PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday April 2nd, 2014, 3:58pm

Chicago City Council Roundup: Emanuel Defends Pension Plan, Aldermen Call Mental Health Service Hearings

Progress Illinois provides some highlights from Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting.

Just after legislation designed to overhaul two Chicago pension funds was introduced in Springfield Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel defended the controversial reform plan as one in which "everybody gives something so nobody has to give everything."

The mayor's proposed pension measure, which is currently working its way through the state legislature and faces fierce opposition from some major public sector unions, looks to increase Chicago property taxes by $250 million over a five-year period and increase employee contributions to prevent the municipal and laborers' pension funds from going broke.

"It's essential that we do this ... [and workers] have a pension they can rely on and retire on, because within a decade, those funds were going belly up," the mayor told reporters after Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting.

Members of the Chicago teachers, fire and police retirement systems are not impacted by this specific measure, which passed through committee today in the House and is awaiting a vote in the full chamber. The Senate is reportedly looking to see what the House does before taking it up for consideration.

Under the measure, workers' 3 percent compounded annual cost-of-living adjustments would be slashed to a basic 3 percent or half of inflation, depending on which option is less. Additionally, city employees that are members of the municipal and laborers' pension funds would see their pension contribution rise from 8.5 percent to 11 percent. 

All told, the average city employee would have to kick in an additional $300 a year toward their pension, the mayor said. And the average Chicago homeowner would have to fork over an extra $50 in property taxes annually over five years.

"I don't take the idea or gesture lightly that we're asking people to make changes," the mayor said. "On the other hand, all the other choices ... it goes belly up. No pension check. No retirement security. Two: a massive property tax increase versus $50 a year for the average homeowner. Three: thousands of people laid off with massive cuts in services that people in the city should come to rely on and expect. Those are the three choices."

"I reject a massive, 150 percent property tax increase," Emanuel continued. "I reject the idea of massive pink slips to workers and with cuts in services to our neighborhoods. And I reject the idea of allowing pensions to go belly up so nobody can retire." 

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said aldermen should be concerned about the legislation under consideration by Springfield lawmakers. That's because the Chicago City Council will ultimately have to approve the property tax increase.

Fioretti added that some months back, he and the council's Progressive Reform Caucus called on the mayor to bring together all stakeholders to discuss pension solutions.

"All we've had from this administration is wait, wait, wait, and then all of a sudden, they're going to jam through something for the budget for us to vote on," the alderman told Progress Illinois. "This is not the way to do it. They should have been having everybody at the table trying to find a collective solution ... City government made a promise to our workers on their pensions. We need to find a way to keep that promise."

Responding to concerns that the measure is being rushed through the legislature, the council's budget chairwoman Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) said, "We're at last-minute['s] door. So when you're at last-minute['s] door, you got to move it."

"We don't have any more time to dally with it," Austin told Progress Illinois. "These are our solutions, we don't have any more. If we have some other ones, let's get them in now, and let's move them along. But we're at the ninth-hour door."

AFSCME, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Fraternal Order of Police oppose the legislation. SEIU* Local 73 supports the measure's “basic constructs”. 

"In carefully examining the pension 'deal' put forth recently by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, we have found that the plan does not, in any way, solve Chicago's pension problem," Stacy Davis Gates, CTU's political director, wrote in a statement on the union's website Wednesday. "As we have said many times before, over and over and over again: This is a revenue problem."

"The worker retiring today under the mayor's proposal, receiving $33,423 a year, would receive $40,943 a year in 20 years," she added. "In today's dollars, in 20 years, $40,943 will have the same purchasing power as $22,669. We dare the mayor to speak to any of our clerks or paraprofessionals and tell them that this terrible plan isn’t a cut."

At a press conference Tuesday, CTU's Vice President Jesse Sharkey called on the mayor to find more creative ways to bring in revenue, such as imposing a tax on luxury services, financial transactions and people who earn more than $1 million a year. 

The mayor stressed that he has to get the pension measure "over the goal line" in order to to "give our retirees and our workers the certainty that they lack today."

"When that's done, I'm always interested in people's ideas [that] they want to put forward," Emanuel said.

The Chicago pension legislation is contained in an amendment to SB 22, sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan and State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago).

Mental Health

Fioretti and other members of the Progressive Reform Caucus introduced a resolution urging the council to hold public hearings concerning mental health services in the city.

The resolution asks the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection to take expert and public testimony about “the future of the Chicago Department of Public Health mental health clinics and the need for expanded mental health services within the city.”

"We want the hearing soon, and we want people to understand what's happening, and if there are ways to find funding to help those that are most (in need) here in our city," Fioretti told Progress Illinois. "There's so much confusion out there from the city side that is creating problems, I believe, for those who are most in need of these type of services."

In 2012, six of Chicago's 12 mental health clinics were shut down. One objective of a hearing, Fioretti said, is to find out if and how any of those six closed clinics can reopen.

Some aldermen are already questioning, however, where the money would come from to reopen mental health clinics, the alderman explained.

In response to those concerns, Fioretti noted that the city is "spending an awful lot of money on building hotels, on building stadiums."

The city is "helping those that have the money to do it for themselves, and not helping those that are less fortunate, and we should be the voices of those individuals throughout our society here in our city council," he stressed.

The council's health committee has not held a public hearing on mental health policy in over three years, and leaders with the Mental Health Movement say that is unacceptable.

“People should not have to fall through the cracks when their public mental health clinics close,” said N’Dana Carter with the Mental Health Movement and Southside Together Organizing for Power. “Taxpayers need to be able to feel safe, that if their loved one or if they need mental health care, that they will receive it.”

The Cook County Jail is “full of people with mental health issues,” Carter added.

“People are committing crimes just so they can go to jail and get medical treatment. That shouldn’t happen,” she said. "It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to house the mentally ill. It only costs a few million to save hundreds of thousands of lives.”

What is health committee chairman Ald. George Cardenas' (12th) stance on the resolution?

"We had a spirited discussion today, and I believe he is inclined to have some sort of hearing on this," Fioretti said. "Now, when will it happen? I'll know within the next 30 days."

A single transit agency?

On Monday, Gov. Pat Quinn's Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force issued its final report on ways to revamp the Chicago region's transit system. The task force recommended that the Regional Transportation Agency (RTA) and the three agencies it oversees — the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace — be combined into one regional planning agency that would have a single board. 

Here is how Emanuel responded when asked if he supports such an idea:

"This is what happens when you lock up a lot of propeller heads in a room for a short period of time," the mayor said. "First, they say we have an unaccountable, nameless, faceless bureaucracy. Hold on. We'd like to replace it with the new version of an unaccountable, nameless, faceless bureaucracy."

The idea is a "non-starter," the mayor added. 

Comments

No other solution for the pension crisis?! Dissolve the TIFs. Stop giving out corporate handouts. Tax the rich at appropriate rates. License landlords so the slumlords pay for their own oversight instead of the homeowners (that alone would save the city roughly $30 million a year!). Re-evaluate how Community Development Block Grants are spent. Take long vacant properties foreclosed by banks by eminent domain and house people, putting them back on the property tax rolls. Cut aldermanic salaries and their 80 percent pensions(!)and give them and their staff the same pension "deal' as cops and teachers. Cut the salaries of all city Commissioners. There are a LOT of ideas out there for someone who will listen. 

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