Chicago aldermen have mixed reactions to watchdog's budget ideas

September 27, 2011

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago aldermen are having mixed reactions to the city watchdog's ideas for balancing the budget.

Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson released a report late Monday outlining dozens of ideas to cut spending and raise revenue in order to deal with a projected budget deficit of more than $635 million for 2012. All told, Ferguson's "budget options" could net the city about $2.8 billion, and they run the gamut from policies that have been seriously considered in the past, to long-shot revenue grabs.

In a statement, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday that Ferguson's ideas to raise income, sales and property taxes are "off the table," and he dismissed the long-shot idea of making Lake Shore Drive a toll road, which the report says could net the city more than $87 million a year, as a "non-starter." But Emanuel's statement said some of the report's ideas are "promising," and will be given "serious consideration."

The biggest-ticket idea - imposing a new city income tax - could net $500 million a year, according to the report. But Ald. Pat Dowell, (3), said that could be too much to force on recession-weary taxpayers.

"On top of an increased state [income] tax, that's a lot of money. Hard for people to stomach," Dowell said Tuesday.

Ald. George Cardenas, (12th), said an income tax could be "palatable," but stopped short of endorsing the idea.

"We must do it after we've done all we can on the expense side of the ledger," he said.

The report also said Chicago could save millions of dollars by trimming back public safety budgets by reducing the number of firefighters who work on a truck, eliminating the police marine and helicopter unit and converting 1/5 of the city's firefighting vehicles into ambulances.

Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th, bristled at an idea to cut more than 700 fire department supervisors in an effort to trim middle management.

"When you have, you know, fire and burning buildings and maybe people trapped in there, those supervisors are important," she said.

But public safety budgets could use some trimming, says Ald. Pat O'Connor (40th).

"They've kind of been, you know, the sacred cow here," O'Connor said. "So the idea of trying to go in there and find savings is, I think, appealing to everybody."

The inspector general's first-ever budget options report last year was met with hostility by many aldermen and former Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration. Some in the City Council complained when the report was dropped on them during their final week of budget hearings, and the mayor's budget office suggested Ferguson had no business jumping into the budget debate.

But with a new mayor in office, aldermen this year seemed more receptive to the report. Several of its ideas, such as privatizing garbage pickup and cutting off free water and sewer service to non-profit agencies, have already been suggested by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And even some of the more potentially explosive budget options - a "commuter tax" on suburbanites to work in Chicago that could net $300 million a year, the report says - seemed amenable to some aldermen.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is expected to present his own spending plan to the City Council Oct. 12.