Emanuel willing to talk budget alternatives with aldermen

November 2, 2011
Kristen Mack, Chicago Tribune

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said today he’s willing to discuss alternatives to his proposed budget after a majority of the Chicago City Council fired off a letter expressing concerns about social service and public safety cuts in his spending plan.

The letter, signed by 28 of 50 aldermen, said cuts to libraries, public health centers, graffiti removal teams and the city’s 911 centers must be averted.

“I understand as a former congressman the desire to put your name to a letter on some issues,” Emanuel said. “Having signed a few letters during my time as congressman, not all signatures are created equal.”

While Emanuel said he is open to different approaches, he’s “not open to changing where we’re going.”

“None of the aldermen are talking about going back to what we used to do,” Emanuel said. “They’re not talking about not dealing with the structural deficit (or) trying to use one-time fixes.”

Aldermen said they are concerned about plans to close six of 12 mental health clinics, scale down graffiti removal teams and cut the number of police and fire emergency dispatchers and call takers.  The missive also stated aldermen “have reservations” about plans to increase the cost of vehicle stickers by $60 on 184,000 SUVs and larger cars.

In the letter, aldermen asked to sit down with top administration officials to discuss the budget.

Four aldermen who signed the letter — John Arena, 45th, Ricardo Munoz, 22nd, Nicholas Sposato, 36, and Scott Waguespack, 32nd — met with Budget Director Alexandra Holt and other administration officials on Wednesday afternoon.

They discussed the issues in the letter, talking about potential ways to reverse some of the cuts and lessen the impact of vehicle-sticker fees before agreeing to meet again Friday, aldermen said. That’s just a few days before another committee meeting on Monday at which budget amendments will be offered.

“She was real receptive,” Sposato said, referring to Holt. “I felt it was a real good meeting. She was a pleasure to meet with. It wasn’t like, ‘No, no, no.’ ”

Ald. Joe Moore, 49th, who was invited to the meeting but had another obligation, said he believes the administration is looking for ways to soften cuts to the library system. “They’ve heard the concerns from the library folks loud and clear,” he said.

Aldermen can offer amendments to the mayor’s $6.3 million budget proposal before the final vote, which is slated for Nov. 16.

During a lengthy public budget hearing today, aldermen heard from dozens of library backers, mental health center patients and emergency dispatchers who were all worried about how the cuts would affect Chicagoans.

“This is not a joke, this is my life,” said Helen Morley, who said she sees a psychiatrist at the Beverly — Morgan Park mental health center. It’s one of six, among a total of 12, that is slated for closure. Patients there would go to Roseland mental health center.

We cannot let this happen,” Morley said. “Don’t close the clinics. It’s the last thing to do.”

Robert Wislow, chairman of the Chicago Public Library Foundation, talked about how the city’s public libraries helped him get ahead in life, and the many reasons people go there. They are used as community centers, places to access a computer and even cooling centers during hot summer days, he said.

“Nearly 1 million people visit our libraries every month, and over 1 million people access our Web site, making Chicago Public Libraries the single most used public facility in Chicago,” Wislow said.

Jimmy Lago, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, asked aldermen to reconsider Emanuel’s plan to start charging non-profit institutions for water and sewer service, saying that the diversion of children into Catholic schools saves taxpayers more than $550 million a year.

“The relief requested is a very reasonable accommodation to our parishes and schools,” Lago said, adding that they would pay more than $2.1 million a year.

But Gerald Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, praised Emanuel’s spending plan.

“While there are plenty of sacrifices and tough choices to be made in this budget, we believe it accomplishes the goal of getting Chicago’s house in order, which is essential to keeping us competitive in the global economy of the 21st century,” Roper said. “This is the strong medicine . . . that the city really needs.”