Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A bit of the old, a bit of the new in Mayor Emanuel's first budget

Posted By on 10.12.11 at 04:14 PM

In presenting his annual budget to the City Council, the mayor did what all smart politicians do—he emphasized that things were a mess when he took over, but declared that he would make the tough choices to get the city back on track.

“I inherited a government that needed to be reshaped,” the mayor said. “So, in the balanced budget I am presenting to you today, I'm guided by my ongoing determination for government to be even more efficient and to further control its size, scope, and cost. But that is balanced by my belief that we must put a priority—and find a way to invest a limited amount more—on programs that make our neighborhoods safer and that help grow our economy and create new jobs and businesses.”

The mayor said the budget was crafted after public hearings and meetings with aldermen. “It is based on the input of many Chicagoans.”

Specifically, he said, the budget would slash the city payroll, including scores of middle-management positions; streamline and consolidate the operations of several city departments; transfer hundreds of police officers from desk to street duty; invite the private sector to compete for the right to provide some city services; hold the line on property taxes (while hiking various fines and fees); cut the unpopular head tax on large city employers; and put to use millions of dollars in “surplus” tax increment financing funds—though the TIF program would remain intact.

In addition, despite the city’s budgetary pressures, the mayor promised that “we will continue to invest in Chicago's infrastructure to improve quality of life and make our neighborhoods ready to create jobs and opportunity and to welcome new businesses.” Among the top priorities: water and sewer improvements and street resurfacing.

And so, on October 13, 2010, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced the last budget of his 22-year mayoral reign. Some aldermen griped and grumbled that it didn’t go far enough or that it went too far, but a few weeks later the City Council passed it overwhelmingly.

On Wednesday morning Daley's successor, Rahm Emanuel, proposed his first budget to the City Council. Many of his proposals were creative and new. Others sounded kind of familiar.

Mayor Emanuel stressed that things were a mess when he took over, but declared that he would make the tough choices to get the city back on track.

“It’s clear that we have a structural problem,” this mayor said. “Smoke and mirrors and one-time fixes simply won’t get the job done. It’s time to provide Chicagoans with an honest city budget—one that focuses on current needs while still investing in our future.”

Mayor Emanuel said the first way this budget is different is the process that produced it, since it incorporated ideas from aldermen and residents around the city. “We opened up the process and invited everyone in.”

Specifically, Mayor Emanuel said, the new budget will cut the city payroll, including scores of middle-management positions; streamline and consolidate the operations of several city departments; transfer hundreds of police officers from desk to street duty; invite the private sector to compete for the right to provide some city services; hold the line on property taxes (but raise various fines and fees); cut the unpopular head tax on large city employers; and use millions of dollars in “surplus” tax increment financing funds—though the TIF program will remain intact.

In addition, despite the city’s budgetary pressures, the mayor promised to replace hundreds of miles of aging water and sewer lines and repave pock-marked roads. “This will be one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country initiated by a city,” he said.

A few aldermen griped and grumbled that the proposed budget didn’t go far enough or that it went too far—some worried about changing to a grid system for garbage collection, closing aging police stations, and imposing a “congestion fee” on drivers who park downtown during business hours.

But most praised it as “fresh” and “honest” and predicted it would pass largely intact in a few weeks.

“Most of these ideas have been tossed about over the years,” said council dean Ed Burke, the finance committee chairman. “Perhaps now there’s an increased will to do something about them.”

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