PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday March 16th, 2015, 11:10am

Garcia Unveils Fiscal Framework For Chicago, But Revenue Specs To Come Post Election

Mayoral challenger Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia previewed his fiscal plan for Chicago Friday, outlining some $500 million in budget savings for the cash-strapped city. But the mayoral hopeful stayed mum on his plans for generating new revenue. Progress Illinois takes a look at Garcia's budget framework and what Rahm Emanuel's campaign had to say about it.

Mayoral challenger Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia unveiled details of his fiscal plan for cash-strapped Chicago Friday, promising a "sweeping restructuring of the city budget process." But the mayoral hopeful stayed mum about where he'd find new revenues to tackle the city's $20 billion pension crisis, among other budget pressures.

Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, previewed his approach to the city's finances ahead of his first one-on-one televised debate with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, scheduled for Monday, and less than a month before the April 7 runoff election. 

In his plan, Garcia outlines $500 million in proposed savings that could come from reforming Chicago's (TIF) program, having sister agencies share costs and expanding collaboration between the city and Cook County. 

Garcia also said $50 million in annual pension cost savings could be generated through investment fee reductions.

"Our whole Chicago strategy will be a multi-governmental collaboration that will address redundancies and overlapping activities," said Garcia, who accused Emanuel of using "gimmicks to cover costs" and "shortchanging vital frontline services" during his first term. "Our goal is to begin to fix this mess without gutting city services, slashing frontline workers' retirement security [and] further undermining our revenue base. That requires significant reform and a fundamental shift in the way we do business and manage our financial house."

If elected, Garcia said he would immediately do an independent financial and performance audit of all city departments, the results of which would be used as the "basis for making systematic improvements in services, public performance and financial management."

As far as new revenues, which Garcia acknowledged would be needed to handle Chicago's pension crisis, including a $550 million contribution the city has to make in December to the woefully underfunded police and fire pension funds, the mayoral challenger said specifics would come later. If he defeats Emanuel in the April 7 runoff, Garcia vowed to convene an advisory committee of experts on April 8 to examine "a full range" of revenue options and issue recommendations within 90 days.  

"I cannot at this point look at taxpayers in the eye and ask them to shoulder another burden before we have exhausted all other options, and before we have looked at all possibilities and make sure that the very wealthy and that big corporations are paying their fair share of taxes," Garcia said, speaking generally about where to find new revenues.

Pressed on whether he supports a post-election property tax increase to address the city's fiscal problems, the mayoral candidate said, "We cannot even begin to talk about increasing property taxes on low-income people, of working or middle-class Chicagoans, without first looking at a host of changes that could happen in terms of how we will move forward.

"It's too early to tell the residents of the city of Chicago that we're going to give them bad medicine," he added.

On the topic of pension reform, Garcia was asked his position on reducing pension benefits and increasing the contributions of current city employees, to which he said, "I do not support cutting benefits for current city employees until we have a dialogue and an agreement of the stakeholders, including organized labor."

If he makes it to City Hall's fifth floor, Garcia wants Chicago's public school system, its city colleges and the park district, which collectively have a $17 billion annual budget, "to share costs and maximize economies of space in purchasing, technology, administration and other common functions." Such an approach, along with expanded city-county collaboration efforts, could save the municipality as much as $350 million. Another $150 million in annual savings could be generated through "aggressively" ending TIF districts, which rely on property taxes, and returning the uncommitted funds to local units of government. Under a Garcia administration, the TIF program would be reestablished "as a redevelopment tool, not a perk," the fiscal plan reads.

Emanuel's campaign, meanwhile, has criticized Garcia over his lack of detail on how he would pay for the various proposals he's promised, like the hiring of 1,000 additional police officers and elimination of the much-despised red light camera program. Just minutes before Garcia gave his budget preview Friday, Emanuel ramped up his attack and released his own "fiscal framework," issuing this statement: "Chicago has come a far way in four short years, and now is not the time to risk that progress on empty promises. My budget and pension framework builds on our accomplishments of the last four years - four balanced budgets and three pension agreements with organized labor. Chicagoans have a clear choice: our honest budget that couples reform with revenue and creates a strong climate for job growth, or Chuy's promise to take us backward with $2 billion in promises that would wreck our finances, hike property taxes or force drastic cuts."

After Garcia held his press conference, Emanuel campaign spokesman Steve Mayberry said in a statement, "After four months of studying for the final exam, Chuy Garcia is telling Chicago voters he will hand in his homework after graduation."

"Today's stonewalling says zero about what Chuy would do to fund pensions and the budget, or where he would find new revenue," Mayberry added. "Chicagoans demand an honest framework to balance budgets and secure our workers' pensions, not an empty promise to appoint a commission on April 8. Chicagoans want a mayor who leads through us through tough times, not a politician who promises $1.9 billion in big spending and big borrowing but hides how will sock it to taxpayers later."

Garcia supporter Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), a member of the city council's Progressive Reform Caucus, joined the Cook County commissioner in laying out his fiscal plan. Asked whether Garcia's blueprint is specific enough, Waguespack said, "I think it is. And I think, as it's rolled out more and more, you're going to see more details come out. But really, the bottom line is we can't really know what's out there until we do these performance audits."

That same question, the alderman added, can be asked of Emanuel.

"Has the mayor come up with a plan to pay for those pension costs? No, absolutely not," Waguespack noted. "And he refuses to put in the performance audits and the things that we need ... With the red light cameras, their numbers are wrong there. With the police overtime numbers, you can't get 'em. I can't get 'em. Where's all this money going? And that's really what it boils down to here.

"There's money in the different budgets throughout each one of these agencies," the alderman added. "Those can be realized if we follow through on what the inspector general and what those of us in the Progressive Caucus and other members of the city council have pushed for for several years and not seen."

Garcia gave his budget preview the same day the Chicago Tribune released the results of its new mayoral poll, in which Emanuel has a 14-point lead over Garcia.

During Friday's event, Garcia brushed off the newspaper's poll, noting that a Tribune survey ahead of the February 24 election "had me 12 points behind where I wound up on Election Day with the 34 percent vote." 

"That is all that I can say," Garcia said. "This is a dead heat. We continue to pick up tremendous momentum as we move forward, and I have the greatest confidence that I will win on April 7."

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