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Pawar Focuses Town Hall on 2015 Budget, 'Where City Goes Over a Cliff'

By Patty Wetli | October 31, 2013 8:41am
 Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) addresses constituents at a budget town hall.
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) addresses constituents at a budget town hall.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

NORTH CENTER — Ald. Ameya Pawar said while the mayor's proposed 2014 budget painted a relatively rosy picture, the city faced a fiscal crisis in 2015.

"This year's budget, there's not a lot of pain here," Pawar told 47th Ward residents at town hall meeting this week. "Next year ... is where the city goes over a cliff."

Barring action from state legislators in Springfield, the city's obligations to its fire and pension funds will hit $1 billion in 2015, Pawar said. Chicago Public Schools faces similar balloon payments for its teachers fund.

"You can't just bust pensions," he said. "Teachers and firefighters, they didn't do anything. They didn't cause this."

But the math is undeniable — "We have more expenses than we have revenue" — and the solutions are far from simple, he said.

"We need to address this with all hands on deck," he said. "The problem is, all the parties aren't talking, or if they are, they're not telling us."

"If it truly is this dire, how can it not be addressed?" asked John Bellei, one of approximately 20 residents in attendance at Tuesday night's meeting.

"I don't know how much of this is posturing," said Bellei, who is most concerned about the ramifications for CPS — he's an Audubon parent — particularly given the massive budget cuts handed down at the beginning of the 2013 school year.

"Our school got hit really hard," with parents asked to raise $250,000 to keep class size at acceptable levels, he said.

"We made a decision to stay in the city. We committed, we are here," he said. But he's heard rumblings among neighbors that further cuts to education will force them out of the city.

"People know it's coming. They're making plans to leave," he said. "People are moving to the suburbs. It definitely concerns me. If there's an exodus ... it does worry me."

The City Council, Pawar said, has done all it can in terms of getting the city's financial house in order, short of raising property taxes. On the revenue side, the 2014 budget includes "a lot of speed camera money" as well as an increase in the cigarette tax and parking fines, he said.

On the expense side, the council is aiming to eliminate the city's contributions to what are known as "other post-employment benefits." The city now picks up the tab for 55 percent of retired public employees' benefit premiums. Those payments will be phased out by 2017, with retirees moved into plans offered by the Affordable Care Act, Pawar said.

To significantly move the needle, Chicago needs Springfield to act on pension relief, be it pushing back the deadlines imposed on pension payments or making structural changes, he said.

"I don't know the politics of Springfield, but we need to pick up the pace," Pawar said.

Among the structural changes on the table: the implementation of a progressive income tax, which would tax wealthier residents at a higher rate than their middle- and low-income counterparts.

"To be very frank, the problem with our tax structure is it favors people making a lot of money. If they paid their fair share, a lot of these problems would go away," Pawar said.

Other options: raising the retirement age, which isn't necessarily practical for police officers and firefighters, the alderman said; capping the amount pensioners can draw from the fund; and raising employees' contributions to their pensions.

"Any combination of these will get us to where we need to be," he said.

Residents like Bellei remained hopeful a crisis can be averted.

"I guess I think if it is this catastrophic ... I would hope for people to come to the table," he said.

A second 47th Ward budget town hall is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday in the McPherson Elementary auditorium, 4728 N. Wolcott Ave.