PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday June 25th, 2014, 4:37pm

Chicago City Council Roundup: Gun Shops, Phone Taxes & SROs

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

The Chicago City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved an ordinance to allow gun shops to open in limited parts of the city.

The ordinance comes in response to a January ruling from a federal judge, who said Chicago's ban on gun sales "goes too far." As part of the court ruling, city officials were given a July 14 deadline to determine how commercial gun sales can occur within Chicago.

In remarks after the 48-0 vote, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the ordinance "smart, tough and enforceable."

"If it was up to me, as a person who helped establish the Brady [handgun-control] bill, the five-day waiting period and the assault weapon ban, I wouldn't take this step," the mayor told reporters. "But given that we're on the court order, we decided we would take the six months to come up with a way, designing an ordinance, that meet[s] the judges requirements but also do[es] not undermine our public safety."  

The new ordinance requires firearm retailers to obtain special-use permits and outlaws gun shops within 500 feet of schools and parks. Zoning restrictions will prevent gun stores from opening in 99.5 percent of the city. 

Under the ordinance, gun shop owners have to videotape all gun sales and can only sell one handgun per month to the same buyer. Among other requirements, gun dealers allowed to open in Chicago will have to keep quarterly gun-sale audits and make their records available to police for review. Gun store employees will also undergo background checks and state-of-the-art training, according to the mayor's office.

Emanuel said "the flow of illegal guns into the city" still remains a big challenge.

"Which is why I've pushed ... that Congress step up and take responsibility for passing comprehensive background checks and limits on straw purchases and all the other things that would actually impact the illegal flow of guns into the city of Chicago," the mayor said. "And that doesn't mean we don't take the step we just took, it means that we're not done doing what we need to do to protect the residents of the city of Chicago and the families of the city of Chicago." 

Read more about the new city ordinance, which will likely see a legal challenge according to an Illinois Rifle Association official, here. 

Immigrant Heritage Month

June will now be recognized in Chicago as Immigrant Heritage Month under a resolution adopted by the council Wednesday.

The resolution's lead sponsor Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), other aldermen and immigrant business owners and entrepreneurs celebrated the resolution ahead of today's council meeting.

"This is really about recognizing the uniqueness of America and why so many find a better life here," said Chicago restaurateur Billy Lawless, an Irish immigrant. "I can think of no other place in the world where our family could have achieved what it did and I'm honored to be part of this special recognition today."

More than half a million immigrants live and work in the city of Chicago, the resolution states. Immigrants account for "more than 18 percent of the total economic output in the Chicago metropolitan area." And one-quarter of all businesses owners in the Chicago metropolitan area are foreign born, according to the resolution.

"It's only fitting that we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month here in the city of Chicago to continue to send a message to everyone in Washington, D.C. that we need to do something about immigration reform," said Ald. Walter Burnett (27th). 

June 27 will mark one year since the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which GOP leaders in the House continue to refuse to bring for a vote.

On the topic of immigration reform, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) said "it's also important to remember that the family Diversity Visa Program is something that we need to keep, and ultimately expand."

"This is not something that the Gang of 8 was considering last summer, but it's incredibly important that we continue to allow people to not only immigrate here, but also bring their family here and connect families," he added. "This can't just be a foreign worker program when we think about immigration reform."

Immigration Heritage Month will be recognized in Chicago starting this month and every June thereafter, according to the resolution.

911 Telephone Tax Hike

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a number of aldermen want to hike monthly telephone taxes in the city beginning this fall to help tackle the city's pension crisis and avoid a property tax increase.

At Wednesday's council meeting, Emanuel introduced an ordinance co-sponsored by 38 aldermen that would raise the city's monthly 911 tax on wireless and landline telephones from the current price of $2.50 to $3.90, starting September 1.

Under state law, the city's monthly emergency service surcharge on phone lines must be spent on the 911 call center and anti-terrorism or emergency preparedness matters. The proposed ordinance would allow the 911 center and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications to be fully funded, according to the mayor's office.

The 911 telephone tax increase will free up money from the city's corporate fund, allowing the city to make a $50 million pension payment to its underfunded Municipal Employees and Laborers pension systems. 

Increased city payments into the two pension funds are part of Chicago's recent pension reform overhaul, which Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law earlier this month. The governor signed the pension measure after he signed a separate piece of legislation allowing the city of Chicago to increase its 911 phone taxes.

Emanuel said the 911 telephone tax increase of $1.40 allows the city to make its first payment as part of the pension reform law without raising property taxes, which is "consistent with my budget three years in a row where we didn't raise property taxes, and in fact put money back into the rainy day fund every year."

Importantly, the mayor said, "It allows us to keep our commitment to securing all 61,000 workers their retirement check."

Prior to the 911 telephone tax increase proposal, Emanuel had been calling for aldermen, who are up for re-election in 2015, to get behind a $250 million property tax increase over five years to help shore up the two pension funds. Not all aldermen supported the idea, and Quinn also urged Emanuel not to hike property taxes.

After today's council meeting, the mayor pushed back on the assertion by some that the 911 telephone tax increase is way to put off tough revenue decisions until after the 2015 municipal election.

"This [911 phone surcharge increase] gives us the opportunity to actually do this the first year without a property tax increase and the opportunity to search for other revenue sources so we don't have to" raise property taxes next year, the mayor added.

The full Chicago City Council still has to sign off on the proposal. If approved, the tax increase is expected to bring in an estimated $12 million in additional city revenue in 2014, and an additional $40 million in 2015, according to the mayor's office.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) was not one of the 38 aldermen who signed on to the ordinance Wednesday, explaining earlier today that he had yet to see its specific language.

"The 911 tax, or the phone tax, is basically there to help increase the viability of the 911 system. It wasn't set up to defray pensions," the alderman said. "That's an issue we're going to have to discuss ... We still don't know the entire amount that we need for the pensions. There's a lot of discussion that needs to be had there as well."

Six-Month Moratorium on SRO and Residential Hotel Conversions

Ahead of Wednesday's council meeting, a group of aldermen and Chicago affordable housing advocates (top image) rallied behind an ordinance to place a six-month moratorium on conversions of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units and residential hotels into market rate housing.

Emanuel introduced the moratorium ordinance Wednesday with Alds. Burnett, Moreno, Pawar, Will Burns (4th), Michele Smith (43rd) and Joe Moore (49th), with the help of the Chicago for All Coalition, a SRO advocacy organization.

Alds. Waguespack, Bob Fioretti (2nd), Tom Tunney (44th) and John Arena (45th) also stood in support of the ordinance ahead of the meeting. 

More than 2,000 SRO units in the city have been lost to market rate development over the past three years, according to the Chicago For All Coalition. The proposed six-month moratorium is designed to preserve some 6,000 existing SROs and residential hotel rooms while the city works with various stakeholders to develop a permanent ordinance to address the issue.

Adelaide Meyers, who is disabled, is a former tenant of the now-closed Norman Hotel in Uptown. A developer took over the property in 2011, Meyers said.

"We were forced to move out and to leave a community that we had considered home," she stressed. "Losing SRO housing units has devastating consequences for the disabled, the working poor and others who call these units home ... Developers have been systematically buying SRO buildings filled with low-income people, displacing these tenants and converting the housing to high-end studios. If we lose another 6,000 units, I am worried about how many people are going to end up homeless."

Since 2008, a total of 30 city licensed SRO properties have shuttered, according to the mayor's office. Currently, there are 73 city licensed SRO buildings, which often provide housing for some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents who have limited housing options. The closure of at least four SRO hotels since 2011 has displaced some 600 residents, the affordable housing advocates said.

Under the pending moratorium, no city building permits would be issued "allowing conversion of all or part of an SRO or residential hotel to a commercial, industrial, or other non-residential or residential use," according to a release from the mayor's office. Additionally, the six-month moratorium would "prohibit any action that reduces the number of units, whether through complete or partial demolition of the building, or by combining two or more units."

Burnett said he has a cousin with a mental disability who lives in SRO housing.

"He gets support, and it's a decent place for him to live ... and he's familiar with the area where he lives," the alderman said. "There are so many people in the city of Chicago who have family members who need this type of housing. And if it wasn't for this type of housing, they would not have anywhere else to stay. They would be in our parks. They would be on our streets ... And we don't want those folks to be homeless."

At May's council meeting, members of the Chicago For All Coalition and Burnett said a permanent ordinance — not a moratorium — meant to address the SRO conversion issue and maintain affordable housing would be ready for introduction this month.

Department of Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis said the purpose of the moratorium measure is to "allow for time to discuss the current conditions of the ... licensed SROs, and we also understand that there are unlicensed SROs that the city hasn't had any purview into."

"The moratorium will give time for the city to actually have these conversations and discussions and to create a pathway forward," Davis continued. "We are not standing here today to say that we know what the outcome will be at the end, but that over the next six months, we'll have lots of discussions with all the partners, including developers, owners, advocates as well as the other elected officials here today to come up with what the pathway will be going forward."

Burnett noted that the city wants to ensure that current SROs owners are "able to be sustained."

"We're looking for resources," the alderman said. "The city is working with us very closely with other entities throughout government to come up with resources to also help these SROs, to enhance themselves and also to sustain themselves."

The SRO moratorium ordinance has been referred to the council's housing committee.

City Council To Congress: Ban Use Of Non-therapeutic Antibiotics In Livestock

The council passed a resolution today calling on Congress to approve federal measures seeking to "ban the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in the production of livestock."

Those pending bills in Congress include H.R. 1150, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY,25), and S. 1256, the Prevention of Antibiotic Resistance Act, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

Finance Committee Chairman Ald. Ed Burke (14th) sponsored the resolution, which drew opposition from the Illinois Pork Producers Association and the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Dyett Supporters Make Their Voices Heard

In other news, during Burke's Finance Committee report, a group of approximately 20 education activists with the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School interrupted the meeting with chants of "Dyett High School: public hearing now!" and "Will Burns do your job!" They were escorted out of the council chambers by security.

The outburst was the latest demonstration by the education activists, who for months have been protesting the school district's plan to close Walter H. Dyett High School at the end of the 2014-2015 school year. Dyett is located in Burns' ward. Read about the issue here and here.

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