CITY HALL — Aldermen wrung their hands Tuesday, but then held their noses and voted in favor of a record $589 million increase in property taxes over the next four years.
The vote by the Finance Committee, however, was a relatively contentious 17-10, with Aldermen Tom Tunney (44th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) among those voting against.
Of that increase, $544 million was specifically earmarked for state-mandated police and fire pension payments over the next four years.
"I've been pretty adamant about the need for more police, the need for a high-school alternative" in Lakeview, Tunney said Tuesday.
Tunney said a doubling of the homeowner exemption, intended to ensure that houses worth $250,000 or less would pay no additional taxes, offered little relief for Lakeview. He called it "detrimental to the homeowners in my ward and the businesses."
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who also voted against, raised issues over the expanded homeowner exemption, which requires state approval and only just cleared a state House committee Tuesday, while facing uncertain prospects on whether Gov. Bruce Rauner would sign it.
"This is akin to jumping into a swimming pool and not knowing if it's a nine-foot pool or a 29-foot pool," Ervin said.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who also voted against, wondered about drawing on the rainy-day fund, but Budget Director Alexandra Holt rejected that.
"This isn't a financial crisis?" Hairston said.
"The resources are intended to be for a crisis we cannot control," Holt replied.
Hairston too expressed doubt about relief from the General Assembly, saying, "Springfield hasn't figured anything out."
The 10 who voted against were Aldermen Reilly, Tunney, Ervin, Hairston, Roberto Maldonado (26th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Nicholas Sposato (38th), John Arena (45th), Harry Osterman (48th) and Debra Silverstein (50th).
Only four aldermen voted against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's 2015 budget a year ago. According to mayoral spokeswoman Molly Poppe, the last time the council voted on a significant tax increase, an $87.5 million hike in the 2008 budget under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the final vote was 29-21.
According to Waguespack, the common feeling among those who opposed its passage was "the administration had not done enough to change policies and looked for enough revenue sources to offset what they're doing here, and I think that was really the bottom line."
Waguespack added, "A lot of aldermen are still upset about this backdoor tax they're calling a garbage tax and are generally upset about the lack of information."
Another item on revenue was deferred by Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the Finance Committee. Part of that legislation, allowing a $45 million tax levy for Chicago Public Schools, exposed the Board of Education to widespread criticism from aldermen.
Several aldermen expressed an interest in placing conditions on that tax levy, intended for capital improvements. Arena wondered if there were a way of keeping it from going to charter schools.
"I'm not voting for a capital improvement plan that does nothing but build charter schools in other neighborhoods," Hairston said.
"We still have a huge crisis with CPS," Tunney said.
"The teachers and their pensions really have been mismanaged," he added, pointing out that the pension fund was solvent through 2003 before the Board of Education approved a series of pension-payment "holidays" and reduced payments.
"People simply don't trust the Board of Education — bottom line," said Burke. He called on Holt to add language to the council action setting stipulations for how CPS could spend it before it would be reconsidered.
The Emanuel administration is working on an amendment to "require a reporting mechanism" for CPS on how the money would be spent, according to Poppe, and it should be ready for the Finance Committee to consider ahead of Wednesday's City Council meeting.
Ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar also came in for criticism. Commissioner Maria Guerra Lapacek, head of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, testified that the city's 7,000 taxi medallions are obliged to pay the equivalent of $500 a year for renewals. Under questioning from Burke, she added that Uber pays a $10,000 annual flat fee for its estimated 20,000 drivers.
"At first blush, that simply doesn't seem fair," Burke said. Projecting $500 a car for Uber drivers and additional fees that could be raised by forcing them to get chauffeur's licenses, he said, "Are we leaving $10.4 million on the table?"
Yet the provisions for ride sharing were not immediately changed, except for a previously altered proposal to allow them access to the airports in exchange for having drivers register with the Department of Aviation for monitoring.
Other changes may be made before the entire budget plan goes before the City Council Wednesday, and more still could come before final approval expected Oct. 28. Yet aldermen who voted no did not seem optimistic about getting revisions that would change their minds.
"I don't think they'll budge on any of it once they know they've got the votes," Waguespack said.
Asked what changes it would take to get him onboard, Tunney responded, "Maybe next year we can talk about it."
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