CITY HALL — The budget director said police staffing would remain steady as hearings on the 2015 budget got underway Monday.
Asked about police staffing levels early in her testimony, Budget Director Alexandra Holt said Chicago Police Department staffing numbers "by and large, they stay at the same level" in the 2015 budget proposed last week by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She said police are looking to "civilianize" desk jobs that don't require police expertise, freeing up more officers to patrol the streets.
According to Holt, the Police Department has 12,533 sworn positions, with about 9,700 of those beat officers.
Police hiring and overtime were contentious issues in last year's budget process.
Holt estimated this year's police overtime costs at $90-$95 million, about $40 million of that devoted to so-called Impact Zones targeted for reductions in street crime and gun violence — consistent with last year's estimates.
Holt estimated the cost of hiring a new police officer at $100,000, adding, "The issue is really one of flexibility for the Police Department."
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) did the math that adding 1,000 cops would require an additional $100 million, adding that it was about setting priorities. Yet no alderman, in the first day of budget hearings, suggested adding more police positions at this stage of the process.
Holt testified that the city would declare a $60 million surplus in Tax Increment Finance district funds, making $260 million in surplus TIF funds reimbursed over the last four years, with about half that going to Chicago Public Schools. Yet that would not ease the hiring of new officers, she said, adding, "A police officer is not a capital investment," as required in TIF spending.
In a tangential issue, Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) wondered "why we're not dealing with the pension issues this budget cycle."
Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott said $530 million would be due in police and fire pension payments next year, but Holt identified it as a "statewide problem," and in any case said it would not factor into the 2015 budget, because the payment was not technically due until 2016.
"We're waiting for the state to respond" on pensions, said Ald. James Cappleman (46th), as the city expects additional legislation on pension reform from the General Assembly.
Both Holt and Scott rejected the idea of using the $620 million currently in the city's so-called rainy-day fund to make that pension payment. Scott said it was not a "balloon payment," but the annual cost of bringing the city in line with its police and fire pension obligations.
"The pension challenge is ongoing," Scott said, later quoting Emanuel on the need for the state legislature to act first by saying, "Revenues go hand in hand with reform."
Otherwise, the subject aldermen asked about most was the phaseout of the amusement-tax exemption for cable television. Cable companies had received a 5 percent exemption on the 9 percent tax, but that was reduced to 3 percent last year and will be phased out completely in 2015 if the mayor has his way, at a gain of $12 million, according to Holt.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said that cost would most likely be passed directly on to consumers. Holt estimated that would mean a $2.40-a-month increase on an average cable bill of $80 a month.
Holt said the city would be contributing $800,000 to an effort to end homelessness for veterans, a program augmented by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Veterans Administration. She estimated there are 700 homeless vets on the city streets.
"I would dispute that number," said Ald. James Balcer (11th). "I think it's a lot higher."
Yet that budget level appeared set.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) cheered a 30 percent increase in the number of city rat-abatement crews in the budget. Burnett said new construction in his ward tended to drive the rats out out where they can be seen, adding, "The rats are partying down the street every day."
Holt punted to the later Department of Transportation budget hearing on the issue of red-light cameras and how much the city will be reimbursing drivers for tickets issued with yellow lights shorter than the minimum federal standard of three seconds. Yet she added that the budgeted amount for those fines would remain set at $65 million, with $40 million projected for speed cameras, again the same as what's forecast this year.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) took issue with a proposed increase in parking-garage taxes, saying that would affect not only suburban commuters, but also city residents going to courtrooms Downtown. She said the difference, in paying for pothole repairs, could be made up in assessing the Chicago Transit Authority for the damage buses do to city roadways.
"We keep asking our people to do more, but we're not asking our corporations or our sister agencies to do more," Hairston said.
Holt said a rosier economy would generally increase tax revenues. The budget is set at $8.9 billion and is on track for passage Nov. 19.
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