The Chicago City Council started this morning four days of hearings that will examine the proposed 2013 budget that Mayor Rahm Emanuel released last week.
At a community meeting on the Northwest Side last night Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) said that, “The annual budget is the most important aspect of public policy. It tells us who we are as a city.”
Perhaps to the chagrin of Fioretti, Chicago is a city that mostly lets the mayor write the budget. Unlike the U.S. Congress or Illinois General Assembly, the 50-member city council essentially plays an advisory role.
The public also played a small role under previous mayors through community hearings, but Emanuel scrapped those this year. So a group of six aldermen representing the council’s progressive caucus held a public forum last night that attracted about 200 people.
Aldermen listened as members of the public, many of them current or former city employees, said the mayor was cutting services without sufficient input from public workers. For example, firefighter John Joyce said a proposal to reduce the number of personnel on fire trucks from five to four is a safety concern that is “putting the firefighters in jeopardy.”
One issue that kept coming up was the prospect of neighborhood school closings and the increased number of charter schools, though the Chicago Public Schools have a budget that is separate from the city fiscal plan.
A majority of city council members, including members of the progressive caucus, have signed on to a resolution that asks Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), head of the council's education committee, to hold hearings on school closings. However, two weeks after the letter was sent, Thomas has yet to respond.
Ald. Rick Munoz (22nd) said after the hearing that he was “thoroughly impressed” by the turnout and range of issues discussed. “People want to know where their money is being spent,” Munoz says.
Ald. Nick Sposato (36th) was more downbeat, saying the hearing mainly showed “how upset people were” with a budget process from which they feel “disenfranchised”.
Asked if such a community meeting can lead to budget changes proposed by the progressive caucus, Sposasto said, “I don’t know if we can change anything. We’re a small group. In my opinion, the mayor’s got his 40 solid votes already.”
But Sposato did note that aldermen successfully challenged the mayor in a couple of ways last year, most notably on reversing the layoffs off hundreds of public library employees.
One issue where Emanuel might get push back is a call from aldermen to hire more police officers than the 500 outlined in his budget. Mostly African American communities have bore the brunt of city violence and, according to Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), the council’s black caucus will likely fight for more officers.
Another issue is that Emanuel assumes a lot of savings and efficiencies so he can balance a budget without any new taxes or fees.
One possible problem that Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) has identified with this strategy is that the mayor is expecting to see major health care cost savings from a city employee wellness initiative that was rolled out in July.
In his publicly available budget overview, Emanuel plans to see $70 million in health care cost savings from program.
Waguespack says that city officials gave him a spreadsheet touting north of $90 million in such savings. Either figure represents a major slice of the $298 million deficit this budget must close.
The mayor has labeled the wellness program, which includes provisions like employees monitoring their diet and exercise, as “unprecedented” and “ground-breaking.” Yet Emanuel has also found a way to generally project how much this unprecedented program will save in health care costs.
“This new wellness program – they don’t know how much they’re going to actually save [as a result of it],” Waguespack says.