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City Council passes Emanuel’s budget on 46-3 vote

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presided over city council meeting which passed his 2013 city budget.  Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presided over the city council meeting which passed his 2013 city budget. Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:33PM

It wasn’t the shut-out he pitched during his rookie season, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel got the win Thursday on the most important City Council vote of the year.

By a vote of 46-to-3 with Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th) missing, aldermen approved Emanuel’s no-new taxes, “calm-before-the-storm” 2013 budget.

The vote on the $6.54 billion budget clears the decks for the main event: a painful solution to the city’s pension crisis that will require both new revenues and concessions from city employees.

In 2016, the city is required by state law to make a $700 million contribution to stabilize police and fire pension funds.

“Clearly, there is a cloud down the road, but it will be addressed,” said Ald. Marge Laurino (39th).

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) exhorted his colleagues to call their state legislators to demand a solution to the pension crisis that threatens to choke Chicago property owners.

“I don’t want to come back and have to amend this budget and hurt the hardworking men and women of this city by raising their taxes because we have to address the inability of Springfield to act,” Beale said.

The City Council approved Emanuel’s first budget by a 50-to-0 vote — even though it was balanced with $220 million in taxes, fines and fees, 517 layoffs, two police station closings and consolidation of 12 mental health clinics into six.

On Thursday, demands for more police hiring and concerns about rosy revenue projections prevented the mayor from pitching another shut-out.

The “no” votes were cast by Aldermen Robert Fioretti (2nd), Scott Waguespack (32nd) and John Arena (45th). Fioretti was the only opponent to voice his concerns on the Council floor.

Pointing to a record number of police retirements, Fioretti demanded more police hiring—beyond the 500 officers Emanuel has promised to add next year to keep pace with attrition—without saying how the city should pay for those officers.

“Are there enough police officers on the street? Do we have enough resources? Ask the men and women in blue on our streets. You’ll find the answer. You’ll find it pretty quick,” Fioretti said.

Fioretti further complained about the 30-year digital billboard deal that Emanuel is relying on for $15 million in new revenue in 2013. Billboard competitors and industry analysts have likened that deal to the widely despised parking meter lease.

“Haven’t we learned any lessons yet?” Fioretti said. Noting that the industry average is five-to-seven years, not 30, he added, “Digital billboard technology is changing rapidly. How much money will be left on the table that should have come to us?”

Off the Council floor, Arena complained that the mayor’s budget is precariously balanced by “overly optimistic” revenue projections and health care savings “on the backs of” city workers.

“Thirty million in revenue from speed cameras that haven’t been installed and may have legal problems. It’s hard to base a budget on unrealized revenue you can’t guarantee is gonna be there,” Arena said.

Arena also pointed to the police manpower shortage. He called 500 hirings a “good start” but not nowhere near enough.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, compared the bitter pill swallowed last year by all 50 aldermen to this year’s no-new-taxes budget.

“If last year was tough and we were all in, I’m a little bit at a loss to explain why we’re not all in today,” he said, apologizing for using the “all in” slogan that was the title of now retired CIA Director David Petraeus memoir before the sex scandal that ended the retired general’s distinguished career.

Former independent Ald. Joe Moore (49th), an Emanuel ally rewarded with a committee chairmanship, accused his former colleagues of “looking for reasons” to vote against a budget he called “one of easiest” for aldermen to support.

“Last year’s budget wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t about to let the imperfect stand in the way of the good. This year’s budget is about as nearly perfect as you can get,” Moore said.

Rules Committee Chairman Richard Mell (33rd) said Emanuel warned him after the election that there would be some “tough votes” ahead for Chicago aldermen.

But he said, “This is not a hard vote. This is probably one of the easiest votes I’ve ever taken. Mr. President, you have righted a ship that was headed for the rocks. People can’t believe they’re not getting taxed.”

After the vote, Emanuel addressed the City Council from the podium.

“While some describe this as an easy budget, it continues the process of reform and change. Reform never ends,” he said.

The mayor also touted the unprecedented investment in preschool, after-school, summer jobs and health programs for children.

“This is the most important thing we can do. ... Other cities are cutting back on their children. They’re balancing their budgets on the backs of their children,” Emanuel said. “If you talk about policing and do not talk about after-school programs, you miss what it takes to make communities safe.”

The mayor’s remarks were greeted by a rare round of applause.

Last year, opposition from rebel aldermen forced Emanuel to soften the blow of his library cuts, restore millions cut from graffiti removal and vacant lot cleaning and raise city sticker fees across the board instead of confining the increase to large vehicles.

This time, an extra $350,000 for weed cutting on vacant lots was enough to seal a lopsided vote.

The $6.54 billion budget will hold the line on taxes, fines and fees beyond those set in motion last year and the annual increase in parking meter rates locked in by a 75-year lease.

The spending plan includes 275 employee job cuts, all but a dozen of them unfilled, eliminates the job-killing head tax by Dec. 31, 2013 and makes strategic investments in tree-trimming, rodent control and children’s health and after-school programs.

The Police Department will hold police entrance and sergeants exams, “re-invent” community policing by moving CAPS resources and staffing to districts and extend a year-round “surge” program that hires off-duty officers on summer weekends .

Household recycling will go citywide by the end of 2013. Small businesses will get inspector reform to match the license consolidation delivered this year.

The mayor is counting on up to $30 million in fines from speed cameras installed near schools and parks to help bankroll his “children first” budget without raising taxes.

The fast roll-out of a speed-camera plan delayed by legal and technical complications helps to explain how Emanuel was able to keep his hands out of taxpayers’ pockets in 2013 and still make a big investment in kids.

The city has promised a field test of the fast-changing camera technology, followed by the selection of a single vendor. There will also be two tiers of warnings to motorists —including an unlimited number during the first 30 days after cameras are installed and one more-per-driver after the break-in period is over.

But, the $30 million figure makes it imperative that the city ramp up quickly so speed cameras can start churning out hefty fines: $35 for going between six and 10 miles-per-hour over the speed limit near schools and parks and $100 for going 11 mph over the limit.

That means the problem about whether cameras can capture high-definition images that show whether children are “visibly present” must be quickly resolved. The Illinois General Assembly may be asked to approve a legislative fix during the post-election veto session.

Budget Director Alex Holt has said the city has salted away money for police and fire pay raises that have yet to be negotiated. But, she has refused to say how much for fear it would tip the city’s hand in those difficult negotiations.

During a meeting last month with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, Emanuel ruled out the possibility of a mid-year tax increase—even if the raise ultimately awarded at the bargaining table or by an arbitrator is bigger than the money allocated.

“I worked very hard to get to no taxes. We didn’t go through this process to reverse it,” the mayor said then, obviously counting on concessions by police and fire unions to make the new contracts revenue-neutral.

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