As Mayor Rahm Emanuel waits for Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision on a measure that would partially fix the finances of city worker pension funds, the mayor isn’t saying whether a 911 fee increase on phone bills would allow him to avoid a property tax hike.
The governor faces a deadline of next Monday to sign or veto the pension bill Emanuel pushed through the General Assembly in April. The measure aims to shore up two city pension funds covering thousands of former city workers and laborers by cutting future benefits and requiring employees to pay more toward their retirements. The bill also requires the city to contribute $250 million more toward the pension funds over five years.
Emanuel has talked about raising property taxes to come up with the city’s share, but that puts Quinn in a tight spot. The Democratic governor is running for re-election against anti-tax Republican challenger Bruce Rauner.
Meanwhile, the legislature last week gave Emanuel and Quinn a possible escape route by approving a bill that would allow the city to raise a 911 tax on landline and cell phones by $1.40 a month to $3.90. The resulting $50 million or so a year from the 911 tax could allow the City Council to put off raising property taxes until after next year’s city elections.
Asked Monday if he would use the money to keep property taxes in line, Emanuel said only that the money is needed to make sure the 911 fees fully cover the annual costs of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
“I don’t think we should be subsidizing (OEMC) from” other revenue sources, said Emanuel, who added that the 911 budget “should be self sufficient and independent.” But Emanuel did not address the property tax portion of the question during his news conference.
The current collection on annual 911 phone taxes is about $90 million, but the OEMC budget is $33 million more than that. With the 911 tax increase, the agency’s budget could be covered solely with 911 fees, allowing the other city revenue to be spent elsewhere. The city could spend extra money from the fee hike on certain areas, including anti-terrorism or emergency preparedness measures.
Although the council would have to vote to increase the 911 fee, that could be a much easier vote than boosting the property taxes — long considered by Illinois politicians as the politically riskiest of taxes.
The mayor also declined to say what discussions he’s had with Quinn about signing the pension bill, which the mayor sees as key to maintaining an already shaky city credit rating, just as state pension legislation approved in December was for state government.
“We have to make sure also that the city’s fiscal house is in order, just like it was essential for the state,” Emanuel said. “And I believe the governor understands that.”
Emanuel made his comments at a news conference to herald the passage of legislation that would allow for the automatic expungement of a juvenile's arrest record if no charges are filed in his or her case. A minor would have to go six months without an arrest to be considered for the clean slate.
The legislation was backed by leading African-American legislators, religious leaders and students, who long have contended that lives are damaged by perhaps a single, relatively minor mistake or even erroneous arrest.
Sponsoring Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said the idea had languished for years until the mayor backed the effort. “Until we had this push from the outside, this legislation didn’t advance,” Raoul said.
Emanuel said that only 400 of a potential 21,000 juvenile arrests last year were expunged. Under the new law, 16,000 would have been, he said. The mayor did not directly address a question about whether his backing of the legislation could improve his standing in the African-American community, where his poll numbers have lagged.
“If it was popular, somebody else would have done it,” Emanuel said. “This actually was dormant, as everybody will tell you, for years, just sitting there. Nobody want to take it because it was politically unpalatable. Nobody for political reasons wanted to touch that.
“This is giving kids a fresh start and a way, in my view, a chance at getting a job and most importantly, a college education, because then they can be really productive and do something,” he said.