CITY HALL — Mayor Rahm Emanuel presented his third budget to the City Council Wednesday, an $8.7 billion proposal that hikes parking fines and the cigarette tax while adding speed cameras.
The mayor promised no new property, sales or fuel taxes, but worked to close an estimated $339 million deficit through the hiked fees and fines as well as speed-camera revenue and a rosier revenue prediction with a rebounding economy.
"We do not employ any gimmicks or raid long-term reserves to balance the budget," Emanuel said.
The 2014 budget proposal was balanced, in part, through revenue increases that include parking fines, storage fees for towed autos, zoning application fees, cable-television taxes and a 75-cent-a-pack hike in the cigarette tax.
The mayor budgeted an overall $76 million increase in fines, most of that generated by speed cameras, which are estimated to bring in more than $65 million.
Among the few spending increases, Emanuel boasted of an added investment in children, despite federal cuts in that area. He cited additional funding for after-school programs, summer jobs and early education.
"Our first and most important investment is in the children of Chicago," Emanuel said, adding the goal was to make Chicago Public Schools students "100 percent college-ready and 100 percent college- bound."
Aldermen took issue with the cigarette tax, saying it was producing a black market for "loosies" in the neighborhoods, and also pressed the mayor for more police officers. The mayor pledged only that the Police Department would "remain at full strength at all times" and keep pace with retirements. He said the department would graduate 741 recruits, the most since 2000.
"My constituents are concerned about the public safety cuts and the violence in the neighborhoods," said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd). "They're concerned about the schools."
While Waguespack praised "no cuts to libraries" and "just in general putting some of the money back into the areas that were dramatically cut over the last few years," he added, "We're gonna have to ask for the details in the budget hearings. This didn't really tell us a whole lot."
"I believe in it," said Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the Budget Committee. But she added her voice to those criticizing the increased cigarette tax.
"I believe that we will lose sales," Austin said. "I mean, $12 for a pack of cigarettes? In a hotel, it might be $15. Who wants to smoke that bad?"
She said that, being on the south border of the city, stores in her ward would likely lose customers to suburban Riverdale and Dolton. Even so, she said she did not expect the added tax to be altered in budget hearings.
The budget address included demands for the state General Assembly to act on mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes and, of course, pension reform. Emanuel said that, without reform, the city would face a "$600 million pension cliff" in its budget for 2015.
"Without balanced reform, meeting our current pension obligations would require us to nearly double the city's property taxes — a move that would send residents and businesses streaming out of Chicago," Emanuel said. "And it must start with the state Legislature and with all of us."
Waguespack said the mayor would "absolutely" have to lobby directly to get that done.
"You have to get down there and spend some time in Springfield," he said.
"I think we should storm Springfield," Austin added. "I think the legislators that we depend on are not working in everybody's best interests. They're working, in my opinion, on their own best interests and not in the best interests of the state."
The eight members of the City Council's Progressive Reform Caucus, including Waguespack, issued a statement saying: "We appreciate the difficult financial situation that Chicago faces. But we are deeply concerned that this proposed budget relies mainly on increased taxes and fees for Chicagoans."
The caucus called for the hiring of 1,000 police officers, an "audit and sweep" of Tax Increment Financing district funds and the "full restoration" of $2.2 million to reopen six mental health clinics closed due to budget cuts last year.
The Grassroots Collaborative, an organization of neighborhood and union groups, likewise called for TIF reform.
"The education and health investments laid out by Mayor Emanuel are positive," it said, "but are greatly outweighed by the closing of 50 schools, the massive budget cuts to schools across the city and the closing of 50 percent of the city's public mental-health clinics. One step forward with five steps back is not progress for Chicago families."
The caucus said it would hold a town hall meeting on the budget at 7 p.m. Oct. 30 at the United Electrical Workers Hall, 37 S. Ashland Ave., for city residents to weigh in on the process.