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Aldermen demand meeting with Emanuel’s budget director

Budget Director Alex Holt answers questions relating budgetafter Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced $75 millisavings for current city budget Chicago Dept.

Budget Director Alex Holt answers questions relating to the budget,after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced $75 million in savings for the current city budget at the Chicago Dept. of Fleet Mgnt. 1658 north Throop. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 3, 2011 8:18AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is facing his first real push-back from the City Council — on his proposals to raise city sticker fees by $60 for soccer Moms and wield the budget ax on libraries, health care, police and fire dispatch and grafitti removal.

Twenty-eight aldermen have signed a letter to the mayor demanding a meeting with Budget Director Alex Holt. That’s two more votes than Emanuel needs to pass his first budget.

The aldermen want to talk about ways to restore budget cuts in those four critical areas and reverse the mayor’s plan to broaden the umbrella of motorists forced to pay a new, $135 city sticker fee for larger passenger vehicles to include 184,000 more vehicles.

Freshman Ald. John Arena (45th) said it’s time to test the new mayor’s claim that he wants to forge a partnership with the City Council, not run a dictatorship.

“This is a letter to the mayor asking for him to come to the table and have a conversation — not it being, ‘My way or the highway,’” Arena said.

“What are our priorities as a city? Libraries and public health generally affect the lowest economic strata. There’s been a clear outcry that we should protect those things.”

Holt acknowledged that the administration was “in discussions with the aldermen” to identify “trade-offs they’re interested in and where the revenues will come from to pay those.”

“The budget process is one of compromise. It’s one of having discussions about what the trade-offs might be,” Holt said.

“We’ve got to have revenues equal costs in the end. Where aldermen or others are interested in making changes, we’ve got to find some off-setting balances — either other reductions or revenues to accomplish that.”

The mayor’s decision to reduce corporate fund support for libraries by $10 million — even as the city continues to build new libraries on top of the 59 constructed under former Mayor Richard M. Daley — has emerged as the most controversial cut in the mayor’s budget.

Arena and other members of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus believe the mayor can “fully-fund” libraries by doubling the size of the tax-increment-financing surplus he’s declaring — from 20 percent to 40 percent.

They further argue that $94 million in annual revenues from a surcharge on telephone bills should be enough to avert police and fire dispatch cuts they fear could send response times to 911 calls and dispatcher burnout rates through the roof.

Pressed on whether Emanuel was willing to double the TIF surplus, Holt said, “With the TIF’s, we want to continue the conservative approach that we’ve taken. But, there’s no idea that’s off the table.”

The mayor’s plan to close six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, fully-fund just two of them and implement Emanuel’s summer plan to have seven city health clinics partner with federally-qualified health centers has also drawn fire.

The City Council’s Budget Committee is scheduled to meet Monday to consider amendments to the mayor’s 2012 budget. Sources said Emanuel’s changes are expected to restore library and forestry cuts and either phase in or somehow modify the decision to cut off the free water spigot to hospitals, universities, churches and other non-profits.

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