CITY HALL — Mayor Rahm Emanuel Wednesday drew aldermen a picture of a Chicago on solid financial ground with a school system that has a new lease on life and robust public transportation system — a metropolis irresistible to corporate giants like Amazon looking for a new home.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said voting for the budget will be a "no brainer" for many of his City Council colleagues, since it does not propose hiking the city's property or sales taxes — even though Beale said it includes tens of millions of dollars to "bail out" the Chicago Public Schools and the CTA.
"Who is bailing out the taxpayer?" Beale said. "Give the people something back."
However, Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a business-oriented government watchdog, praised the budget, saying he thought Emanuel's plan would "move the city forward" by outlining how the city will fund their pension obligations for the next five years.
"This is a reasonable plan to put before the City Council," Msall said.
However, Msall said the city still faces long-term financial challenges that must be addressed.
The fiercest criticism of the mayor's budget plan came from members of the council's Progressive Caucus.
Chairman Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) slammed the mayor for painting "a rosy picture" that obscures the fact that it includes tax and fee hikes that he said will hit the city's poorest residents the hardest.
“The mayor would like us to believe that the city’s finances are back on track," Waguespack said. "The scenes in Chicago’s neighborhoods and our public school classrooms, children desperate for resources, tell a different story."
Ald. John Arena (45th) said the mayor's proposal to raise taxes on Uber or Lyft rides by 29 percent next year to fund improvements to CTA bus and train lines was not enough to make up for the drop in public transportation ridership and increased congestion caused by ride-hailing services.
"They need to be a bigger participant in helping us balance our books," Arena said.
Arena said if the city starts funding the CTA and CPS directly, the City Council should have authority over their budgets, to ensure that all parts of the city are getting investments.
If this budget is not as controversial as in the past, it is because the Council already approved several massive tax increases, including the largest property tax increase in Chicago's history — approved in 2015 — and a 30 percent increase in the water and sewer tax — approved in 2016 — whose bills are still coming due, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said.
Ramirez-Rosa said the city's No. 1 priority should be ensuring that Chicago's students get a top-notch education — and he said he wasn't convinced the city was doing enough to help CPS. It is an outrage that Chicago put together a proposal of incentives in an attempt to lure tech giant Amazon — which is looking for a second home — to Chicago, the alderman said.
"We should be putting together a package of how we are going to move hundreds of millions of dollars to CPS," Ramirez-Rosa said, who has long favored a per-employee tax on the largest firms in Chicago.
The current budget includes "gimmicks" that "nickel and dime" regular Chicagoans, Ramirez-Rosa said.
"What we really should be doing is asking the rich and powerful corporations to pay their fair share," Ramirez-Rosa said.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), the chairman of the Black Caucus, said he supported the fee hike on ride-hailing services — but was most concerned about the phone tax hike, which will add $1.10 per month per line. That will keep the laborers' pension fund out of the red, and allow the city to modernize the city's 911 and 311 systems, officials said.
In 2014, the Council agreed to hike the city's telephone tax by 56 percent to help the same pension fund — adding $1.40 per month to the bills for every landline and cellphone in Chicago.
"It is somewhat regressive," Sawyer said, adding that he wasn't sure how to replace the $26 million the tax hike is expected to generate next year, officials said.
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey derided the mayor's plan as "built on fiction and spin instead of the hard facts."
Sharkey said Chicago's schools are desperately short on "guidance counselors, school librarians, teacher assistants and school social workers at a time of record violence and ever-increasing demands on teachers and school staff."
Emma Tai, Executive Director of United Working Families, said Emanuel's budget does nothing to address "sky-high rates of violence, gentrification, and unemployment."
"Mayor Emanuel’s budget speaks to his vision of Chicago: a tale of two cities, one for the wealthy and connected and one for the rest of us," Tai said in a statement.