CN Nov. 19, 2015

If Mayor Emanuel was right when he said so often in the past that his red-light and speed cameras were just there to protect our children, then our children are even safer that we imagined.  Because according to a series running right now in the Tribune, David Kidwell reveals that at least two million dollars in erroneous tickets have been spit out by these cameras recently. Tens of thousands of incorrect citations, in fact.

Our guest, City Hall reporter Hal Dardick says Kidwell looked at a representative sample of the most recent tickets. “You can’t look at all the million-something tickets, but it was 90-million in revenue,” Dardick says. “And when he did a sample he found at least $2.3-million that were questionable tickets. They’re not within the proper distance. It wasn’t the right signage. The state law reads you’re supposed to have a image of a child near the school and in a lot of cases there’s no child image in there.

We ask Dardick if the Mayor, after years of being tweaked by the Tribune for shortcomings – and outright criminal activity – in the program, is embarrassed by it.

“It doesn’t seem that way,” he reports. “It was really interesting yesterday. At the press conference following the City Council meeting David got a question in and he said, “You can’t seem to run these programs correctly. What do you say to that?” And the Mayor said, “Well I think the question is how do we use these cameras to protect children?” And David said, “No, that wasn’t the question Mayor.” And he said, “Well the floor is mine now and this is the answer I’m going to give you.”

Dardick reported this week on a very important hearing before the Illinois Supreme Court regarding Mayor Emanuel’s legislation to make solvent two of the City’s pension funds. (These are the funds for City laborers and other municipal workers, not the police and fire, who were covered by Emanuel’s recent half-billion dollar property tax increase).

Dardick says  City Corporation Counsel Steve Patton wasn’t exactly treated warmly by the Justices. His argument, Dardick says, was “‘No, we’re not diminishing or impairing the benefits even though we are reducing them in the future, or making the current employees pay more into them. We are preserving and protecting them’ was the language he used. Because they’re going to go broke if we don’t do this, is his argument.”

“Justice Bob Thomas had an interesting question almost in disbelief at the argument that Steve Patton was making,” Dardick continues. “He said, Well okay, so you’re saying that you’re… and I’m paraphrasing here, “You’re saying that you’re making sure they get a benefit that they were already entitled to and you’re reducing that benefit and somehow there’s a gain. What’s the gain?”

There won’t be a ruling for a few months, but if it’s ultimately against the City it will have serious implications for every taxpayer.

“If it gets overturned the City could end up owing hundreds of millions more dollars a year than it’s paying,” explains Dardick. “And as you know we already had a record of $543-million tax increase for the police and fire pensions. These pensions are almost the same size. Does that mean that there’s another huge tax increase down the line? It’s possible.”

As Dardick explains, Mayor Emanuel’s law allows a forty-year period for bringing the pension funds back to full strength, as opposed to the 30 years in the previous law. Had that law been obeyed and the City and State made their legally-required contributions, “The benefits would have been higher.”

And, perhaps more importantly, the taxpayers would have paid a lot less.

“And some people say 40 years is too long and by lengthening what they call that ramp to get there, the taxpayers in the end wound up paying more money than they would have in the first place,” he explains. “It was interesting; I think it was Moody’s Investor Service said the best thing that could happen in terms of the City over the long-term, and they are looking at bonds and stability over time, is for the City to lose that case and have to pay more money.

Nevertheless, the City pressed on, arguing that the alternative is watching the funds simply go bankrupt.

“Well, the argument is that nothing in the law says that they have to pay this, that the funds themselves are responsible for making the payments. Well what happens is in ten to 13 years these two funds will become insolvent. And that means that only what they’re getting from the City every year, now 30% of the benefits, would be paid out. But the people that are…the attorneys that are representing the laborers and the municipal workers say no, because the intent of the 1970 Constitution that said ‘shall not be diminished or impaired’ is that the municipal government or state government was responsible. Someone will have to right this ship and make sure that those are paid.”

The City Council met yesterday, and among their more urgent business was an  ordinance re-asserting that Chicago is a Sanctuary City, and one that welcomes Syrian refugees. Dardick says the vote held no great significance other that symbolism.

“Beneath it all it’s all about politics to show where you stand on an issue currying favor with certain constituencies,” he claims. “Because they are powerless. The federal government makes the rules. Once someone is in this country they have the freedoms of anyone else in this country and they can go wherever they like. Governor Rauner can’t do much about it. The City Council can’t do much about it.”

The Council also passed new legislation laying out extensive procedures for consideration of any motion to privatize or sell City assets.

“It does require, the new ordinance that passed yesterday, hearings, a lot of time to consider – months to consider any proposal to privatize something over a certain level, over $400-million sale of an asset,” he reports.

But there’s an interesting weakness that makes the ordinance almost pointless.

“The thing that is weak in this ordinance is it says only 10% of the proceeds have to be set aside and not spent right away, Dardick says. “If you look at what happened with the parking meters, the biggest criticism was how they got $1.15-billion and proceeded to spend nearly all of it right away. Well guess what? They always had at least 10% of it that they didn’t spend, so that standard is incredibly low.”

We ask Dardick if Governor Rauner, by peeling away Ken Dunkin’s votes from the Democratic coalition, has shown long-term strength, and whether he may be winning the war against Mike Madigan. Dardick doubts it, because in order to get Dunkin’s vote Rauner had to change his position on key budget cuts, such as to early childhood education. “Did he get what he wanted or did he capitulate?” Dardick asks. “And I would argue that to some extent he capitulated on this because he saw that it was a losing battle and it was terrible perception. I’m sure he wasn’t pleased by the whole thing. I don’t know that anyone is winning that battle. I would argue that they are all losing it, you know.”

We didn’t get to it on this show, but Dardick wrote a very interesting piece this week comparing Chicago’s property taxes with the suburbs – even after the recent record tax increase. You can find it HERE. 

And finally, did Clerk Dorothy Brown need a $37,000 photographer following her around to official functions? (The County Board voted to remove this item from her office budget this week.)

“But what I find interesting is they had approved it twice before in years previously. And now that she’s on the outs with the Democratic Party and they are supporting Alderman Michelle Harris to replace her – oh, that’s no good anymore.”

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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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