The City Council Progressive Caucus. It’s been around for years, and for much of that time it has prompted giggles at the mere mention of its name. But after the last election, the Caucus found itself with eleven declared members and several other Aldermen willing to ally themselves at least partly with the Caucus agenda. And there’s some evidence that Mayor Emanuel’s at least been listening to some of their ideas.
The major – perhaps only – issue on the agenda right now is the gaping budget hole. And the Mayor and the Caucus are far apart when it comes to finding solutions. But there could be consensus on the need to impose Chicago’s first-ever garbage collection fees.
“It might be a good idea to charge people $5 or $10 a month for trash and kind of force people to recycle more,” explains Ald. Scott Waguespack, who chairs the Caucus and is generally considered one of its founders. “But you have to have an education component with that and we do not do that in the City, and that’s what’s really sad about the fact that he came in, he cut out the Department of Environment. We no longer have one and we need to get that back in. And I think we’ve been talking about a lot of these environmental issues as a progressive caucus and trying to show people that there’s ways to do things better and we just haven’t seen it yet.”
But Waguespack says when it comes to controversial issues like a whole new fee, the Mayor’s quite happy to let the Aldermen lead.
“When you look at the Mayor basically coming out and saying ‘hey, this is a great idea,’ this is one of those things where he kind of throws it to the aldermen because he knows it might be pretty unpopular,” he explains.
As always, it’s about the details. Some aldermen have called for a “pay as you throw” system where a household would pay a separate fee for each container they have. But Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, recently elected in the 10th Ward, says that won’t work. “I don’t think pay as you throw is a good idea,” she explains. “We’re going to have people in the middle of the night going and stuffing other peoples’ garbage cans and then we’ll be getting thousands of complaints saying ‘they’re throwing garbage in my can.’”
There’s pretty general agreement that property taxes are about to go up, possibly by a lot. But the Progressive Caucus says it wants to explore cost-saving first. “You can minimize that by doing all the other things that people have pointed out is wrong with the City first and that’s what we haven’t done,” Waguespack explains. “So when the Inspector General says -look, I’ve given you these audits of how you’re poorly running all of your systems within your departments, fix those things first – that will shave off a few hundred million dollars from what could be a major property tax hike.”
And when it comes time for new taxes, the Caucus says there are other sources that could raise large amounts of revenue without hitting homeowners so hard.
“Look, let’s make it fair and equitable,” Waguespack says. “We did propose a financial transaction tax. That’s a State issue as well. (It needs approval by the Legislature.) That could equalize us in terms of what we need in revenue to slow down that property tax hike. The Mayor has flat-out said I’m not interested in most of what you guys have offered. His whole focus is on putting in a casino.” The Caucus members don’t believe the casino will generate nearly as much money as it proponents forecast.
The casino was a big part of Mayor Emanuel’s re-election campaign. But Waguespack says that was never enough.
“He had a plan,” the Alderman asserts, “And the plan was basically I’m going to borrow $1.9-billion and then I’m going to borrow $1.1-billion. And so you look at the borrowing that he’s done that has been his solution. Basically that falls on us now and for our next couple of generations of children who are getting stuck with that bill.”
A key issue for the Caucus is an elected School Board. But their plan has an extra layer.
“You bring people up through the Local School Councils. You have a regional LSC that they go to and then those people would then be able to run for a citywide board. That’s sort of a very simple model,” Waguespack explains.
“Some people say hey, have a hybrid,” he continues. “The Mayor could appoint two or three people, the rest get elected, but they have to have served on LSCs at a local and regional level to get that point so that they already understand it.”
Alderman Garza has a personal connection to the schools funding crisis. “I spent 21 years inside of a school and what’s happening in these schools is an atrocity to me,” she asserts. “Why are charter schools getting more money than neighborhood schools? There has to be somebody that sits on this elected school board that knows what’s happening inside the classroom, and I agree with Scott there has to be a vetting process. But we need people that know what’s happening in the trenches…Bowen High School. Right next to it is a charter school, I’m not going to even say its name, they have literally plucked and plucked and plucked these kids with a marketing scheme and rhetoric and they’ve plucked these kids out of Bowen which has been doing some really great things. And they can’t compete because Bowen’s budget was cut $1.3-million when the school right next door their budget was increased. So I mean you don’t stand a chance.”
We ask whether either Alderman feels optimism about Forrest Claypool, a respected administrator, taking the reins at CPS.
“Not really, no I don’t,” Waguespack claims. “There’s a directive from the Mayor and he takes the directive and that’s what everybody else has done that was before him.”
And finally, TIFs. “We have a city that is one-third of it, I think covered in TIFS,” explains Waguespack. “That’s more than any other city in the United States. We divert billions of dollars a year. I don’t know what the number is going to be at the end of this year, but we divert billions from the overall tax base. So what that is is basically you and I as homeowners are going to pay more in property taxes because of this imbalance and that’s what people need to understand. Now the Mayor and his floor leader and some of these other folks out there will say – hey, we’re going to have a boon of money when these things end 20 years from now – well, guess what, we have a crisis right now.”
Read a full transcript of the show here: CN audio 082015