Aldermen discuss Emanuel’s budget





by KEVIN GROSS

Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th) and Nicholas Sposato (38th) offered commented on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget proposal for next year, while other Northwest Side aldermen declined to comment beacause it was too early in the process to discuss the budget at this time.

The proposed $8.6 billion spending plan includes $289 million in spending increases compared to the previous year, some increased fees, and additional revenue increases, savings and cuts in other areas.

"Together, we took on a broken budget. With this budget, we will have slashed our structural deficit by 82 percent," Emanuel said in his budget speech on Oct. 18 at the meeting of the City Council.

Emanuel said that the budget would be the first in more than a decade to not rely on "scoop and toss" financial practices of additional borrowing or refinancing to pay off due loans.

"I refer to this as using the MasterCard to pay off the Visa bills," Emanuel said. "We have put an end to the fiscal shenanigans of the past while investing in the strengths of Chicago’s future."

The mayor said the city could save $119 million throughout the year by securing bonds and lowering interest rates on city debt and future borrowing, with another $10 million is expected to be generated from improvements in debt collection from Chicago businesses and individuals.

"The whole bond securitization issue is another big piece of the puzzle to get our fiscal house in order," Laurino said.

Emanuel also announced a $166 million surplus in tax increment financing district funds because three TIF districts are slated to expire in 2018. Chicago Public Schools is set to receive about $88 million of the surplus funds, with the city reserving $40 million for other purposes.

Laurino said that much of the shared school revenue would likely be used for school security.

"There will be a Safe Passage route for Northside Learning Center High School serving developmentally challenged students," she said.

"Over the years, it seems like a ping pong game," Laurino said. "Some years the city doesn’t share much money with the Board of Education, some years they will. But this year it looks good with sharing."

Additional proposed spending increases include the public safety budget, set to receive the largest dollar increase in spending. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability will receive a 32 percent increase of nearly $6 million, and the Chicago Police Department will receive a 3.9 percent increase of $62.2 million, part of which will be used to expand the body camera program and hire 500 new officers.

"I’m happy to see well have more of an effort getting more police officers on the job. Its something I’ve been pushing for more than five years now," Sposato said. "The numbers maybe aren’t going to come out in the end what people might think they are. We could hire 1,000 but lose 500 at the same time throughout the year."

Previously approved sewer tax increases and a combined $287 million in city and CPS property tax increases will take effect next year, but no newly proposed general tax hikes are slated during this year’s hearings.

"I want to thank all of Chicago’s taxpayers for doing their part to solve Chicago’s financial problems and usher in a better day," Emanuel said during the budget announcement.

However, the mayor detailed additional fees and taxes, including an additional $1.10 per month tax on each phone bill, a 28 percent increase from the current $3.90 fee that is expected to raise about $30 million in additional funds.

Some of the "9-1-1 tax" revenue will be used to help modernize Chicago’s emergency call centers to accept text and photo messages, with revenue from additional sources slated to modernize the non-emergency 3-1-1 system in similar ways.

"I think people will always have issues with taxes and fees, but if you’re obligated by the state to fix a program and need to come up with revenue, a fee that takes and distributes revenue to a specific program is the way to go," Laurino said.

Additionally, a new 15-cent fee will be tacked onto each receipt for rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft, which is slated to rise by another 5 cents in 2019. Revenue will be distributed to the Chicago Transit Authority for use in new projects and infrastructure improvements.

"My interest lies in Blue Line upgrades," Laurino said, "I had a chance to talk to (CTA chairman) Terry Peterson recently. He assures me that the Blue Line is one of the top priorities, and presumably track improvements would be the most important priority."

Additionally, newly proposed adjustments to the city amusement sales tax will eliminate fees in venues of fewer than 1,500 seats. Larger venues such as the Chicago Theater will see the rate rise from 5 to 9 percent, with large non-profit venues such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra exempt. Overall, this is projected to raise an additional $15.8 million per year.

Despite the raising of various city fees, Laurino said, "In Springfield, (state legislators) recently allowed us to increase the homeowners exemption from $7,000 to $10,000. It might not be part of the budget we’re working on right now, but we worked to pass this in Springfield, and it could help homeowners with tax fatigue."

"We have concerns with streets and sanitation, what might happen there, but I think the budget at least seems like it might go in a proper direction," Sposato said. "But I would wish all my colleagues would wait and see the budget. Lets see the proof in the pudding, before saying the budget is a no-brainer to support."