Austin residents, and other citizens represented by Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), got a chance to ask questions and express concerns about next year’s city and county budgets during a Nov. 7 budget briefing town hall event. 

The event was held in Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St, and organized by Boykin, who invited Taliaferro to take part as well, giving the alderman a chance to address their constituents’ concerns on the city side. 

For the city, the availability of contract opportunities for minority-owned companies was a major issue, as was Chicago Police Department’s ability to recruit minorities and the funding for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. On the county side, the property taxes were the main concerns, as was how much the county government should cut.

The Chicago City Council will vote to whether to approve the Fiscal Year 2018 budget during its Nov. 15 meeting. The Cook County Board of Commissioners is also expected to vote on its FY 2018 budget sometime this month. 

The city budget proposal includes about $123.8 million in investments. Taliaferro highlighted several initiatives, including hiring 425 new officers in 2018. The alderman said that every officer has to get field training, which is why the budget has enough money for 322 field training officers — 100 more than this year. The trick, Taliaferro added, would be to hire enough officers to keep pace with retirements.

Other initiatives included using $19 million to expand Chicago Public Schools’ Safe Passage program, spending additional $5.2 million to expand afterschool mentoring programs, summer jobs for youth and other youth-orientated programs. Talieferro noted that the expansion would only go so far

“I don’t believe there will be an increase in the number of One Summer Chicago jobs [in 2018,” he said.

Taliaferro also said that the budget will also address an issue that has been brought up in a number of 29th and 28th Ward community meetings — the months-long lag in garbage can replacement.

“I know I purchased [100 garbage carts] of my own with my aldermanic account, because it was taking too long,” he said, adding that the city would be spending around $500,000 to buy more garbage carts, which, he said, should be enough to get rid of the backlog.

According to a handout presented during the town hall, the city will be spending a little over $10 billion, slightly more than the $9,919.8 million the city wound up spending according to the revised FY 2017 budget.

Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel was first elected, the city tended to only hold one public hearing on the budget. This year, it happened on Nov. 8. Emanuel’s decision to only hold one meeting has led to criticisms that most residents were too busy working to make the official city hearings. As a result, some aldermen held public hearings of their own during evenings. 

Boykin said that Cook County had four official public hearings. He also held three public hearings of his own.

Boykin gave a breakdown of the proposed operating budget. According to the handout he provided, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposed spending a total of $5.36 billion. Thirty percent of the budget went toward general expenses, 38 percent toward health-related expenses, 4 percent went into grants and 8 percent went into capital programs. Looking at the general spending, 17 percent of it went to the Cook County Sheriff’s office, a total of about 11 percent went to county courts, 3.5 percent would go to State’s Attorney’s office.

Boykin noted that, thanks to the repeal of the Sweetened Beverage Tax, which he championed, next year’s budget had a $200 million hole. To help make up for it, every department was asked to cut 10 percent. However, the way this actually worked out was mixed.

“The [Cook County] Treasurer exceeded 10 percent and she cut 20 percent,” Boykin said. “The Sheriff only cut $10 million.”

The commissioner noted that the county is looking to make up for the gap in other ways.

“We’re going to be able to balance the budget without raising taxes,” Boykin said. “There are going to be increased fees at the Record of Deeds and we’re going to increase some fees at the County Clerk’s [office].”

He said that he would personally like to see the county cut Cook County Health and Hospitals System Oak Brook hospital campus, which he described as under-utilized, but he was well aware of the kind of public backlash that would cause.

In response to a question about the city budget, Taliaferro mentioned that one of the issues that concerns him was the fact that black-owned businesses still get a relatively small portion of the city contracts.

“If African-Americans receive eight percent of the city contracts, an improvement is needed,” Taliaferro said. “In fact, when I found it out and listened to procurement officials, their main reasoning is that they don’t have the pool [of possible black contractors]. So we have to make sure we have people and companies that are able to participate.”

Keith Muhammad, a 29th Ward precinct captain said that, as someone who owned a security company that did business with the city, he felt that one major reason why minority-owned companies are reluctant to do business with the city was payment delays. 

The companies need to pay their employees and sub-contractors, and anyone who works on city projects need to pay union wages. The white-owned companies, Muhammad argued, are more likely to have enough funds to tide them over until the city pays than their minority-owned counterparts. 

When asked to respond to rumors that CPS plans to close as many as 50 schools throughout the city next year, Taliaferro replied that he heard a similar rumor, so he went directly to CPS CEO Forrest Claypool.

“He assured me that it’s [just] rumors,” he said. “[They] are not looking to close any schools, elementary schools, to build new technology school in Austin.”

Austin education activist Dwayne Truss wondered whether the ramp-up in police hiring would lead to a property tax increase. Taliaferro replied that this came up during one of the budget discussions that he attended.

“What [City of Chicago Budget Director] Samantha Fields said is that they’re not going to raise taxes to pay for police hiring,” he said

Truss also wondered whether there has been any progress on an ordinance championed by the Progressive Caucus that would ensure that Tax Increment Financing district surpluses would go to public schools. 

“So far, it hasn’t moved out of committee,” Taliaferro replied.

Truss then asked what the city was doing about its debt. Taliaferro explained that the city has been using sales tax revenue to create an account that would allow the city to borrow under better terms, and use that money to pay off the debts that do exist. 

Karl Brinson, the president of Chicago Westside NAACP, raised concerns about reports that COPA was underfunded. As previously reported by Austin Weekly, the city law requires its budget to be equal to at least one percent of the parts of CPD’s budget that don’t come from grants. The proposed budgets sets CPD’s non-grant budget at $1.45 billion. One percent of that is $14,569,670.72, which is little under $1.3 million more than what COPA actually got.

“We weren’t happy with the establishment of COPA,” Brinson said. “Now you sold us on this new institution and now we find out [this].”

“If it’s true, it’s wrong,” Taliaferro said, adding that he would follow up with the budget director. 

Another resident raised a concern that several aldermen voiced during the Nov. 2 CPD budget hearing. While African-Americans and other minorities were applying to join the force in greater numbers than ever before, the majority of the candidates that actually made it in were white. Taliaferro, who used to be a police officer himself, said he shared those concerns.

“Somewhere along the way, they’re — I don’t want to say ‘weeded out’ — they’re disqualified,” he said. “And I asked [CPD] Superintendent about that. We asked the superintendent to look at the psychological examinations, the racial make-up of the examiners. When you have 80 percent of the applicants being minorities and 20 percent being hired, there is a flaw in the process.”

Taliaferro noted that he raised the same issue the previous year.

“[Since then], there were no changes,” he said. “[Candidates] are still given the same psych test.”

The alderman noted that he personally spoke to one of the candidates who was disqualified.

“He erased something because he thought he was wrong,” Taliaferro said. “And they disqualified him because they thought he was lying.”

With respect to the county budget, Truss said that the county should do a better job of assessing downtown properties to keep up with what they’re actually worth, and generate more property tax revenue in the process.

“He’s from the Chris Kennedy school of thought,” Boykin responded. “I agree with that. We’ve got to figure out how everyone can pay their fair share.”

Another resident, who declined to give her name but identified herself as a county employee, argued that the county has too many administrative positions, and it could save money by trimming them. Boykin responded that he wouldn’t mind seeing cuts, but only up to a point.

“I will not go for the budget that cut public defenders, attorneys and sheriff’s police,” he said, adding that he felt that the county had a moral obligation to keep residents safe and healthy. So while, for example, he may not be averse to cutting doctors’ bonuses, Boykin said, he didn’t want to cut anything that would significantly affect the county health system’s ability to care for patients.


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...