SPRINGFIELD — Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to raise city 911 fees on nearly everyone who owns a phone in Chicago began working its way through the legislature Thursday, while Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s proposal to overhaul the county employee pension program appeared to run into trouble.
The developments involving two of Chicago’s most prominent politicians came as House lawmakers also signed off on a $1.1 billion road construction program that would ensure they’d have some feel-good news to take home as a Saturday adjournment deadline approaches.
Emanuel’s late push for a measure that would allow the City Council to raise 911 fees by as much as $1.40, which could bring the monthly charge on landline and cell phone bills to $3.90 a month, cleared its first hurdle in the Senate.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said the increase was needed because the current $2.50 fee isn’t raising enough money to pay for operating the city’s emergency response center, forcing the Emanuel administration to dip into other pots of money to keep it running. How much more the fee hike would bring in depends on whether aldermen vote to increase the fee and to what level.
The city collected about $90 million last year through the current $2.50-per-month phone fee, Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said. This year’s budget for the Office of Emergency Management and Communications is $123 million. Quinn did not directly answer whether the mayor wants to raise the 911 fee to an amount that will bring in more revenue than the city needs to cover the OEMC budget or how the city would use any extra revenue.
Instead, she issued an email statement saying the city supports the proposed legislation. If Emanuel does push a higher phone fee through the City Council, it will be the latest move by the mayor to raise costs for Chicagoans.
Emanuel's first budget increased the price of vehicle stickers, boosted the hotel tax rate and launched a series of increases that will more than double city water and sewer fees over a four-year period. He has also raised property taxes three times as part of his Chicago Public Schools budget.
Meanwhile, Preckwinkle’s plan to cut benefits and raise retirement ages in an effort to stabilize the county pension system hit resistance in the House as Republicans argue it doesn’t go far enough and could lead to tax increases. That could spell big trouble for the legislation as Democrats who control the chamber have resisted passing pension reforms for city and state workers without Republican votes. The idea is to share the blame for angering powerful employee unions.
Under the measure, future retirees, but not current ones, would get less in yearly cost-of-living bumps. Instead of 3 percent a year compounded increases, they would receive either half the rate of inflation or 2 percent, whichever is higher, with a limit of 4 percent. But unlike the state and city pension changes, the county adjustments would remain compounded, allowing pension checks to rise more quickly over time.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs argued the compounded adjustments are one of the main reasons pension systems costs have skyrocketed, and said they should be eliminated from the legislation. He also raised concerns about how the county would pay for the almost $147 million more a year it would be required to pay into the pension fund.
“We have concerns that this will lead to property tax hikes in Cook County and or a sales tax increase as well,” Durkin said. “We believe that there is more revenue than reform that’s being asked in this bill.”
Preckwinkle has said the county has a year and a half to figure out how to make the pension payment, but has refused to rule out a property tax increase to cover the cost. If the County Board chooses to foot the bill with a property tax increase, the average homeowner would pay up to $65 more a year starting in 2017, according to an internal county document the Tribune obtained.
Mayor Emanuel successfully pushed through a partial pension fix for some City Hall workers earlier this spring, and has taken heat for saying he’d pay for it by raising property taxes. That measure is pending on the desk of Gov. Pat Quinn, who has campaigned on relieving the property tax burden, not increasing it.
Failing to pass pension changes at the county level could be political damaging to Preckwinkle, who has declined to rule out a possible challenge to Emanuel for mayor next year.
Also Thursday, the House passed a $1.1 billion construction program for roads and bridges throughout Illinois despite protests by some lawmakers who complained they did not know how much the ultimate price tag would be when costs of borrowing to pay for the program are calculated.
Following a long and brutal winter, many lawmakers argued the state needed to address weather-damaged roads. Supporters said the major costs of the program will be paid off from money now used to cover the annual costs of projects from prior years that are getting paid off.
In other action:
*The Senate sent the governor legislation that would require authorities to expunge juvenile arrest records if no charges are filed in connection with a case. The move is designed to eliminate the stigma and limitations that come with having an arrest record even when a case did not lead to a criminal charge.
*The Senate also sent the governor a proposal to ban the sale of personal care products that use “microbeads,” the little plastic balls in soap and facial cleansers that promise smooth skin. Approval of the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, would put Illinois at the forefront of states considering such a ban because the little beads of grit are piling up in waterways. The bill generally would ban making products with microbeads in three years and the sale in four years.
*The House sent the governor legislation designed to combat bullying in schools. The bill is aimed at creating a model policy for school districts.
*The Senate sent the governor a measure that would ask voters on the November ballot whether they support the idea of an extra 3-percentage-point tax on incomes of more than $1 million a year. The question would not have the force of law.
Tribune reporter Maura Zurick contributed. Byrne reported from Chicago.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun