How would Garcia tackle Chicago's budget troubles? | WBEZ
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Mayoral candidate Garcia presents financial plan for Chicago

Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia says he wants to totally restructure Chicago’s budget process, but he won’t discuss new revenue ideas until after election day.

Garcia pitched his plan to fix the city’s ailing finances Friday after facing much criticism from Mayor Rahm Emanuel that Garcia was lacking in specifics. The commissioner blamed Emanuel for putting the city in “financial free fall,” and outlined a plan that includes collaborations with other government agencies, and a full audit of all city departments.

“It’s too early to tell residents that we’re gonna give them bad medicine without stepping back and taking a comprehensive look and approach to how city finances will be managed,” Garcia said.

While Garcia’s 18-page financial plan specifically points out that revenue is needed to put the city’s financial house in order, as well as pay down a looming $550 million state-mandated payment to police and fire pensions, Garcia says he’ll task a committee to tackle new revenue ideas after the election.

A “sweeping restructuring” of the budget process

Garcia says in order to get a real handle on the city’s finances, he would do a complete audit of city government, starting with the departments with the largest budgets. Garcia says he and his team will be looking for ways to offer more efficient services, cut waste and even establish shared services between the city and its sister agencies like the Chicago Park District or Chicago Public Schools.

Alderman Scott Waguespack, a known progressive alderman, sat next to Garcia during the speech, and gave some examples of areas where he thinks the city could squeeze out some cash.

“Last year in the overtime budget for the city police, not a single person on the police dept or in the city budget could tell us where that money broke down, could they?” Waguespack asked.

He also referenced a recent report from the Chicago Inspector General that found the city could be saving millions with more efficient garbage collection.

Garcia also pitched a “county-city collaboration” where Chicago and Cook County government would work together not just for efficiency, but to procure state, federal or private grants.

The candidate contends that higher property taxes, while a last resort for solving any of the city’s financial problems, including pensions, is on the table, the committee Garcia will appoint, “will examine all possible options.”

Emanuel’s top ally let it slip this week that a property tax is on the table, but both candidates have called a hike a last resort.

“I cannot look at this point, look at taxpayers in the eye and ask them to shoulder another burden before we have exhausted all other options,” Garcia said.

Mayor Emanuel made a similar point earlier this week.

“I don’t support the idea that taxpayers should be in the front of the line. The last place you ask homeowners to do is to pay more. We have not finished our work of reforming the budget so it’s better [and] services [are] done in a smarter and more efficient way,” Emanuel told reporters Wednesday.

In all, even though Garcia’s campaign writes that it’s “impossible to know” the savings that his plan could provide, his team estimate’s operational savings could total $250-300 million.

How would Garcia tackle the pension problem?

Garcia continued to push his idea that tax increment financing (TIF) dollars could be used to pay down the looming police and fire pension payment. He also mentioned a willingness to negotiate with union representatives and that he recognizes a part of the solution will be additional revenues—but again, he won’t be providing any of those details until after the election.

Garcia said at first that he doesn’t support reducing benefits of current retirees or current employees, but when pressed by reporters, Garcia later added that it’s contingent on “negotiation and dialogue” with labor leaders.

“I do not support cutting benefits for current city employees until we have a dialogue and an agreement of the stakeholders including organized labor,” he said.

Garcia says he’ll also try and reduce investment fees to help cut pension costs.

Emanuel chimes in

Before Garcia even began his remarks Friday morning, Emanuel’s campaign was lighting up the smartphones of all the reporters at Garcia’s event with his own financial plan.

In a statement, Emanuel warned that property tax bills “will explode” next year without any reform from Springfield. He also said Garcia’s plan would “lead to huge new property tax increases or drastic cuts in services."

Emanuel also packed a lot of pension reforms ideas into his latest financial packet. The mayor pitched reforming the cost of living formula in city pensions, maintaining the current retirement age for public employees, gradually increasing current employee contributions and a phase in funding increases from taxpayers.

The two candidates also had a few similar ideas: Both are pitching ways to provide more efficient services, both want to reform TIFs, and both want to use TIF surpluses to pay down pensions.

The candidates will get their first chance to debate these ideas on live television Monday.

Lauren Chooljian is a WBEZ political reporter.

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