CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Richard Daley put forth a bleak economic picture in presenting his last budget for the nation's third-largest city, but made it clear that if anybody decides to raise taxes and fees it will be someone named Rahm, Miguel, Gery, Tom, Robert, Carol, James – or whoever else succeeds him.
Another part of the financial plan he will hand to the next mayor is his latest proposal to privatize a city asset, this time the famed "Taste of Chicago" festival.
"Because our people are hurting ... I will not propose any increase in taxes, fines or fees next year, including property taxes," said Daley, who has been mayor for two decades but announced in September that he won't run for a seventh term.
Instead, Daley, told the council he will continue to dip into the city's reserves to balance his $6.1 billion budget. That includes taking another $120 million from the fund created when the city leased its parking meter operation to a private company – leaving just $76 million of what was a $1.15 billion fund less than two years ago.
Daley has been widely criticized for both pushing through the deal and pulling so much money so quickly from the fund. On Wednesday, he acknowledged that withdrawing the money would be "controversial." But Daley, who also said there is about $500 million left of a fund of $1.83 billion created about five years ago when the city struck a deal with a company to run and collect tolls from the Chicago Skyway, defended such moves.
"Without them, we would have been forced to raise taxes substantially and eliminate or reduce many services that people depend on," said Daley, who also said he wants to privatize things like recycling collection, equipment maintenance and the Taste of Chicago.
Daley's last budget and what comes next will surely be a major issue in the February mayoral election that has drawn interest from a host of possible candidates, including Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, State Sens. James Meeks and Rickey Hendon, and Reps. Danny Davis and Luis Gutierrez.
What was clear Wednesday was that candidates understand what they will be facing should they be elected and if the economy, both nationally and in the city, continues to sputter.
"Next year we will have a much more difficult process, a much more difficult budget," said Robert Fioretti, an alderman who says he's running. "The budget reserves are gone for all practical purposes."
Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said that while Daley's budget "may achieve its goal for this year," it's not the kind of thing the next mayor can do from here on.
"We can no longer deny that we are living beyond our means," Emanuel said in a statement. "We must go beyond the temporary fixes to confront our structural deficit in a permanent way."
Former Chicago school board president Gery Chico had a similar message, saying that he would "strip down the budget and rebuild it, change the shape and size" of the budget.
Another candidate, City Clerk Miguel Del Valle, defended Daley as doing the best he could with the financial picture he had. But like the others, he predicted that tough times are ahead for city residents.
"There's going to be additional pain before we begin to feel the effects of what I think will be a recovery of the economy in this country."
As to what they will do to inflict that pain, candidates were not about to say.
Instead, there was Del Valle saying the next mayor "will have to put everything on the table," without elaborating. And Fioretti, already sounding like a candidate before the official announcement he said is coming in a couple weeks, talked about the need to "become creative in our solutions" and taking "a look at each item in the budget," but stayed away from any concrete proposals.
Emanuel talked about not only the need to do things differently, and the way people think about what government can and can't do, and even the need to be "candid about the systemic nature of the problem and to assemble future budgets that confront our long-term challenges" – but not exactly what he might try.
Chico suggested consolidating some city departments – something Daley said he's already done and will continue to do more of – to save money.
But like others, he said it was impossible at this point to offer many specifics to address what Daley said was a $650 million deficit.
"You need to look carefully at that, what you can and can no longer do," Chico said.