The City of Chicago needs to raise $745 million to balance next year’s budget. This week, the mayor is hosting a series of town halls around the city where he and his administration are asking residents to submit their ideas for how to address the city’s budget shortfall.
It seems that the administration is taking steps to open up the budget process both to city council and to the public. But the first budget hearing at Malcolm X College on Monday Aug. 31, showed what happens when an administration does not prioritize public engagement and transparency.
Monday’s budget hearing was the first public hearing in four years — and it showed. Attendees were pent up, the frustration in the auditorium tangible as speaker after speaker rattled off a list of grievances about what the administration has not done.
The hearing was supposed to consist of fielding suggestions from residents on how to address the budget. Instead, we heard about the lack of grocery stores in some neighborhoods; wasted spending on streetlights that stay on twenty-four hours a day; the disparity in ticketing for marijuana possession; calls for the mayor to meet with the Dyett hunger strikers (who at the time this article was written were on day 16); and more. It was as though attendees knew that this was a rare occurrence — who knows when they would ever have another chance to address the mayor directly?
More regular and meaningful public engagement on the part of the administration could create an environment that in which town halls can actually serve as a vehicle to hear ideas, and not just grievances. And the mayor is in dire need of good ideas. When it comes to the budget, I can’t help feeling that this exercise is akin to shuffling the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
For too long, previous administrations have put off addressing pressing financial obligations, lobbied for pension holidays and borrowed our way into debt that will saddle the futures of our great-grandchildren. And now, at a time when we need a drastic shift in direction with bold revenue proposals, we’re nickel-and-diming our way out of debt — and on the back of taxpayers, no less.
Instead of talking about a financial transaction tax — which is the only source of revenue significant enough to address our revenue needs (and the only one that would not unduly burden residents) — we’re talking about taxing satellite dishes, or implementing a fee for bicycles. We have not had a real conversation about a municipal public bank, which would save the city literally hundreds of millions of dollars on interest from infrastructure projects, as well as enable the city to assist in issuing loans for small business owners and home buyers.
We have not discussed putting limitations on corporate giveaways to ensure that our corporate partners are paying their fair share of the tax burden to maintain our city’s vibrant economy. We have not discussed significantly reducing the red tape and fees that stifle small business growth, thus stalling general economic growth.
On top of that, we have not been able to get beyond the scourge of corruption. Measures that would shine light on how tax dollars are being spent (and who’s spending them) when they have been pursued, have been done half-heartedly. We have not discussed a full forensic audit of city departments nor the concept of zero-based budgeting, which may help create efficiencies and savings. Efforts to shine the light of transparency on government affairs have been met with resistance, even when we know such measures can help restore the public’s confidence in the city’s ability to responsibly shepherd our finances.
We’ve allowed politicians to campaign on false promises of not raising taxes and we elect officials who oversee our fiscal demise. Because of this, we’ve never really had an honest conversation about what kind of tax structure our city or even our state actually needs to function optimally. And now, we’re forced to stare the hard truth in the face — because there is no more road down which to kick the can.
So now, the administration is reaching out to us for input, but who wants to contribute to pouring more water into a bucket with a hole in it? If we’re really serious about addressing our fiscal mess, we’ve got to put real, significant revenue ideas on the table — while addressing the corruption and poor leadership that got us into this mess to begin with.