Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s lower-the-boom budget was teed up for a showdown vote at the Oct. 28 City Council meeting after another round of concessions Wednesday aimed at minimizing dissent.
On the morning after a 17-to-10 vote on Emanuel’s plan to raise property taxes by $543 million for police and fire pensions, the Finance Committee approved the rest of the mayor’s $718.7 million revenue package with just two dissenting votes.
It happened after Emanuel made two more concessions tailor-made to appease recalcitrant aldermen.
The mayor shelved his plan to privatize Chicago’s 311 non-emergency system after a rebellion by more than two-thirds of the City Council.
And to avoid turning a $45 million property tax increase for school construction into a blank check for the scandal-scarred Chicago Public Schools, the mayor agreed to require CPS to make periodic reports to the City Council on projects bankrolled.
Aldermen said they don’t trust CPS enough to give the school system carte blanche — particularly not after the contract corruption scandal that culminated in a guilty plea by former Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. They’re also concerned that some of the money could be used to build charter schools or borrow even more money.
For four years, Emanuel has tweaked his budgets to throw aldermen a bone and allow them to save face with their constituents — without compromising his own central principles.
He’s followed the same script this year, when aldermen are being asked to cast a vote that could cut their political careers short. The budget includes a $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and school construction and a first-ever garbage collection fee that has drawn fire from all sides.
To appease aldermen concerned that the garbage fee could escalate or be a prelude to privatization, Emanuel agreed to cap it at $9.50-per-household until after the 2019 election and segregate the revenue generated in a separate enterprise fund.
The decision to shelve 311 privatization takes another sore point off the table while preserving the jobs of 73 employees represented by AFSCME Council 31.
Aldermen cannot forget the nightmare caused by the botched transition from city control to private operation of Chicago’s 36,000 parking meters.
The last thing they wanted to do was to risk having the same thing happen at 311, which provides city services for which aldermen are held politically responsible.
“311 is the front-door to our city services. It’s not something we should be privatizing. Simple as that. It’s not an option. It’s a model nationally. So, why would you say we need to throw that out when you’re doing things right?” said Ald. John Arena (45th).
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said 311 employees know the city like the back of their hand. The same may not be true for call takers hired by a private company.
“If it was out-sourced, those jobs could easily go overseas. You’ll be getting somebody who’s not familiar with the city. You’re trying to articulate what you need through 311 and they won’t be able to relate with that. It just comes down to a comfort level that the citizens of Chicago deserve,” Beale said.
Ald. Toni Foulkes (16th) added, “You call someone … at McDonald’s and you might get someone in India. We wanted people here in Chicago who live in Chicago and know our city….Nobody knows our city but the people who live here. We felt that our services would be jeopardized.”
Emanuel argued again Wednesday that the privatization plan was driven by the $40 million or $50 million that needs to be spent to upgrade 311.
But even that argument didn’t fly with recalcitrant aldermen. They maintained that the enterprise funds that support water and sewer services could be used to support at least part of the 311 upgrade because water and sewer services are among the calls answered by 311.
Asked Wednesday why he shelved the privatization plan, Emanuel played a game of cat-and-mouse and recited his standard talking points.
“I believe in the principle of why I laid out what I’ve laid out. There will be changes. But, we will not change the goal of balancing the budget, eliminating the structural deficit, doing it in a fair, progressive way, meeting our obligations to police and fire pensions and also making critical investments in our children and public safety,” the mayor said.
More changes could be on the way.
The City Council’s Progressive Caucus wants to double — to $1,200 — the annual fee for sidewalk cafes and slap the city’s nine percent amusement tax on horse-drawn carriages, the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
And Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and others want to require ride-hailing drivers to get chauffeurs licenses as a pre-condition for cashing in on Emanuel’s plan to grant them lucrative authority to make pick-ups at O’Hare and Midway Airports, McCormick Place and Navy Pier in exchange for $49 million in new fees and surcharges.
“It’s a homeland security issue. When they’re that close to a sensitive facility, there ought to be an assurance that they have passed a background check,” Burke said.
Burke also called it a “source of revenue that we’ve ignored” in Chicago.
“In New York City, which is [Uber’s] biggest market, they’re submitting to vehicle examinations by the city. They’re submitting to the requirement that drivers have chauffeurs licenses. There’s 27,000 Uber drivers. If they were required to pay the city $500 for a chauffeurs license like the other drivers do, that’s $12.5 million of found money to hire more cops or to create an auxiliary police, which I’ve been trying to get done here for at least 20 years,” Burke said.
A top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous, said Burke’s revenue estimate is incorrect.
Cabdrivers pay the city just $15 for a first-time chauffeurs license and $8 for renewal.
Medallion owners get a two-year, $1,000 license for the right to operate a taxi on the streets of Chicago 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year.
That would not apply to the ride-hailing industry, where the average driver puts in 10-to-12-hour-a-week.
If ride-hailing drivers were required to get chauffeurs licenses after two weeks of training at Olive-Harvey College and city-conducted background and drug tests, the pool of ride-hailing drivers making airport pick-ups would dwindle, the mayoral aide said.
Emanuel’s plan to squeeze another $49 million in revenue out of the ride-hailing industry — by charging 50-cents-a-ride and $5 for each airport pick-up and drop-off would be blown.
“What they want to do is blow a hole in our budget. Everything the aldermen want to do would make it harder for us to hit our revenue target,” the mayoral aide said.
Emanuel was not committal.
“They submitted an idea. We’ll study it. [But], I’m not going to deviate from my goal of making sure that all of the customers and consumers here in Chicago have a high-quality choice that they can rely on,” the mayor said.
Based on the ten “no” votes in the Finance Committee on the property tax increase for police and fire pensions, the mayor’s floor leader has predicted as many as 20 votes against the mayor’s budget at next week’s showdown vote.
That would fall far short of the resounding vote Emanuel was hoping to get to prove that the City Council is united in its resolve to “pull Chicago back from the financial brink.”
But, the fiercely-competitive Emanuel argued Wednesday he couldn’t care less about the final head-count.
“Two other capitals — Springfield and Washington — are making no fiscal or financial progress. Some in the Republican Party in Washington are talking about shutting the government down. Down in Springfeld, we have the longest period of time in Illinois history where there’s a standoff on the budget,” Emanuel said.
“A week from today, Chicago will actually take a step forward in righting its fiscal ship. Yes, you’ll count the vote and get the heartbeat of this proposal on 311 [and] that at idea on ride share. That’s the legislative process. What will be no doubt is making progress and righting the ship.”
The mayor added, “I’m going to leave the prognosis and the predictions to others. I’m going to focus on making progress. … We’re going to meet exactly the goal I set out in my budget speech … so we continue to take the one doubt that exists around Chicago’s economic and job creation [off the table]. … The one doubt around Chicago is our fiscal stewardship. It’s been building for years. We’re going to address it.”