For months, City Hall observers speculated about how our outgoing Mayor would respond to the City's yawning $650 million deficit. Would he confront the budget honestly and forthrightly, calling upon Chicagoans to make sacrifices, or would he "kick the can down the road" and paper over the deficit with short-term, one-time fixes?
Well, the wait is over. The Mayor delivered his budget address last Wednesday, October 13, and he kicked the can to his successor.
Once again the parking meter lease proceeds served as a convenient piggy bank. The Mayor proposes to tap another $120 million from the lease reserves. The 75-year lease, less than three years old, was originally worth $1.15 billion, and its interest was supposed to help fund Chicago government for generations. With this latest raid, there will only be $76 million left.
In addition, for the first time, the Mayor is proposing using surplus funds from 20 of the 160 Tax Increment Financing districts, which will provide the City with $38 million. (This action will also transfer an additional $90 million to the Chicago Public Schools.)
As for cutting costs, Daley proposed several departmental consolidations, continuing the regimen of 12 unpaid holidays and 12 furlough days for City employees (myself and my ward service office staff included), and the elimination of almost 300 budgeted positions.
The Mayor was less than honest about the real pain this budget will cause people. We are only learning about the extent of that pain bit by bit, and will learn more as the budget hearings continue over the next two weeks. But here are two examples:
(1) The Mayor is claiming to add more police to the street, but more than one hundred police officers have been taken out of the popular and effective CAPS, or community policing, initiative. In my police district--the 24th--the number of police assigned to CAPS has been slashed from nine to three. Community policing is one of the factors that contributed to the 50 percent reduction in crime the 24th District has enjoyed over the last 15 years.
Opening the lines of communication between the police and the community and a proactive approach to crime prevention are the hallmarks of CAPS. CAPS officers are just as much a part of effective policing as officers driving around in patrol cars. Despite the Administration's claims to the contrary, this ill-advised move has eviscerated community policing in Chicago.
(2) We just learned that all "business delegate agencies" such as our local Rogers Park Business Alliance, will have their City funding completely eliminated. And this is during a recession when small businesses in a community need support and expertise more than ever.
But more profoundly, this budget covers up a serious structural deficit. In other words, the cost of providing current city services far exceeds the revenue raised to pay for these services. Chicago government has been living beyond its means, both in good years and bad. But we've avoided making the hard choices of drastically cutting services and/or raising taxes by relying on one-shot, short-term solutions, such as selling of our long-term assets to pay for today's debts.
The Mayor had a golden opportunity as he finished his tenure in office to start confronting these difficult choices and tell the residents of Chicago the truth about the serious state of the City's fiscal health. But what did he do instead? Raid the parking meter fund and switch around police officers.
Of course, if the Mayor did the responsible thing and confronted the structural deficit by cutting more services and raising taxes, he would run into a firestorm of protest from the taxpayers. And who could blame them? For years the Daley Administration has turned a blind eye to egregious acts of waste and corruption. The public justifiably believes that huge sums of money in city government are wasted or stolen.
No question much is lost to the "corruption tax," but truth be told, you could cut every ounce of fat from the city budget and eliminate every act of corruption and you still wouldn't close the budget gap.
Nonetheless, we can't ask for another dime from the taxpayers until we city officials first demonstrate we can manage what we now receive honestly and efficiently.
I will be proposing three measures this budget season:
(1) A budget amendment that will provide adequate funding to our Inspector General so that he has the tools necessary to ferret out waste and corruption.
(2) An ordinance creating an office independent of both the Mayor and the City Council to thoroughly review the City budget and other suggestions for improvement. New York has established an Independent Budget Office, and it has offered cost saving and revenue-enhancement suggestions that have saved New York City hundreds of millions of dollars.
(3) A resolution that will call upon the Mayor's Budget Office to give taxpayers and voters real decision-making power over at least a portion of the City budget, by adopting the same "Participatory Budgeting" model that I have implemented to allocate the 49th Ward's infrastructure funds. By bringing ordinary people into the middle of the process, they most often arrive at wise and prudent decisions about complex budgetary issues.
The problems intrinsic to Chicago's budget are structural, and the solutions can no longer be cosmetic, one-time fixes. I look forward to working with a new Mayor and a re-energized City Council to dig deeply into every department, every service, and every contract. That's the only way to start providing for the future of our City.