CITY HALL — The mayor boasted of a fourth straight budget balanced without a hike in property, sales or gas taxes Wednesday, but critics immediately attacked it as an "election-year budget" without "content," while others pushed to scale back other tax increases as well as fees like red-light-camera tickets.
Many of the new initiatives in Emanuel's $8.9 billion 2015 executive budget proposal had already been leaked, such as increases in funding for police bike patrols and for afterschool and summer job programs, as well as pre-kindergarten for all low-income families starting next fall and free tuition at the City Colleges of Chicago for top Chicago Public Schools graduates.
"The best way to balance a budget is to have a growing economy and the best-educated workforce — and our City Colleges must be part of that business plan," Emanuel said.
Yet Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who is challenging the mayor in February's municipal election, called the budget "election-year fluff," while the Progressive Reform Caucus called for additional funding to reopen mental-health clinics and put more police on the streets.
After announcing the city would be doubling its pothole-fixing budget Tuesday, Emanuel announced Wednesday morning the new budget will also include money to plant more trees, remove more graffiti and fight rats. He also touted investments in small businesses as a way to revitalize areas of the city.
Emanuel presented those as efforts meant to target each neighborhood, saying, "Together we will keep working until our success touches every part of the city."
Emanuel said the 2015 budget will focus on more of the same, investing in neighborhood services to improve the quality of life for all residents. On Tuesday, he promised $10 million more for pothole repairs and to keep crews on the street year-round.
The $33.1 million investment includes adding four additional graffiti clean-up crews that would remove 100 more graffiti tags per day, a 30 percent increase in crews dedicated to rodent control and the planting of 7,800 more trees across the city, a 25 percent increase over 2014.
He cheered putting more cops on bikes. "If bike patrols are good enough for Michigan Avenue, they are good enough for all our neighborhoods," Emanuel said. "We will start training these officers next week."
Emanuel also renewed his call for federal and state gun control, saying illegal guns undermine all other efforts to rein in street violence.
"From Roseland to Rogers Park, from South Shore to Sauganash, from Austin to Albany and from Woodlawn to Wildwood, we all are part of one great city," Emanuel said. "That great city can only move forward together — leaving no neighborhood, no family and no child behind."
Yet critics immediately complained the budget mainly concentrated on the mayor himself and his re-election campaign in February.
Fioretti called it "not a serious proposal," with "no solutions to long-term debts," such as the estimated $550 million in police and fire pension payments due next year if the General Assembly does not pass additional reforms. He said it "short-changes Chicago's long-term future" and pointed to how Emanuel never addressed proposed hikes in cable and parking taxes hidden in the budget.
"That was the most content-free budget address I've ever heard," said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd).
"It's an election-year budget," added Ald. John Arena (45th).
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) applauded when Emanuel specifically promised to reopen the South Shore Dominick's she has been fighting to revive under new ownership, but added afterward that it was lip service until she sees it done. "The question is, when does it happen?" Hairston said. "I'll be looking for investments in the neighborhoods."
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) took issue with a hike in parking taxes, also left unaddressed in Emanuel's speech, and said he'd push for other ways to "swap out" that proposed $10 million increase in revenue, intended to pay for the expanded pothole program. He added, however, "by and large, this is a responsible proposal."
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the Budget Committee, who will oversee departmental hearings on the budget starting next week, also endorsed the proposal and said she had already seen renewed investment in her Roseland neighborhood under Emanuel, especially in road infrastructure. Yet she promised to grill Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld over abuses in the red-light camera system during budget hearings, saying her constituents had suffered from "faulty red-light cameras" with shortened yellow lights at intersections along Halsted Street from 99th to 119th streets.
Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a business-oriented government watchdog, praised the budget for closing a structural deficit responsibly, but also warned about next year's pension payment. "The mayor did a great job today of laying out both his accomplishments and the success the city has had to date," Msall said. "But it leaves off the question next year of how we're gonna address the pensions."
Emanuel said he expects the budget to be passed Nov. 19 after a month of hearings, tweaks and compromises.
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