Mayor Rahm Emanuel addresses City Council during his Sept. 22 budget address. News Magazine Chicago's Facebook page.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel officially unveiled his 2016 city budget proposal during a special Sept. 22 Chicago City Council meeting.

The proposed budget calls for a property tax increase of $318 million, with the mayor calling for three more tax increases over the next three years. All of those increases would go toward funding police and fire department pensions.  The proposed budget also calls for implementing a garbage pick-up fee for all property owners, a tax on e-cigarettes and new ride-share fees.

In the run-up to the mayor’s Tuesday address, a number of West Side aldermen offered opinions on Emanuel’s proposals.

“Nobody’s in support of a property tax increase, but this is a time where we really have to do some heavy lifting because of the fact that we haven’t raised the property tax in so long,” said Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) during an interview earlier this month with Austin Weekly News.

“Our city is looking at junk status, our police need their pension, so we have to do something here. I’d like to see the property tax not be a burden just on the property owners,” Mitts said, adding that she would be more supportive of an increase in garbage hauling fees “so the playing field could be levelled a bit and everybody shares in the responsibility of putting our fiscal house in order.”

During an interview earlier this month, Ald. Michael Scott (24th) said the city should focus its emphasis on increasing revenues, not cuts to vital services.

“We have issues that require revenue generation. We cannot continue to cut services to the people who need them the most,” he said. “So we need to come up with a creative measure for us to generate revenue in order to create the services our community need most.”

When asked whether or not he’d be in support of a property tax increase, Scott said he isn’t decided on the matter. He said the city needs to find a way to be more efficient with the money it has, discover creative ways to save money and pressure the state to reform the tax system.

“We’ll continue to push our state legislatures to see if we can change and restructure the way we tax individuals, but we can’t count on that,” he said.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), who is a former Chicago police officer, told the Chicago Sun-Times this week that residents in his ward are “overwhelmingly” opposed to both a proposed property tax increase and a garbage hauling fee — the latter of which could mean nearly $10 a month paid by homeowners for city trash collection services. The extra fee would be rolled into residents’ water bills. Low-income seniors may be able to receive a partial exemption.  

“We understand the position the city is in. We understand the position my personal [police] pension is in. It’s in jeopardy. But, you have to look at what they see as well. And what they see is their financial ability to afford a tax increase, what the consequences are to their personal finances,” Taliaferro told the Sun-Times.

“It definitely will have some type of impact from a political perspective and a re-election perspective. But, it’s something we need to address with our communities and let our communities have a voice in how we vote,” he said.

Emanuel framed his budget address — which members of the public couldn’t watch from the audience area of council chambers unless they were on a guest list provided by the mayor and other city officials — as a way to get Chicago on a better fiscal footing in the long run.

“In this budget, I will spell out our steps to balance out our annuity budget defunct and eliminate structural deficit once and for all,” said Emanuel, adding that his budget seeks to strike a balance between maintaining city services and addressing Chicago’s financial needs.

“We can balance our budget and invest in what matters most to us,” he said. “We must protect and preserve our services our families depend on, and we must ask more from residents of Chicago that are succeeding.”

Although the budget makes a number of cuts, it proposes spending more money for a number of programs, including summer jobs for youth, afterschool programs and various health programs for low-income individuals. All Chicago Public Library youth media spaces will get more funding, including the one located at Ledger Branch Library in the West Garfield Park neighborhood.

The budget also calls for the expansion of several city programs. The One Summer Chicago youth jobs program would increase a number of available jobs from 24,000 to 25,000. The city’s after school programs will see their total funding increase by $1.5 million. The Chicago Department of Public Health will invest $635,000 in Cook County Health and Hospitals System to expand and improve breast health services available to low-income women. And the Chicago Public Library’s youth media centers will get a total of $500,000 to expand hours, staffing and programming.

To improve safety, the budget calls for shifting 319 Chicago police officers from administrative duties to beat patrol. The proposal also calls for crossing guards to be moved from the police department to the Office of Emergency Management and Communication, which it touts as another way to “move more cops back into neighborhoods.”

Earlier reports indicated that the city’s share of the property tax levy would increase by $450 million. The budget proposal spreads out the tax increase over time, with a $318 million increase in 2015, a $109 million increase in 2016, a $53 million increase in 2017 and a $63 million increase in 2018. That would add up to a $543 million over the next three years.

Emanuel said all police officers and firemen who have served the city deserve to have their pensions funded.

“These police and firefighters met their obligations to us — now we must meet our obligations to them,” he said.

The mayor emphasized that the city would try to reduce the burden of the tax increase through a homeowners’ exemption, so that residents with homes valued at $250,000 or less wouldn’t have to pay the increased costs. While Emanuel acknowledged that this would need to be approved by the Illinois General Assembly, he expressed confidence that the necessary law would come to pass.

“I’ve already met with Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Madigan, and they agreed to move legislation forward,” he said.

But as the mayor proposed increased taxes, he also made some proposals to change how the city spends its money. He suggested the city switch its street sweeping to a grid-based system, that its infrastructure be more efficient, that it improve the garbage collection grid and that 150 vacant positions be permanently eliminated.

Emanuel also touted $113 million the city would get from closing several Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts, including the Central Business District TIF. However, the revenue is a mere fraction of $393.5 million the TIF funds are expected to generate in 2016.

According to the budget proposal, 41 percent of that money would go to neighborhood development, 34 percent would go toward schools, eight percent would be used for debt service and administrative costs, nine percent would go toward public transit projects, four percent would be used to improve city infrastructure, one percent would go toward downtown economic development, and one percent would go to Chicago Park District.

A few hours after the budget address, the Chicago City Council Progressive Caucus issued a statement expressing concern about the proposed property tax increase.

“The nearly $600 million property tax increase will have a disproportionate impact on low-income homeowners and seniors,” it stated.

While the statement said that the aldermen supported the expanded homeowners’ exemption, it noted that, given the current political situation in Springfield, rebates would make more sense. The statement indicated that the Progressive Caucus will be working to ensure that everyone pays what it described as their fair share.

“We look forward to working alongside the Mayor [sic], his team, and our colleagues in City Council to ensure that the FY 2016 budget asks the very wealthy and big corporations to pay their fair share, rather than creating undue burden on working families and seniors,” it said.

The City Council will hold a budget hearing at the council chambers on Oct. 14, at 11:00 a.m. The Progressive Caucus is planning to hold its own budget town hall meetings on Oct. 1 and Oct. 6 at Amundsen High School and Southside Occupational Academy High School, respectively.

Michael Romain contributed to this report. 

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...

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