One of the City Council’s most powerful members today questioned two key ways Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed to generate millions of dollars in revenue that would help close the city’s wide budget gap.
Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, said he wanted to exempt religious institutions and their schools from paying their water bills and holds “a soft place in my heart” for the $75-per unit annual rebate granted to condominium owners that don’t get their garbage picked up by the city. Burke and then Ald. Edward Vrdolyak, 10th, first proposed the rebate in 1984.
“We may have a political issue” with charging parochial schools for water, Burke said. “You might think about continuing waivers for some small Catholic parish or Lutheran parish or synagogue that is hard pressed and see what the dollar-effect might be. . . . We don’t want to throw the baby out with the proverbial bath water, right?”
Burke’s comments came during the first day of council hearings on Emanuel’s first budget proposal, which aims to close a projected $636 million budget gap next year through a series of steps that include spending cuts, fee increases and some debt refinancing.
Emanuel is looking to reduce the ranks of city workers, cut library hours, close some police stations, raise sticker fees on heavier vehicles and lead to higher rates for water paid by city and suburban residents. It also would boost weekday downtown parking fees and change the way city garbage is picked up.
In one moment of levity that prompted laughter across the council chamber, city Comptroller Amer Ahmed defended a change that would result in a $60 fee hike for 184,000 SUVs and larger cars by using some colorful language.
“There is a relationship between weight of a car and the damage it does to the public way, and so a pimped-out Taurus does more damage,” Ahmed said. “I hope that addresses the concern.”
Emanuel has proposed ending the city’s longtime practice of waiving water and other fees for non-profit institutions. As a result, parochial schools and religious institutions would pay about $7 million a year, while public schools would continue to get free water, Budget Director Alexandra Holt said.
Burke said it’s a bad time to hit religious institutions with additional bills.
“There are so many of these Catholic schools that are struggling now, that politically, it's kind of a hard vote to take, since they've come to expect these waivers for many years,” Burke said. “And if indeed it's a small amount of money overall, is it wise to do that given the fact that they are facing these challenges?”
Ald. Ray Suarez, 31st, also said religious schools should be given a break, even if it’s the only the 20 percent discount Emanuel would give to museums and hospitals that treat a high percentage of people can’t afford to pay.
“It’s only fair,” Suarez said. “They are doing the Lord’s work, and it’s for everyone.”
Emanuel also has proposed ending the so-called refuse rebates provided to condominium owners this year. Those rebates drain about $5 million from city coffers each year, Holt said.
“When we adopted this refuse rebate program in 1984, it was an attempt to kind of level the playing field to let people in high rises . . . get the same benefit as people out in the bungalow belt get, and that’s that they get their garbage picked up by the city charging them a property tax,” Burke said.
Later, Burke said he expects lakefront aldermen to take the lead on questioning the proposed garbage rebate rollback. “I can understand (the administration's) argument, and if North Side aldermen don't object, I'm not going to carry their water for them. It's up to them,” he said.
Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, who represents much of downtown with its thousands of condo dwellers, said in an interview he plans to oppose the fee.
“I’m going to be working with the budget office and the administration to find a replacement revenue stream, so we can do away with that proposal,” Reilly said. “For some, it’s a matter of fairness.”
Reilly also said he had concerns about a proposal to raise the hotel tax by a percentage point, which he said could make cities like Las Vegas and Orlando more competitive than Chicago in attracting conventions.
Holt responded to that concern. “A portion of the dollars are getting dedicated to tourism and advertising and to working with the tourism industry to attract more business to Chicago and to attract more conventions . . . about a million-dollars’ worth,” she said.
Holt also made clear some other points in the mayor’s budget proposal that had not been discussed before:
After the initial increase for many vehicle stickers next year, the fees will be increased every other year by the rate of inflation. So would water rates, after they more than double over the next four years if Emanuel’s plan is approved.
The total budget, including grant-fund spending, would total $8.2 billion. Under former Mayor Richard Daley, the total with grant spending was not announced.
Spending on graffiti removal would be reduced.
“The city prides itself on being clean, graffiti-free, almost,” Suarez responded. “When the neighborhood starts getting full of graffiti — the garages — it’s unacceptable.”
Reduced library hours would mean branches will be closed on Monday and Friday mornings, reducing those services by eight hours a week. Aldermen said they were concerned about how the hundreds of workers being laid off in the library system, and Holt said most were part timers.
“I would be worried about the level of services our libraries are going to give our constituents,” said Ald. Daniel Solis, 25th.
Although the city would move from a ward-based to a grid-based system of garbage pickup, each of the 50 wards would still have a ward superintendent.
A surplus would be declared in controversial tax increment finance districts every year. Next year, $60 million would be declared surplus. Most will go to Chicago Public Schools, but $12 million will go to the city to help it cover day-to-day operating costs.
Each alderman will continue to decide how to spend $1.32 million a year on improvements in their own wards.