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Emanuel cuts cigarette tax hike, buries police hiring plan

Updated: December 27, 2013 6:13AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday shaved a quarter off his 75-cents-a-pack cigarette tax hike to appease black aldermen concerned about street corner sales of loose cigarettes, but buried a $25 million plan to hire hundreds of additional police officers instead of relying so heavily on overtime.

To make up for $2 million in lost cigarette tax revenues, the fine for parking at a fire hydrant will be raised— to $150, instead of $100. Another $1 million will come from “indirect services” the city’s corporate fund provides to O’Hare and Midway airports that has not been “fully captured.”

The decision to reduce the tax from 75 cents to 50 cents a pack continues Emanuel’s pattern of tinkering at the margins of his city budgets to appease critics without giving away too much.

The mayor did the same in his first two budgets when it came to cutting library hours, raising city sticker fees and phasing out both the free water perk for churches and non-profits and the garbage rebate for condominium owners.

Monday’s concession sets the stage for fewer dissenting votes on the mayor’s $7 billion budget, the most important City Council vote of the year.

“He wasn’t budging. [But after] trying to get him to understand it would be detrimental to our communities, he came with us. So, it was like, ‘Thank you,’ ” said Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th).

Asked if she was surprised that the mayor blinked, Austin said, “On something that he was so passionate about, yes....Our membership was extremely focused on it being 25 cents [a-pack]. I didn’t think I could get him down to 25. But I was glad I could get him down to 50.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said he was “appeased a little bit, but not fully satisfied” with Emanuel’s eleventh-hour compromise.

Even at a 50-cent increase, the combined state and local tax on cigarettes sold in Chicago of $7.17 a pack will still be highest in the nation and 31 cents higher than New York City’s $6.86 a pack.

“We still create the black market when we raise that bar at any level,” Ervin said.

West Side Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) hedged when asked whether the last-ditch amendment would help boost Emanuel’s sagging popularity among African-American voters who helped put him in office.

“There are a number of things people could be percolating over. The cigarette piece is just another piling on to some of the things that already exist with some folks. We’re still dealing with the school closings and things of that nature,” she said.

The modified tax hike came as a bitter disappointment to public health experts.

Just last week, they held a City Hall news conference to urge the mayor to stand his ground. They argued that every quarter-a-pack reduction in the tax increase “equals fewer lives saved,” particularly with teen smokers, whom they called the “most price sensitive consumers” of all.

“The cheaper the cigarettes, the more people who are going to buy cigarettes and the more people who are going to die,” the American Heart Association’s Mark Peysakhovich said Monday.

“It’s always difficult to see a health measure eroded by pushback from the other side. But 50-cents is better than nothing.”

Last week, Emanuel appeared to slam the door on a cigarette tax compromise. He called the 75-cents-a-pack increase a “public health feat” on par with his prior contributions to children’s health care.

Emanuel pointed to the testimony of his Health Commissioner, Dr. Bechara Choucair, who argued that raising the city’s combined state and local tax to $7.42-a-pack would persuade 5,500 adults to quit smoking and 6,400 kids not to take their first puff.

But even as the mayor spoke, the behind-the-scenes lobbying continued — by convenience store owners, African-American aldermen and by members of the

mayor’s own staff.

They argued that Emanuel needed to throw his critics a bone to show that he is flexible and open to dissent.

Now, the mayor’s critics can claim at least a partial victory.

“While we would have preferred no increase, this compromise will make [for] less of an adverse impact on local businesses,” Tanya Triche, of the Chicago Retail Merchants Association, said in an emailed statement.

The City Council’s Progressive Caucus cannot say the same about police hiring.

At a meeting Monday, the Budget Committee buried a $25 million amendment that would have substituted the hiring of hundreds of additional officers for police overtime expected to top $93 million this year and $75 million in 2014.

At one point, Austin inadvertently called for a voice vote on the amendment and aldermen approved it on a voice vote.

Only after Ald. Jim Balcer (11th) caught the mistake did Austin call the roll on a motion to table the police hiring plan, instead of approving it. The vote was 18-to-4. No votes were cast by Aldermen Leslie Hairston (5th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd) and Scott Waguespack (32nd), Michael Chandler (24th).

Prior to the corrected vote, Budget Director Alex Holt argued that $25 million was only enough to hire “a little over 200” new officers and that the city could buy nearly 116,000 additional “police man hours” with overtime, after pension and health benefits are factored in.

Ald. John Arena (45th) didn’t buy it.

“I agree with her just on a straight, can you get in more man hours? But what’s the quality of those man hours?” Arena said.

“When you take officers and put them in high-stress situations over and over again, we risk lawsuits down the road based on how are they going to react. They’re putting them into the highest crime areas with the worst cases. We risk stressing out our police force. Clearly at $93 million, we have a structural deficiency.”


Twitter: @fspielman

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