PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday October 15th, 2015, 4:03pm

Emanuel Submits Budget Plan To Council; Homeless Activists Camp Out At City Hall For CHA Oversight

Mayor Rahm Emanuel officially submitted his 2016 budget proposal to the city council on Wednesday, and the public had an opportunity to weigh in on his plan at a hearing that afternoon. Homeless activists were among those who attended the hearing. They also slept outside City Hall as part of their push for greater oversight of the Chicago Housing Authority. 

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel formally introduced his $7.8 billion budget at Wednesday's city council meeting, paving the way for aldermen to vote on the spending plan, including a record $588 million property tax hike, in two weeks.

After the meeting, Emanuel noted that discussions on the budget will continue before the plan goes up for a council vote on October 28.

The mayor's plan to privatize 3-1-1 non-emergency operations is at least one budget idea that has drawn the ire of a number of aldermen. The mayor on Wednesday defended his plan to outsource 3-1-1 operations to save the cash-strapped city an estimated $1 million annually.

"It requires another $40 million to modernize 3-1-1. We don't have that," the mayor said. "Now, I presented that. The aldermen will now have their chance to weigh in, as they have in the past."

A public hearing was held on the mayor's budget proposal after Wednesday's council meeting. Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, spoke to aldermen at the top of the hearing about the group's newly-released 111-page analysis of the mayor's proposed budget.

In its analysis, the Civic Federation, a non-partisan, fiscally conservative organization, announced its support of Emanuel's overall 2016 budget plan. The group applauded the proposed budget, in part, for "making the difficult yet necessary decision to increase property taxes and dedicating these taxes to the pension funds" and phasing out the use of "scoop and toss" borrowing, which involves kicking debt down the road.

Emanuel touted the Civic Federation's budget endorsement after today's meeting.

"The Civic Federation notes that this budget does the tough things necessary to put our financial house in order and prepare the city for the future," the mayor told reporters. "And so I'm proud that we're submitting it today, dealing with our challenges, but dealing with it in an honest way, forthright way, not running away from our challenges, but meeting them head on and dealing with (them) in a fair and responsible manner."

That being said, the Civic Federation has a list of concerns about the proposed budget. First, the Civic Federation stressed that the proposed $588 property tax hike for police and fire pension funds and school construction is not enough "to stabilize Chicago finances." 

Among other concerns, the Civic Federation noted that Emanuel's budget depends on the state for pension funding changes, which have cleared both legislative chambers but have not yet been sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner. There is also uncertainty around city pension reforms to the municipal and laborer funds as well as Emanuel's plan to phaseout the city's subsidy for retiree health care. Both efforts are under litigation.

Housing Advocates Call For Greater CHA Oversight

Housing activists and homeless individuals also attended Wednesday's hearing.

On the eve of the hearing, Chicago Housing Initiative members camped out overnight outside City Hall as part of their push for greater city oversight of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). Specifically, the activists want the council to pass the Keeping the Promise Ordinance, under which the CHA would have to provide the council with quarterly reports on, among other things, vacant and offline housing, its voucher utilization rate and progress building replacement public housing.

The ordinance was first introduced in September 2014 after a fiscal review by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability showed that the CHA had recently amassed at least $432 million in its reserves, primarily by socking away millions in federal funds intended for housing vouchers.

"While the city of Chicago grapples with a $426 million hole in its 2016 budget, the Chicago Housing Authority sits on a $440 million surplus, no debt and a fully funded pension system, according to CHA's latest financial report," CHI said in a media statement. 

CHI claims that the CHA has 11,000 available vouchers that have not been circulated, 2,800 vacant public housing units and 122,000 households on its waiting lists.

Organizers with the disability rights advocacy group Access Living were among those who participated in the overnight campout action.

"We slept outside with the other groups to push the mayor to take action and pass the Keeping the Promise Ordinance to hold the CHA accountable for the money it's stockpiling in its reserves, while the city struggles to (provide) just basic services," said Brock Grosso, housing organizer at Access Living.

"We're frustrated it hasn't even been a topic of conversation around the budget," he added. "It's been pushed aside and not addressed, and I understand things are happening with the pensions and property taxes, but it's not even being discussed as (to) how it affects this budget."

Emanuel's budget is also facing criticism for proposed fee hikes on taxi and ride-hailing trips. Under the mayor's budget, ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft would also gain access to Midway and O'Hare airports and McCormick Place, with the city getting $5 for every pick up and drop off. For taxis, fares would increase by 15 percent.

Cab drivers want the city to impose the same regulations on ride-hailing companies, like Uber and Lyft, as the taxi industry.

Ride-hailing services are "eating into (our) business severely as-is, and now to allow them at the airport, it's gonna almost completely destroy the cab business," Chicago taxi owner and driver George Kasp said in remarks before the hearing.

Uber driver Andre Sneed was not happy about the mayor's proposal to increase fees on ride-hailing trips.

"That potentially could limit the riders, which will trickle down to the drivers not being able to work," he said. "I think that an increase in fees ... would essentially hurt everybody, the drivers as well as the riders."

Resolution For Hearings On CPD Surveillance Activities

In other news, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) introduced a resolution calling for council hearings into the Chicago Police Department's surveillance activities. The resolution comes in response to recent reporting from the Chicago Sun-Times detailing the organizations and people Chicago police were surveilling in the city over the last six years.

The resolution claims that the police department has "failed to provide evidence that its surveillance of its citizens requires any proper legal evidentiary standard of proof or objective process of authorization."

Emanuel declined to comment on the resolution after Wednesday's council meeting, saying that he would have to review it.


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