Protesters organized by Stand Up! Chicago staged a “die-in” yesterday at Chicago's City Hall lying motionless on the floor to represent what they say is the devastation that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget will inflict on Chicago neighborhoods.
The advocates' message has mostly fallen on deaf ears in the city council. Aldermen are expected at a council meeting tomorrow to easily pass a budget that Emanuel presented just last month. The only questions are whether the vote will be unanimous and what, if any, items in the $6.54 billion package will be modified.
There was hope when Emanuel became mayor last year of more give and take between the city manager and council on the Windy City’s annual budget. Why has this not happened?
*A limited budget
Many of the most important and costly city functions are not part of Chicago’s budget, including the Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Park District, and the Chicago Public Schools.
At a budget public hearing held last month by the council’s progressive caucus, one speaker after another expressed anxiety about a rumored CPS plan to shut down neighborhood schools. But CPS and other so-called sister agencies have their own budget process, one that does not require aldermanic input and approval.
* Wait ‘Til Next Year
“The huge fight around the city and state budget is next year,” says Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative.
That is when both Springfield and city hall are expected to finally address both a long-term problem with unfunded pension payments and a sharp increase in short-term pension costs.
There are multiple city employee pension funds, each with their own payment schedules. Under these schedules, the city's pension payment obligations will ramp up over the next few years. In Emanuel’s 2013 budget, the city will pay $479 million total toward its pension fund, using money that is taken from local property taxes. Under the structure of payments in separate public employee pension systems, that cost is expected to soar toward $1.2 billion in the 2015 budget, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The Tribune and less pension-focused Chicago Sun-Times, covered this year’s budget as a perfectly acceptable document, positing that the real debate is next year.
Patel certainly does not view this budget as acceptable, citing the privatization of positions at the water department and O’Hare International Airport, and continuation of special taxing districts for affluent downtown neighborhoods.
But Patel is preparing for a fight next year against anticipated “city austerity measures.”
* A Flawed Process
Like a handful of other council members, Ald. John Arena (45th) wants the city to hire more than the 500 police officers called for by Emanuel’s budget. Asked how the city can pay for this, Arena replies, “That’s not my job to figure out.”
“My job is to be a good check and balance to the mayor’s budget,” Arena says. “I have three full-time staff. He has hundreds. I don’t have an independent budget office.”
Arena says that aldermen cannot even get their questions answered about what is in the budget, much less collaborate as lawmakers to change the document. He added that he is still waiting for information that his office requested from Emanuel’s budget office. “The process is flawed,” Arena says.
Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) agrees, stating that this year’s budget hearings were “reflective of a council that is disengaged from the process.”
Both Arena and Fioretti call for an independent budget office so that the council can get the information it needs to answer questions about how, for example, to pay for more police.
Asked if his colleagues would ever fight the mayor for an independent budget office, Arena acknowledges that, “It’s going to take a concerted effort.”