Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday October 31st, 2013, 10:17am

Chicagoans Talk 2014 Budget With Progressive Reform Caucus At Town Hall Meeting (UPDATED)

Public schools, mental health services and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to phaseout the city's health care subsidy for a number of retired municipal workers were some of the concerns Chicagoans raised at a budget town hall meeting Wednesday night.

The city council's Progressive Reform Caucus held the packed town hall meeting at United Electrical Workers Hall and heard comments from dozens of residents about the mayor's proposed 2014 budget, which was unveiled last week.

The mayor's $8.7 billion 2014 budget does not increase property, sales or gas taxes, but Progressive Reform Caucus members expressed worry that the spending plan relies mainly on other increased taxes and fees that would impact everyone from drivers to cigarette smokers to cable TV customers as a means to help close the city's $339 million deficit.

Among other ways to balance the budget, Emanuel is counting on $26 million in health care savings, with a part of that coming from his plan to phaseout the city's 55 percent health care subsidy for 30,000 retired city of Chicago employees and their dependents starting in January 2014.

Some retired city workers who spoke at the meeting said they would face large expense increases due to the subsidy phaseout and were uneasy about how they would be able to afford the costs of health insurance, medication and basic necessities.

“When they started talking about the ending of the subsidies, I said I felt like I have one (foot) already in the grave," said Dorothy Harding, 70, a retired Chicago Public Library employee of more than 33 years. "Now the mayor is cutting us out, [and it’s] starting to feel like I got two feet in the grave."

Harding said she is not eligible for Medicare. Back in 1986, Medicare was expanded to state and local government workers who were hired on or after April 1, 1986. That means workers who were hired prior to this date, including Harding, are excluded from mandatory Medicare coverage.

"They didn’t have Medicare at that time for me, so since I retired, I had to pay for health insurance out of my pension," Harding explained.

Once January 1 comes, Harding says it is expected that her health care coverage costs would rise from $37 a month to $170 a month.

"Retirees don’t have the kind of extra money laying around," she stressed.

Another retired library worker, Mary Jones, 61, said when she began her 33-year career with the city, she did so with the understanding that she would receive her health care subsidy.

"The health care plans are limited, in fact they don't even cover mammograms, but if the subsides are cut, that forces me and most other retirees to make some hard choices about how to get by on our modest pensions," Jones told the aldermen. "We don’t get Social Security."

In addition to concerns over the subsidy phaseout, numerous town hall attendees said the aldermen should push the Emanuel administration to create a plan ensuring all communities have the mental health services they need.

As part of the mayor's budget for 2012, six of the city's 12 mental health clinics were shut down. Matt Ginseberg-Jaekle, a 4th Ward resident, said although the mayor didn’t propose any additional clinic closures in his 2014 budget, "he is in the process of allowing the health department to sabotage our remaining six clinics."

"They have refused time and time again to join the County Care referral network. They're not interested in anybody who's getting insurance benefits being able to access care in those remaining clinics, and we see very clearly that this is in response to their long-standing agenda to privatize or close these services," he said.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) acknowledged that the mental health clinic closings "left our citizens short on access to much-needed health care."

"Many of us voted for the mayor's budget the first year thinking that some of these issues would be addressed, and we were wrong," the alderman said. 

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) apologized to the crowd for voting for the budget that reduced mental health services.

"I am so sorry, and I know so are they," Fioretti said, referring to the other aldermen at the meeting. "We thought we'd give a chance to somebody that came in to this town (who) was going to bring in all the contacts, all the clout, all the cash, and look what we've got. A corporate city. Not a city of communities. Not a city of the people."

Waguespack said he and the other aldermen have heard from a swell of residents, organizations and mental health care workers that a few thousand people have been left behind due to the clinics closing their doors for good.

The members of the Progressive Reform Caucus, which includes Fioretti, Waguespack and Alds. John Arena (45th), Toni Foukes (15th), Leslie Hairston (5th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd), Ameya Pawar (47th), Roderick Sawyer (6th), and Nick Sposato (36th), have called on the mayor to include $2.2 million in the budget to reopen the six shuttered clinics.

"It became clear to us pretty quickly that the available services have not met the promised standards since the closing of these clinics," Waguespack noted. "Supporting those most in need in our city is not only the right thing to do, it's a public safety issue for all of us in our communities."

In an interview with Progress Illinois after the meeting, Fioretti said the caucus is currently looking at possible ordinances that could be introduced to amend the budget, with a specific focus on reopening the mental health clinics and putting more police officers on the city's streets.

"We've got a couple of theories of what we may do," Fioretti said. "We may not put amendments in this time at this point in the budget, but we may do it later. We're looking at it. We are planning, especially on the mental health clinics and the police, to do something."

Emanuel's proposed budget looks to ramp up police overtime pay to $71 million, which is up from the $32 million that was budgeted last year. The Progressive Reform Caucus, however, wants to know why the mayor wants to pay more in police overtime when he could simply hire additional officers.

"We are hearing [about] phenomenal amounts of overtime, and why is that," asked Fioretti. "Because they don’t have enough people? What are they doing here? I think together we'll be able to find some sort of solution."

The caucus members are calling for $50 million to be set aside in the budget for the hiring of 1,000 additional cops.

Underfunded public schools was also a hot topic at the meeting. As part of the 2014 budget proposal, Emanuel is looking to declare a $49 million tax increment financing (TIF) surplus, with about $24 million going to the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district.

But Leah Fried, a CPS parent from Minnie Mars Jamieson Elementary schools, said $24 million would barely make a dent in reversing the recent round of school budget cuts. Jamieson Elementary alone saw its budget reduced by $400,000 this school year, she said, adding that the school lost a music and bilingual program due to the reduced funds.

Fried also noted that it's not yet clear how that $24 million will be divided among schools.

"There’s no transparency regarding that," she told Progress Illinois. "If it's divided equally, which I think would be fair, each school would get about $18,000. It’s not nearly enough to restore the $400,000 that our school lost in budget cuts."

The Progressive Reform Caucus aldermen say the surplus is not large enough to prevent further education cuts. They are demanding an audit and sweep of the city's TIF funds. Waguespack said the caucus is also calling on the mayor to consider other more "equitable" revenue streams for the city that ensure "corporate citizens contribute their fair share to the tax base."

Budget hearings kicked off at city hall on Monday and are expected to continue through early November. Fioretti provided his take on what typically happens at such meetings.

"What I've always noticed is the budget hearings are more, 'Oh commissioner, you're doing a great job, and all these employees are doing a great job,'" the alderman said to Progress Illinois. "People complain. People raise issues. Those that have maybe the ear of the mayor, maybe the committee chairs ... they never do anything. You wonder why they were elected into the positions."

UPDATE 1 (4:50 p.m.): At a budget hearing Thursday, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said the money spent on police overtime this year will be about $93 million, which is up significantly from the $32 million that was originally budgeted for 2013. This added more fuel to the Progressive Reform Caucus' call for $50 million added to the budget for the hiring of 1,000 additional officers.

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