FOREST GLEN — Far Northwest Side aldermen offered mostly tepid praise Monday for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposed $8.9 billion 2015 budget, saying they were glad that it did not raise property taxes but disappointed that it did not address the looming shortfall in city police and fire pension funds.
Ald. John Arena (45th), one of the council's most frequent critics of the mayor, said he was pleased to see that the spending plan included more money for pothole repair, tree trimming and efforts to reduce the city's rat population.
But Arena said the budget does nothing to address the $550 million pension payment that the state legislature has ordered the city to make to the city police and fire pension systems by 2016.
"I will spend the next several weeks reviewing the 800-page budget with a critical eye, as I have in years past," said Arena, who represents parts of Portage Park, Old Irving Park, Forest Glen, Jefferson Park and Gladstone Park.
As expected, Heather Cherone says reaction was mixed between the ward bosses:
Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th) said he was not surprised that the spending plan — which the City Council began examining Monday as part of a monthlong series of hearings — is silent about the pension obligations.
"The elephant in the room is the pension debt," said Cullerton, who is not running for re-election. "But it is an election year, and that's probably why you won't find it there."
Cullerton, who retired as a city inspector in 2003, said "tough choices" will have to be made to bridge the shortfall.
"But I'm happy there is no property tax increase," said Cullerton, adding that a significant tax hike would cause elderly residents of Portage Park and Dunning to lose their homes.
Cullerton said he would support Emanuel's proposal to raise parking taxes to raise $10 million to fund additional pothole repair efforts.
"The biggest complaint I get is the wait for basic city services, like tree trimming," Cullerton said.
Ald, Mary O'Connor (41st), who like Cullerton often supports the mayor's proposals, said she was "encouraged" that the additional money for pothole repair would double the number of crews "after a particularly brutal winter, one that destroyed many of our city streets and alleys."
"I have repeatedly called for additional investments in those basic city services that have been strained in recent years," said O'Connor, who represents Edgebrook, Edison Park, Norwood Park and O'Hare.
However, it is "unfortunate" that the budget does not address the city's pension obligations, which if unresolved "will require dramatic action on the part of the city," O'Connor said.
"No budget is perfect, but given the significant financial challenges facing the City of Chicago, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good," O'Connor said.
The most important accomplishment of the mayor's spending plan is the elimination of the city's deficit, which in 2011 was projected to be $580 million, O'Connor said.
Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) said the budget represents three years of work by Emanuel and his administration to restructure the city's financial operations.
“This is a good budget, even what I call a happy budget,” said Laurino, a close ally of the mayor.
Laurino, who represents parts of Sauganash and Forest Glen, said she was pleased there would be more money for bicycle patrols, summer job programs and pre-kindergarten for low-income families and college tuition for top public school graduates.
While Cullerton praised the budget as "well crafted" he said he would lobby his colleagues to cut spending "down to the bone" including ending the city's financial support of the Chicago Fire Festival, which fizzled earlier this month.
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th), who is running in February's election for the 38th Ward seat after redistricting siginificantly changed the boundaries of the 36th Ward, said he would continue to press the Emanuel administration to ask "the wealthiest among us and the big corporations to pay their fair share."
Sposato said he would work to include $2.2 million in the budget to reopen six public mental health clinics that were shuttered in 2012.
"Supporting those most in need in our city is not only the right thing to do, it is a public safety issues for all of our communities," Sposato said.
In addition, Sposato, a firefighter, said the budget should include enough money to hire 500 new police officers.
"This will allow the CPD to bring its force up to the size needed, and to reduce our over-reliance on police overtime," Sposato said.
O'Connor, who also called for additional officers to be hired, said it would be an investment in residents' safety.
"I have no doubt that our communities would absolutely benefit from an increased police presence," said O'Connor, noting that the 41st Ward is among the safest parts of the city, based on police department statistics.
However, Budget Director Alexandra Holt said Monday at the first budget hearing that the police force — which has 12,533 sworn positions, including 9,700 beat officers — will not expand in 2015.
The budget is expected to be approved Nov. 19.
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