Chicago is facing a fiscal crisis, but it is one that can be fixed.
Last Wednesday, I voted “no” on the Emanuel Administration’s proposed 2016City budget. I did it because I have grave concerns about our city’s financial future that I feel strongly this budget failed to responsibly address. Chicago remains one of the wealthiest cities in our country, but such wealth cannot continue to be squandered. Our City Council Progressive Caucus, which I chair, has been advocating for common-sense ideas to direct some of these funds toward crucial programs and services, easing the burden on working families without selling off public assets and privatizing services and jobs that end up costing us more each year.
I have worked this year with fellow City Council members to reduce City spending, make departments and processes more efficient and identify new sources of revenue to pay for the services we have now and expect in the future. We also sought ways to meet the challenges of funding court mandated pension payments for police, firefighters and other public employees.
During the 2015 election, we heard the mayoral challengers talk about the City’s structural deficit. The candidates offered expense savings through performance audits, specific revenue options and broader reforms to the Tax Increment Financing system (TIF) as a means to help create true balancedbudgets while making the required pension payments.
I agreed with these ideas, and we continued to push for these options through this budget. Unfortunately, Mayor Emanuel’s budget was a dip into the same old bag of tricks, resulting in citizens facing regressive taxes and the largest tax hike in the history of Chicago.
Over the summer, the Progressive Caucus met with the Mayor and offered a multitude of alternatives to an outright property tax increase. You can find some of those proposed initiatives here. These options included millions in dollars of expense savings and revenue options that substantially minimized the property tax increase.
I also worked on options provided by the Chicago Inspector General designed to reduce waste and inefficient spending as well as offering revenue options.
During the budget hearings, many of us aldermen hammered away at the frivolous spending in some departments, and we offered solutions to thesebudgets. For instance, we recommended merging the $9 million health department human resources staff “paperwork” with the City human resources department already tasked with the job. We suggested reining in the pointless bloated police overtime budget that has eclipsed proposedbudgets, cost taxpayers $400 million in the last four years, and continues to operate at tens of millions of dollars in the red each year while crime rates rise.
We’ve advocated for creating a special property-taxing district that evens the playing field for homeowners and business owners. You know the story; owners of buildings hire politically connected firms to get enormous discounts on their assessments; a more fair valuation would generate substantial new revenue. These two areas of reform would generate hundreds of millions in fair taxes.
I support reforming the billion-dollar mayoral TIF slush fund. After the Mayor’s largest property tax hike in Chicago’s history takes effect, there will be over $2 billion of taxpayer dollars sitting in these TIF accounts. While the budgetshows a trickle of TIF surplus coming back to the City accounts this year, that is only a small step in the right direction. We must truly overhaul this program that asks taxpayers outside of TIF districts to pick up a larger share of property taxes and expand the property tax inequity.
While our entire system of property taxes needs to be revamped, TIF reform can be done at the City level today. But this requires a commitment from City Hall to true reform. It requires City Hall to stop ill-conceived sweetheart deals like the DePaul Arena/Marriott hotel for McPier.
Our conclusion from the briefings and budget hearings is that there are some fundamental policies that we and Mayor Emanuel differ on.
We must start spending taxpayer dollars within our means, and borrow only for what we need. Mayor Emanuel has now borrowed over $5.7 billion in just three years at interest rates high above the norm that push payments off to future generations. The lack of sound financial strategies and excessive borrowing have cost Chicagoans hundreds of millions of dollars. This 2016budget of $7.8 billion is 25 percent higher than that of 2011, despite all the new taxes and fees each year, including higher property taxes. There are contracts for private firms that continue to increase our costs and have minimal oversight of the quality of work done or where our money goes when things go wrong.
Where all this money is spent is not always clear, and when it is spent it often fails to meet the needs the fiscal state requires. Our future generations will be saddled with these poor fiscal policies perpetuated by the leadership of our city.
The average homeowner simply cannot shoulder more property tax increases, on top of the fines fees and other taxes. Many of these taxes will be passed to renters in a way that could be catastrophic.
Small business owners, the backbone of our city, are already paying high taxes or rent. This budget will squeeze their margins even more, and in some cases, force small businesses to close. This does not bode well for our neighborhoods.
With so many other options on the table to alleviate the property tax hike, the Administration still decided its property tax hike was the only option. The financial decisions of this city have been made by a City Council that has not taken its role as a strong council form of government to heart. Citizens should not accept irresponsible policies and comments from a mayor who threatens to turn Chicago into a bankrupt if we do not accept these poor fiscal practices.
The trend of financial recklessness in the Mayor’s office must be challenged by citizens and responsible governing requires that we hold him accountable. The administration did not pursue fair alternate options to raise revenue. I voted no because it is time to move away from the regressive approach to managing our city’s finances and we must stop passing the bills on to our children.
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