In budget debate, the public weighs in while the mayor skips out 

After Rahm nixes public budget hearings, aldermen organize their own

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And they had plenty to say. Water bills are too high. There aren't enough police. The city cut the CAPS program, or at least its funding. Too many tax increment financing districts are wasting too much money. The libraries aren't getting enough funding. And the schools—don't get people started on what Mayor Emanuel's doing to the schools.

In short, these are my people. It sounded like a greatest-hits collection of the stuff Mick and I have been writing for years.

At one point, Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) wandered in and took a seat at the podium. Burnett's not, nor has he ever been, an independent. But as he explained to his colleagues, he graduated from Wells high school and lives just up the road, so why not?

For about 90 minutes, the people made their comments while the aldermen took notes. The big decision the aldermen have is whether they vote no on the mayor's budget.

Think about it this way: The budget is the mayor's projection of revenues and expenditures over the next year. If he brings in less money than he spends over the course of the year, he faces a deficit. So to claim the budget is balanced, the mayor can raise taxes or fees, find waste to cut that he somehow didn't manage to cut the year before, or make rosy projections about the next year's economy so he doesn't have to make anyone unhappy.

In the year before he's up for election, the mayor generally opts for the rosy-projection route, with a few budget-preserving gimmicks thrown in, so the public feels good enough to vote for him again.

The next year, the mayor generally raises taxes and makes cuts, with the hope that the voters will have another three years to get over it.

Sure enough, in last year's budget, Mayor Emanuel, fresh off his election triumph, jacked up water and sewer fees, closed mental health clinics, fired workers, and made painful library cuts.

If ever there was a time for the city's aldermen—independent or not—to vote no on a budget it was then. But it was also a ward-remap year. There was no percentage in taking a bold stand against a popular mayor when he was literally redrawing the boundaries that could decide an alderman's future. So the council unanimously signed off on his budget—cuts and fee hikes and all.

This year? Well, it's a different story. Several of the aldermen at the hearings—particularly Foulkes, Fioretti, and Sposato—were already punished in the ward remap. There's no point in remaining loyal to a mayor who moved your supporters into different wards.

On the other hand, there's not a heck of a lot to complain about in this year's budget. It resembles an election-year budget with its rosy projections and gimmicky cost-savings promises.

Yes, it continues to drift toward regressive taxes and privatization. And the mayor's cost-cutting and money-generating schemes look suspect. It's certainly hard to figure how he'll save $70 million in health costs from his wellness plan, or how he'll raise $30 million from speeding tickets when he hasn't installed the speed cameras.

But is that enough for an alderman to risk the mayor's wrath with a no vote?

Tough question.

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