CN Oct. 29, 2015


By now, we all know the numbers. $543 million in new property taxes to make the firefighters and police pensions whole. $45 million for “modernizing” public school buildings. $9.50 a month for garbage collection.  Millions and millions more in cloud taxes, permit fees, boot taxes – all for a grand total, the Tribune says – of about $755 million in new taxes – all at one time.

But other numbers were surprising, too. Fifteen aldermen voted against the Mayor’s tax plan, but that meant 35 voted Aye.

WBEZ City Hall reporter Lauren Chooljian is our guest this week. It wasn’t easy for the Mayor to round up those votes, she tells us, but he made it happen by presenting a different, more approachable face to the City Council members.

“People have also been putting it in the context of, “well you saw that sweater ad,'” she tells us. “I mean that thing will not die… Well, he promised us that he needed to listen more. And I’m telling you, Aldermen will come up to you on the street or while they’re waiting for a cab or whatever and they will say ‘you know actually he will hold the elevator for me and let me come in and say what do you think about the budget? Has it been going well for you? What are your issues with it?”

There were actual concession made to key aldermen, as far as reporters can determine. For example, Aldermen got the Mayor to agree to a reporting mechanism for the pubic schools indicating how and why they spend the money from the $45 million schools modernization fund. They want to be sure, for example, that the money is used in the desperately underfunded neighborhood schools and not in charters or contract schools.

“I will say that aldermen who usually go right up against him will say, ‘Yes, he’s invited me into his office.’ I mean a couple of aldermen stood up yesterday, mind you aldermen who were close to him like Danny Solis and said, ‘Thank you for texting me and calling me and being there this whole budget process.’ Other aldermen who are usually Mayoral allies have said to me, ‘If I have a question I call Alex Holt, the Budget Director.’ I mean that’s a great line of communication to have if you’re trying to wade through the thousands of pages of this budget. Pat O’Connor, the same thing, said, ‘I’ve never seen a budget process go this way.’

But there were no celebrations when the budget passed.

Despite the massive tax increases, they still don’t make budgets whole for pensions or at CPS, the CTA and a number of other agencies. That’s because the State still hasn’t formulated a budget, and doesn’t seem likely to in the immediate future. The CTA, for example, needs the 20% of its budget it normally gets from the state, without which it will run out of money well before the end of the fiscal year. So some aldermen were advocating an even bigger tax bite to cover what the state’s not sending.

“I remember Aldermen Leslie Hairston this week was saying there’s no way that I could come back to these people,” Chooljian tells us. “Might as well just deal it all in one. Even Ed Burke said that last week.”

Ultimately, they decided to wait.

But what’s Plan B?

“It’s so interesting to watch them kind of walk this tightrope,” she says, “of aldermen saying – ‘Well we need to come up with a plan B.’ But then at the same time the Mayor’s office and those same aldermen are like ‘Well now wait a minute. We can’t come up with a plan B that’s solid enough that Springfield is going to say, well we have a lot of other things to worry about, so why are we going to worry about you?’

At the center of this swirling uncertainty is Governor Rauner.  Chooljian tells us that the Mayor has said he has regular conversations with his friend the Governor. So what do they talk about?

“Mayor Emanuel always says, and I think the governor would say this too, that those are private conversations and to preserve that trust they’re not allowed to tell us what they talk about,’ she says. “But he does say relatively frequently that they do speak on weekends. So it’s not that they’re not talking, and the Mayor always says directionally Rauner moves in the same direction that Emanuel does on these things. I am not quite clear on the meaning of that, but that’s his argument.”

The pressure on some Aldermen was intense. Black Caucus member David Moore said the negative comments from his constituents against the garbage tax were so powerful that he voted against the tax package. Most of his colleagues, however, voted in favor.

The constituent concerns varied by geography.

“Some of these North side aldermen like Michelle Smith are really worried about the long-time homeowners who are 70 and 80 years old and they live in Lincoln Park and their property values have skyrocketed,” she explains. “They got their triannual assessments; they’re crazy. So now they’re worried about an additional property tax hike. And so behind the scenes, which was passed yesterday, they are working on a resolution that would rebate or protect, give some sort of relief to homeowners like that.”

The Mother of All Tax Increases wasn’t all that happened yesterday.

“We had 80 high schools in 2004 and now we have 140. And in one of those high schools there are just thirteen 9th graders,’ Chooljian asserts. But despite declining enrollment, climbing numbers of largely under-enrolled high schools, the CPS Board yesterday authorized the construction of two additional charter schools.

And while critics may say that the Chicago Bears don’t always play their football games all that well, their owners know how to play politics nicely. By waiting until the last minute and opposing the Lucas Museum, the team was able, in a very short time, to get major concessions from the City and Park District about naming rights, commercial signage and lots of other things it had wanted for years, in exchange for letting Lucas take one of its parking lots. There was no public debate about the matter before it passed.

And finally, there’s one thing that didn’t get put into the budget. That would be the privatization of the 311 center. Chooljian says it was a suspicious proposal right from the start.

“I mean Aldermen were coming up to me from the minute that got proposed and most of them were saying ‘I cannot stand for that,’ and then the rest of them were saying, ‘Well don’t worry, you’re not going to have to because this is something that’s just been tossed out there.” it was one of “Rahm’s throwaways,” an Alderman told her.

“And basically what they were saying is this is something that the Mayor is putting out there so that when people are upset about it he can take it back and say, “You know what, I’ve listened to you.” And it’s funny because Alderman would come up to me in confidence and say, “Well maybe the trash thing will be (too)…”


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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