CN Oct 20 2016


Well, now it’s out there. Mayor Emanuel would like a third term. And he’s making the case – gingerly at first, but possibly more confidently in the future – that he’s getting Chicago’s fiscal mess under control.

Bill Ruthhart was among the first journalists to touch the topic after it was discussed with the Mayor at an editorial board meeting last week.

“Politics are always at play with Rahm Emanuel,” Ruthhart explains. “And when he gave his budget speech recently there was a heck of a lot more than a spending plan for 2017. It had a very strong ‘we’ve turned the corner’ theme. We had four unfunded, very dramatically underfunded pensions, police and fire, municipal workers, laborers – they are all a path to solvency he says, right?  He has raised taxes dramatically to do it, record property tax, huge phone fee, the 30% increase in water and sewer bills this year to do that. But he can turn around and say ‘I made the tough decisions that I told you I was going to make and I fixed this.’ Now, he’s fixed it for a good 5 years as the pension payments ramp up they have the money to cover that.”

But, he explains, that’s just the first five years. “We’ve done a hard look at it and down the road beyond 5 years from now, which is beyond his current term, very likely they will have to come up with even more money to keep the pensions sustainable.”

A major factor in this possibly rosier outlook for the mayor is the fact that two education strikes were averted this past week.

The CTU and CPS came to a tentative agreement, and the agreement must now be ratified by the rank-and-file. The union’s House of Delegates voted their approval on Wednesday night. But WBEZ’s Becky Vevea tells us it wasn’t exactly a celebration.

“I do find it kind of interesting that there was a third of people in that room that weren’t in support of it,” she explains.” Typically, this leadership and the caucus that they come from has gotten a lot of support from that bigger body, but I think you do see some sections of the Union that are disappointed, particularly special education teachers, some support staff who feel that there’s just not enough in this contract to protect their caseloads and protect them from the conditions they see as pretty bad right now in the school system.”

Averting a strike was high on Emanuel’s priority list, too.

“We’ve polled on this time and time again,” explains Ruthhart. “Chicagoans side with the Chicago Teachers’ Union 3 to 1 over the Mayor when it comes to education. He knows that. He does plenty of polling himself.  He’s got a whole host of issues at the Police Department under federal investigation. The last thing he needed was a teachers’ strike, so when it came down to the final 24 hours at the insistence of the Mayor and Forrest Claypool, that they were going to insist that the teachers pay their full 9% toward their pensions, that suddenly went away in the final hours. So did sweeping up the extra TIF surplus to help free up some funding.

It’s a complex agreement, but a key measure was that agreement to move a large bucket of money from  TIF surplus funds to the schools.

“I think that actually was some masterful political maneuvering,’ Vevea asserts,”because last year the TIF surplus that went to CPS was about $80-million. So when the budget came out this summer and they only had $30-million of TIF surplus, I was like oh, this is something they are going to do at the very final hour and they are going to say, “We’re going to give you $50-million more.” That’s apparently what happened.

And Ruthhart adds that the mayor also got to demonstrate his ability to tamp down labor costs. “One of the big talking points, you know we talked about how he gave on the pension pick-up and he gave on the TIF surplus and he gave on classroom guarantees, one of his big talking points afterwards to try to kind of change the topic from that is – there has never been a teachers’ contract, and I would challenge you to find any Union contract ever in Chicago where there’s been back to back years of pay freezes. And so that will be his selling point on that. In tough fiscal times I got them to agree to two years of no pay raises.”

Vevea and her colleagues tried to calculate the cost of this agreement, and they came to the conclusion that, over the four years it’s likely to be cost and revenue-neutral.

Here’s their chart:



“You kind of add it all up and it’s’ about $500-million savings and $500-million of costs,” Vevea explains.  “So you end up kind of cost-neutral, and so again it’s the politics of it. The Mayor, by prolonging a whole year of teachers without a contract allows him to then you know give back some of that money in other areas, like class sizes. You know you saved that money by spending a whole year of not giving them raises and laying people off. You collect all that money into this little thing over here and then you say, “Here, class sizes.” You can give things back in other areas.

Is it true that there’s a thaw in the relationship between the mayor and CTU President Karen Lewis? Well, at least publicly there is.

“She wasn’t calling him the Murder Mayor anymore,” Ruthhart points out. “I think she also knew that the teachers’ strike in 2012 was the first one in 25 years, and so nobody knew what that was really going to look like and they had a lot of public support. We’re in an environment now where Chicagoans have paid a bunch of higher taxes just to pay for pensions of police and fire and other things. There’s a lot less sympathy for teachers going on strike for 7% raises or whatever it might have been. So her going on TV and you know dropping bombs on Emanuel to pay-up wasn’t going to play the same as it did last time and she recognized that.

And Emanuel?

“Well I think certainly Emanuel developed a respect for Lewis that he did not have when he was yelling at her in his office in 2011 saying ‘F you’ and all the rest. He I think is the most political of political animals and recognizes someone who is a worthy opponent, and I think he came to recognize that in Lewis. They both talked about how the relationship improved, how they text each other regularly, which we’re still suing to get the Mayor’s text messages.”

And Vevea says ultimately, it might be the teachers themselves who made the deal work. “There are a lot of people who have figured out and have made the calculation that look, maybe this isn’t the best deal. Maybe this isn’t the deal we really would want in a perfect world, but we have to take a deal that fits in the world we’re living in.  And so I think there’s a recognition by a lot of people in the membership…that probably think you know, let’s take this because working yet another year without a contract, good things aren’t going to come of that.”

The other teachers’ strike ended in much the same way, in the middle of the night with a murky, ill-defined agreement, the cost of which still isn’t clear. But the staff at the UNO charters came to an agreement with their schools.

“It would have been the very first charter school teachers’ strike in the whole country as far as everyone that I’ve talked to, the big Unions,” Vevea explains. “NEA, AFT, both said this would be the very first one they know of. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools said they have never had a teachers strike at a charter school that they are aware of, so that would have been huge. They were really locked in a  bad, tense battle with the UNO charter school network, which actually agreed to a tentative agreement. But they still need to find a million and a half dollars in their budget, and UNO charter school network gets a lot of their funding from CPS. They are going to have to talk with CPS a little bit too, like hey, are we going to get any of that TIF surplus? Is there any revenue option for us? Because they can’t raise taxes. They are not a taxing body.”

Whether the mayor’s slightly elevated standing will continue is anyone’s guess. On this first anniversary of the Laquan McDonald killing, we’re reminded how quickly one incident can completely re-set the political agenda. The Mayor’s new budget calls for major increases in the Chicago Police department.

“Right now ,” Ruthhart concludes, we have more than 1,000 shootings this year than we did at the same time last year. And so it’s also likely that the Department of Justice whenever they come down in the likely federal consent decree probably will require more officers.

So he’s kind of killing two birds with one stone with that, but we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of more officers and adding to the capacity of the police academy. It will be a difficult task to hire enough officers to just keep up with attrition, let alone put more on the street. The attrition issue has been huge for CPD. So while he hasn’t solved that or fixed that, he can at least point to plan he has now.”

Read a full transcript of this show HERE: cn-transcript-oct-20-2016



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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