CITY HALL — Facing a record $600 million increase in property taxes, aldermen griped mostly about a proposed new $9.50-a-month fee for garbage collection Monday as two weeks of budget hearings kicked off.
"I'm really not a huge fan of the proposal for garbage collection," said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th). He decried "balancing the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it" and asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel's financial team to "put this proposal right in the garbage."
Combining two of his pet issues, Beale suggested increasing a proposed new 50-cent additional charge for cabs and ride-hailing services to $1 for the latter, like Uber and Lyft, saying it would "level the playing field" with taxis. He said money from the surcharge would allow the city to drop the garbage fee plan entirely.
"Obviously, there's a lot of angst on this garbage fee," added Ald. George Cardenas (12th). He wondered what happened to proposals for a Downtown traffic congestion fee or a tax on sugary drinks, but Budget Director Alexandra Holt said they were rejected as both would require action by a General Assembly deadlocked with Gov. Bruce Rauner over a state budget.
Ald. Pat Dowell called it a "slippery slope" toward charging for other services like tree trimming.
"Essential city services should be paid by the money we pay for property taxes," she added.
"I still have to make up my mind how I'm going to vote on this budget, and that's a big piece of it," said Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd), who has been looking into charging households by the number of garbage carts they use instead.
Holt said there is no current city count of which households have multiple carts and that she favored "a low, flat fee," although the city could revisit a charge per cart with additional study in years to come. She added that a per-cart charge would most likely find residents dumping trash elsewhere or putting it in their neighbors' carts.
According to Holt, the city is getting just $100,000 a year from its recycling program, down from a peak of $3 million. She blamed the reduction on market forces and a low demand for recyclable materials.
Otherwise, Holt passed on much of the bad news already delivered by Emanuel in his budget address last week, blaming the tax hike on state-required payments to police and fire pension funds. She said the city had asked each department to seek 10 percent job cuts, but that some were more prepared for that than others, with about 150 vacant positions expected to be eliminated.
She said the Police Department would be one of the few enjoying increases, as putting 319 desk-duty officers on the street will require the hiring of about 280 civilians to fill those jobs. The department is also expected to hire 23 additional officers to bring the force to 9,786 beat cops. According to Holt, the department was facing another year of $100 million in overtime, but added that about $60 million of that was fixed in paying for officers to complete reports at the end of their shifts or make off-shift court appearances, and that $40 million was for the Operation Impact initiative.
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) called the proposal to reassign officers "the biggest bunch of crap I've ever seen," in that moving cops from desk duty is like "putting a house cat back on the street."
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) warned of "whopper" property reassessments coming for the city this year along with the proposed increase in property taxes and questioned Holt on whether the city could count on an expansion of the homeowner exemption, which also requires state approval.
"We've all heard Gov. Rauner has a different idea," Reilly said, citing Rauner's threat to veto the proposal.
Holt said the homeowner exemption has broad support in Springfield and testified that this was the first time property values were rising after four years of declines that had seen a 26 percent drop in assessed values. She estimated the average rise citywide at 20 percent this year.
Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) called that a "double hit," combining the hike in property taxes with the reassessment of city property this year, and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said she has one resident who has already seen a 77 percent increase in a home's assessed value. She sought remedies through either the homeowner exemption or a rebate.
Asked about competing proposals for a tax rebate, Holt estimated that relief for homeowners making under $35,000 would cost the city about $15 million, while relief for homes valued at $250,000 or lower would cost $40 million.
Pressed on Tax Increment Finance districts, Holt said an audit last year found $1.38 billion in TIFs, but with $1.245 million of that already committed to projects. She said the city was plowing $113 million in surplus TIF funds back into the proposed 2016 budget.
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the Budget Committee, returned to the council after suffering health woes to run the budget hearings in the morning. Vice Chairman Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) ran much of the afternoon session.
"Boy, is the honeymoon over?" Ald. Milly Santiago (31st) said. "Yes, I think the honeymoon is over." She said her residents are "up in arms" about the tax and fee increases, and asked Holt what she'd advise them.
"We have to make the payments," Holt said, saying the property-tax hike "is all about those police and fire pensions."
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