PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday March 16th, 2015, 10:37pm

Emanuel, Garcia Spar Over City Finances During First Debate

Progress Illinois provides highlights from the first televised debate for Chicago's mayoral runoff election between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia.  

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and challenger Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia participated in the first televised debate of the mayoral runoff election Monday evening, sparing over the city's $20 billion pension crisis, red light cameras, public safety and other issues.

NBC 5 Chicago and Telemundo broadcasted the hour-long, fast-paced debate -- the first of three between Emanuel and Garcia before the April 7 runoff.  The debate, moderated by NBC 5 political editor Carol Marin, comes after both Emanuel and Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, released their respective fiscal blueprints for Chicago last week. It also follows Garcia's formal endorsement by the SEIU* Illinois State Council, which took a neutral position in the city's five-way February 24 mayoral contest.

At the top of the debate, the candidates were asked about the city's pension crisis, delving specifically into the $550 million contribution the city has to make in December to its woefully underfunded police and fire pension funds. Pressed on solutions to solve the city's pension problems, Emanuel called for both reforms and new revenues generated from "modernizing" the sales tax base, the tax increment financing (TIF) surplus system and a Chicago casino owned and operated by the city.

For his part, Garcia stressed his pledge to conduct financial and performance audits of city departments upon taking office in an effort to "understand what the real finances of the city of Chicago are." If elected, Garcia said he would appoint a commission after the runoff election that is tasked with recommending possible revenue solutions within 90 days. 

"The taxpayers deserve to know that the rich and powerful in Chicago ... are paying their fair share of taxes before moving forward," Garcia said.

Emanuel said reforms have to be part of the city's pension solution. The mayor said he and his opponent differ on the issue because, "The taxpayers alone cannot bare this burden."

"My plan specifically avoids increasing property taxes," Emanuel said.

Asked whether a post-election property tax hike is off the table under a Garcia administration, the mayoral challenger said, "There are many things that need to be on the table, however, you cannot move forward until you show Chicagoans where their tax dollars are going."

Speaking to reporters after the debate, Garcia left the door open for a Chicago casino that could produce new revenue meant to tackle the city's pension problems. 

During the debate, Garcia slammed Emanuel for providing "corporate welfare to his cronies, millionaires and billionaires in Illinois in terms of tax increment financing."

The mayor, Garcia added, promised four years ago to put Chicago's fiscal house in order; [yet] we're in a financial free fall."

Emanuel shot back at Garcia for having a vague fiscal proposal and for voting in support of a pension holiday for the Chicago Public Schools in 1997 while he was a state senator. Emanuel pointed out that Chicago's current financial problems related to pensions, including the public school system's budget woes, are "because legislators kicked the can down the road."

In response to Emanuel's criticism of Garcia over the pension holiday issue, SEIU* Illinois State Council and SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff told Progress Illinois after the debate that the mayor "needs to understand that the problems are today."

"What Commissioner Garcia said today was: first of all we need transparency, and that's absolutely right," Balanoff said. "Let's have some real audits of things. Let's really find out where things are at so that citizens of this city will have trust in what their leaders are saying."

Overall, Balanoff said Garcia was on point throughout the debate. 

"I think Chuy held his own by far," he said. "I think that he raised an issue that all Chicagoans want to know. I mean, this is a tale of two cities. On the one hand, you look at Rahm Emanuel, who gets his support from a handful of millionaires. The people of Chicago aren't giving his finance or doing this, and I think people are concerned ... [about] who is Rahm Emanuel going to respond to? Those millionaires who send him those checks or the neighborhoods? And the [past] four years shows he's been much more responsive to what goes on downtown than the neighborhoods."

Regarding public safety issues, Garcia has pledged to hire 1,000 new officers, if elected. Marin asked how Garcia would pay for the new hires, to which Garcia said half of the current police overtime budget could be at least one source of funding to put towards additional officers. Emanuel, who claimed that homicides and shootings have gone down over the past four years, countered that more than half of police overtime spending is "dedicated for what officers do for their job."

In debating Chicago's red light cameras, Emanuel noted that he made management reforms to the controversial program and has already removed 32 of the devices. Earlier this month, Emanuel announced plans to take down 50 more cameras. That announcement came shortly after Garcia vowed to completely eliminate the program, if elected.

Emanuel asserted that the goal of the photo-enforcement program is safety, but Garcia countered that "the cameras are founded on a lie."

"The cameras are there to produce revenue," Garcia stressed.

On the topic of employment opportunities, Emanuel touted his success of bringing jobs and companies to Chicago. Garcia, however, noted that the "growth and the expansion of jobs in the central business district hasn't resulted in a whole lot of jobs for people who live in Chicago neighborhoods."

As far as education issues, Emanuel listed accomplishments during his first term, including the expansion of early childhood education. Garcia took the opportunity to jab Emanuel for not supporting an elected school board, an idea backed by an overwhelming number of Chicago voters.

"The mayor is out of touch, clearly," Garcia said.

Emanuel responded that he's focused on strengthening Local School Councils and accountability in the school system. 

After the debate, Kristen Crowell, executive director of the progressive group United Working Families, issued this statement: 

Whether it was executives who profit from his dangerous privatization and closing of public neighborhood schools, or the culture of cronyism that led to the red light camera program he fought to expand just five months after he took office, Rahm Emanuel continued his donor protection program in tonight's debate. Rahm said he 'inherited' a 'culture of corruption.' In fact, all he's done is expand it and dress it in a pricer suit.

Asked what SEIU's next steps are in its support for Garcia, Balanoff noted that SEIU Local 1 on Monday made a $100,000 contribution to the mayoral challenger's campaign committee.

"SEIU will be doing whatever is necessary to be able to speak to all of the citizens of Chicago about the importance of this election," Balanoff added. "We don't need the $12, $15, $20 million that Emanuel has accumulated from a handful of people. That's a lot of money. We don't need that much money to level the playing field, and we can't even come close to that, but we have the people, the workers in this city, who will come, and we will have enough resources, I believe, to communicate with the citizens of Chicago."  

The two Chicago mayoral candidates will also debate on Fox 32 on March 26 and on WTTW Ch. 11 on March 31.

*The SEIU Illinois State Council sponsors this website.

Image: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

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