City Council Approves Water, Sewer Tax Hike To Pay For Pensions

Rahm Emanuel
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks before the City Council in 2015. His speech is expected to focus partly on a plan to expand the police department by 970 sworn positions by the end of 2018. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press
Rahm Emanuel
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks before the City Council in 2015. His speech is expected to focus partly on a plan to expand the police department by 970 sworn positions by the end of 2018. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press

City Council Approves Water, Sewer Tax Hike To Pay For Pensions

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Chicagoans will soon pay higher water and sewer taxes to fund one of the city’s struggling pension funds, adding on to the growing list of increases under the Emanuel administration.

Aldermen voted 40-10 to increase water and sewer bills by 29.5 percent over the next five years. The Emanuel administration pitched the plan as a way to put the city’s severely underfunded municipal pension fund on a path to solvency. The mayor’s financial team told aldermen more revenue would be needed in the future.

There was no debate on the floor before the full council vote Wednesday. Ald. Ed Burke, 14th, was the only one to speak on the floor about the tax increase, saying it “sets the stage to turn the page in the city’s financial history.”

“I think there’s one thing we can all agree upon, and that is that it is absolutely incumbent upon the city of Chicago to shore up the Municipal Employees Annuity and Benefit Fund,” Burke said. “We simply cannot saddle Chicago residents with another property tax increase.”

Under the Emanuel administration, Chicagoans are paying more property taxes for the city’s police and fire pensions, and they’ll soon pay even more to help out the financially strapped Chicago Public Schools. Aldermen also recently passed a $9.50 garbage collection fee.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel commended aldermen Wednesday for being politically courageous.

“I know it did not come without some political cost, but this council will be remembered for doing things that other councils in the past did not do,” Emanuel said.

Emanuel told reporters after the meeting he did have to do some personal lobbying of aldermen to gain their support.

“There’s no secrets here. You approach each aldermen based on their interests, based on … where they are, things they would like to work on together, and I talked with them and worked with them on a basis of what I think is in the overall interests of the city,” Emanuel said.

Despite the lobbying efforts, ten aldermen voted against the tax: Leslie Hairston, 5th, Susan Sadlowski-Garza, 10th, Patrick Daley Thompson, 11th, Toni Foulkes, 16th, David Moore, 17th, Chris Taliaferro, 19th, Scott Waguespack, 32nd, Gilbert Villegas, 36th, Anthony Napolitano, 41st, and John Arena, 45th.

The mayor’s overall proposal for the municipal pension fund also includes a change to benefits that will need approval from Springfield. Later Wednesday, Gov. Bruce Rauner criticized Emanuel’s proposal, warning Chicago taxpayers that if the mayor doesn’t support the governor’s economic agenda the increase in water and sewer taxes could be the tip of the iceberg.

“My concern with the proposal so far is they’re largely based upon re-ramping the payment schedule, and slowing down the payment schedule and back loading it,” Rauner said. “That’s what we’ve done in Chicago for decades, and it’s the reason Chicago has the worst credit rating of any city other than Detroit.”

In Wednesday’s City Council meeting, aldermen just barely approved a $3.5 billion dollar bond issuance for O’Hare International Airport, resulting in one of the closest City Council votes during the Emanuel administration.

Aldermen in the Black Caucus have criticized city departments for not hiring enough African Americans to work on everything from bond deals to construction jobs. On Wednesday, they expressed their frustration with the Department of Aviation by voting against the O’Hare bond deal.

The final vote was a close 26 to 21 — a rare occurrence in City Council chambers. Even mayoral allies like Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, voted against it.

“We really mean business,” Austin said. “Either you change, or you won’t be able to do business with the city. And that’s all we expect.”

The Black Caucus is also calling for hearings about minority recruitment and employment practices in the city.

UIC Political Science Professor and former alderman Dick Simpson said he was surprised to see the close vote, but he thinks Emanuel’s low approval ratings, especially among African Americans, have “emboldened aldermen to feel free to speak out on the things they think their constituents care about.”

“This is one of the rare occasions where the African American caucus, the Latino caucus and the progressive aldermen have joined together and come close to reaching a majority,” Simpson said.

In other council news:

— The City Council awarded the city’s highest honor, the medal of merit, to former Ireland President Mary Robinson. Robinson was the first female president of Ireland and is in town to fundraise for the Mary Robinson Centre, which would be the first presidential library in Ireland.

Aldermen were clearly excited about the opportunity, and some took photos with their smartphones and detailed their own Irish heritage.

Robinson gave aldermen advice on the murder total.

“Perhaps it has not been seen sufficiently as an issue of social inclusion and sustainability, rather than just as an issue of criminal law, gangs and policing,” Robinson said.

— Two aldermen are pushing for a ban on driverless cars in the city. Ald. Ed Burke says he doesn’t want the streets to be used as an experiment, and he and Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, are launching a “preemptive strike” after hearing the ride-sharing company UBER is testing out self driving cars in Pittsburgh.

The ordinance would ban any technology that has the capability to drive a vehicle without “active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.” Anyone who breaks that rule would face fines of $500 each time they get caught.

The ordinance will go in front of the finance committee, which Burke chairs.

Lauren Chooljian covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @laurenchooljian. Tony Arnold contributed to this report. Follow him @tonyjarnold.