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Chicago telephone tax to rise by 56 percent to shore up pensions

Alderwoman Carrie Austlooks her phone City Council meeting.  Wednesday April 10 2013. | Brian Jacks~ Sun-Times

Alderwoman Carrie Austin looks at her phone at the City Council meeting. Wednesday, April 10, 2013. | Brian Jackson ~ Sun-Times

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Updated: August 31, 2014 6:18AM

Desperate to avoid a pre-election property tax increase, Chicago aldermen advanced an alternative Tuesday that could end up costing their constituents even more money: a 56 percent increase in the monthly surcharge tacked on to telephone bills.

Effective Sept. 1, the City Council’s Finance Committee agreed to raise the surcharge from $2.50 to $3.90 — $1.40-a-month or $16.80-a-year — for every land line and cell phone in Chicago. The tax applied to pre-paid phones will rise from 7-to-9 percent, effective Oct. 1.

A family of four with four cell phones and a land-line would end up paying $84 in additional taxes each year. That’s $34-per-year more than the $50 price of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s original plan to raise property taxes by $250 million over a five-year period to shore up two of Chicago’s four city employee pension funds.

Emanuel assured Gov. Pat Quinn that he would steer clear of the property tax to meet the city’s new statutory obligations to put the Municipal Employees and Laborers pension funds on the road to financial health.

In return, Quinn agreed to sign a bill increasing employee contributions by 29 percent and reducing employee benefits to save the two funds.

On Tuesday,the Finance Committee honored the mayor’s promise without a single dissenting vote. That’s how eager they all are to avoid a property tax increase — the third rail of Chicago politics—seven months before the election.

The new revenue — $10 million this year and $40 million in 2015 — will be used to “fully-fund” Chicago’s 911 emergency center and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications that runs it, thereby freeing up $50 million “to be contributed for the first payment” to reform the Municipal Employees and Laborers pension funds.

The fact that the phone tax is regressive and that some Chicago families could end up paying more did not seem to bother most aldermen.

“Even though it may cost a little more because you have more lines and phones, I’d rather come up with an additional $5 or $10 than to come up with $150 [all at once]. It may not be as much pain monthly as it would be at one time,” said Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th).

Budget Director Alex Holt added, “For some people, it may be more costly [than a property tax hike].For others, it will be less costly. It’s going to be different for every home.”

Emanuel has emphatically denied that the phone tax was part of a political “shell game” to get past the Nov. 4 gubernatorial election and the Feb. 24 city election for mayor and aldermen, then sock it to taxpayers.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said Tuesday he doesn’t buy it.

“We had this whole property tax issue on the table. Then, I thought I saw somebody [Emanuel] specifically say we’re holding it off for a year. Which means, it’s back on the table after the election,” Waguespack said.

“So, this is just to me sort of a short-term fix. It doesn’t solve the bigger structural problems we have. And it doesn’t put any other solutions on the table that we’ve had three years of talking about and haven’t proposed anything.”

Waguespack tried to put Holt on the spot by asking whether she had “anything in writing” from the Wall Street rating agency that has dropped the city’s bond rating four notches in eight months to three levels above junk status on whether Moody’s views the telephone tax as a “long-term or short-term” solution.

“They are agnostic as to whether it’s 911 or property taxes or any one of a number of sources. They want to see the city meet the commitment,” she said.

Holt categorically denied that the telephone tax was a political life raft to get aldermen and the mayor past the election.

“I don’t know that this is an election issue. We’ve always talked about the need to have a ramp up and, each year, we’re going to have a discussion about how to meet payments for the next year. Property taxes are a possibility. But, that will depend on what the City Council and the mayor think is best. There are other revenues that could be on the table,” Holt said, refusing to identify them.

The phone tax provides a one-year escape hatch, but it produces nowhere near the $750 million in property tax collections over five years that would have been generated by the mayor’s original plan.

That’s why Emanuel’s commitment to freeze property taxes lasts for only one year.

The mayor has made no promises about the remaining four years of the deal, well aware that Chicago is staring down the barrel of a state-mandated, $600 million payment to save police and fire pension funds with assets to cover just 24 and 30 percent of their respective liabilities.

Asked last month whether a post-election property tax was inevitable, the mayor said, “You can ask the question next summer. This gives us the opportunity to actually do this the first year without a property tax and the opportunity to search for other revenue sources so we don’t have to do that” in succeeding years.

Pressed further, he said, “It’s a chance to avoid the property taxes and give us time to actually find other ways of doing this without that.”

The telephone tax was originally imposed to bankroll construction of Chicago’s 911 center, only to fall short after massive overruns on the $217 million project. Ultimately, former Mayor Richard M. Daley was forced to saddle another generation of property owners with the burden of paying off the project.

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