THE LOOP — Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia on Friday promised to improve government efficiency and exhaust all options before raising taxes if he's elected mayor, but would not commit to ruling out a property-tax increase to address what he called the city's "severe" budget "crisis."
The Cook County commissioner and mayoral candidate was grilled by media over specifics of his financial plan at a Loop news conference Friday morning, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's campaign immediately said he was "stonewalling" and didn't address pensions or how to raise new revenue.
Garcia committed himself to four principles of government: better and more efficient services; transparency and political accountability; comprehensive revenue reforms that are "equitable"; and collaboration between the city's various bodies of government.
"The current administration has failed by all four of these measures," he said.
While acknowledging the Emanuel administration had not raised property taxes for the city, he pointed to the $17 billion overall budgeted for the city and the three other taxing bodies the mayor oversees — Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Park District and City Colleges — and said their combined tax levies had risen $342 million over the last four years, or 11 percent.
Garcia said that by having those "silos" of government collaborate more, the city could save $350 million, making that a "core" of his proposed reforms.
"I will comprehensively reform how Chicago government is financed," he declared.
Garcia lashed back at Emanuel, saying threats to hike property taxes $250 million, most recently raised as a possibility this week by Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the City Council's Budget Committee, reflected an attitude of "we're gonna stick it to homeowners."
"I cannot, at this point, look at taxpayers in the eye and ask them to shoulder another burden before we have exhausted all other options," Garcia said.
He said $150 million could be saved by reforming Tax Increment Finance districts to focus specifically on "the redevelopment of blighted areas."
Garcia called TIF reform and government collaboration "essential before we talk about hitting anyone up for additional taxes."
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) joined Garcia in insisting a new administration would have to execute "performance audits" on each city department before making any decision to raise taxes.
"You don't need to do that until you figure out where the rest of the money is," Waguespack said.
"Obviously, this is not the whole plan for the city's financial future," said Garcia's economic adviser Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Yet he added that the Emanuel administration's reliance on hiking fees instead of taxes was "unfair and inefficient," in that fees are "regressive" in affecting poor as well as rich citizens and tend to add to the city bureaucracy.
"These are the steps in the right direction," Baker added.
Garcia said that, upon election, he would form a "working committee" to "examine the full range of existing and potential revenue options that are available," including changes in the state tax code. "The committee will examine all possible options" and prepare its recommendations within 90 days, according to a white paper prepared by the Garcia campaign.
"I do not support reducing benefits for current retirees" or employees, Garcia said, addressing their pension deals, without exploring all other options as well. The city and CPS both face balloon payments at the end of the year of $500 million or more to make up for earlier insufficient funding in pension packages for teachers, police officers and firefighters — unless pension reform is passed by the General Assembly and approved by the courts.
Yet he added, "I recognize that a part of the pension solution is going to be additional and new revenues. But we owe it to look at a whole host of possibilities that experts will provide me with as we move forward."
Garcia made no mention of his pledge to hire 1,000 additional police officers, which the Emanuel campaign has estimated would cost $120 million and the Chicago Forward agency aligned with Emanuel said would cost $110 million.
"He not only falls far short of covering all the things he has promised, but he's not being straight on the facts," said Chicago Forward Chairwoman Becky Carroll.
Emanuel campaign spokesman Steve Mayberry called Garcia's proposal "stonewalling," adding it "says zero about what Chuy would do to fund pensions and the budget, or where he would find new revenue."
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