Mayor Proposes Chicago Budget ‘Free Of The Black Cloud Of Insolvency’ | WBEZ
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Mayor Proposes Chicago Budget 'Free Of The Black Cloud Of Insolvency'

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled a $9.8 billion budget proposal for next year that he claims is “unlike any other” thanks to “hard choices” made in recent years. 

During his budget address to the City Council on Tuesday, the mayor declared the city’s finances are on “solid ground” and out of the “pension penalty box” thanks to previous heavy lifting by aldermen to help shore up the city's ailing pension funds. Chicago residents are now paying higher property taxes, a fee for garbage pickup and higher taxes on water and sewer bills to help save public employee pensions. 

“It is a budget free of an immediate pension crisis, free of the black cloud of insolvency threatening the retirements of city employees and the financial future of Chicago,” Emanuel told aldermen.

The mayor said those decisions have freed up the city to “rise to meet new challenges,” like the city’s escalating gun violence and decades of under-investment in some neighborhoods.

“Clearly a budget needs to add up financially,” Emanuel said. “But beyond being just balanced, it should be balanced with our values and our priorities.” 

The budget called for the modernization of the city’s 311 call center; increased investment in mentoring, summer jobs and after school programs; the creation of a new training facility for police officers; and setting aside $100 million over the next three years for economic development in neighborhoods. 

The mayor wants to spend $1.4 billion on the police department next year, including $40 million for salaries and benefits for new police officers. 

“When people in one part of Chicago ignore, avoid or drive around another part of Chicago, we as a city must stop, step up and confront this challenge,” he said. 

Emanuel also promised to triple the investments intended to impact children, from $21 million in 2011 to $64 million in 2017. The list includes more summer jobs, more after school programs and mentoring programs for Chicago Public Schools students. 

Also new in the proposed budget is the creation of the “Community Catalyst Fund,” which would receive $100 million over three years to make specific investments in businesses in “our most resource-started neighborhoods.” Emanuel said he will appoint City Treasurer Kurt Summers Jr. to oversee the fund and help raise money from the private sector.

But for aldermen like Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, these new initiatives brought on a lot of questions.

“If we’re able to pull together $100 million, you know, just like that? To give over to financial managers to make investments in our neighborhoods? Where’s that money coming from and could it be spent someplace else,” he said. 

The mayor’s budget office puts together the city’s spending plan each year. Aldermen got their first look Tuesday. In the past, they’ve had about four or five weeks to vet and vote on it. 

Some aldermen, like budget committee chairwoman Carrie Austin, 34th Ward, said they have full faith city budget director Alex Holt has figured out how to fund all the mayor’s obligations. 

“She’s the abracadabra girl. That’s what I call her because she [can[ find ways when the mayor said we’re gonna do something or we’re gonna fund this program or whatever, she find ways for us to get it done,” Austin said. 

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, said the council should rigorously vet this mammoth spending plan -- something he said aldermen haven’t done in the past. 

“I’ve never seen a budget that didn’t pass,” Waguespack said. “So you know, the aldermen have to be more deliberate in what we look at here. More deliberate in the way that we approach his funding mechanisms and the way that they pay for them.”

This month, aldermen will get a chance to do just that. The city is scheduling a series of budget hearings where aldermen will have the opportunity to ask city department heads and staffers about the mayor’s priorities for 2017. 

Other things in the mayor’s budget proposal: 

- Expanding the city’s mentoring program to include 2,000 more jobs for young men.

- Increasing drug treatment by 50 percent and adding additional resources on the West Side that will be paid for by licensing pharmaceutical sales representatives, who will take mandatory ethics training and “share data on opioid sales.”

- Outfitting 270,000 streetlights with energy-efficient LED bulbs.

- A 7 cent tax on disposable paper and plastic bags 

To help balance the budget, Emanuel said he hopes to save about $34 million in a hodgepodge of cuts and savings that include more than $9 million in energy efficiencies, $3.5 million from selling city-owned land, and $2 million from clamping down on office printer and copier costs.

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