducing waste and meeting our ongoing pension obligations. There have been many difficult financial votes over the past few years, but this budget indicates that those difficult votes have resulted in a better financial outlook for the city going forward," the statement said.
However, Sposato said that he does not believe that the city will hire a sufficient number of officers to offset retirement and attrition.
"He wants to go from 12,500 to 13,500 officers by July of 2019," Sposato said. "There is no way we will get there. If we have say, 12,000 officers now, and I think we do, and we lose 1,500 officers, then we have 10,500. It is impossible to get 3,000 officers by 2019. It’s not going to happen."
Villegas said that the city plans to have 11 police classes next year and to graduate 45 to 60 cadets each month.
"On the Northwest Side some aldermen met with the superintendent, and we asked him for more officers in the 16th District," Villegas said. "At the meeting he assured us that he would add some new officers from the class of cadets. He hopes to get 28 to 32 new officers into the district."
The budget also includes $33.7 million in government reforms and spending cuts, including $9.4 million in energy savings, $17.5 million in savings from zero-based budgeting, $1.3 million in savings from lease consolidations, $3.5 million from the sale of excess city-owned land and $2 million in savings from implementing of printer and copier controls and reducing machine lease costs and printing costs.