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Speed-camera revenues figure in Emanuel’s ‘children first’ budget

Updated: November 12, 2012 11:52AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday he’s counting on up to $30 million in fines from speed cameras installed at roughly 40 schools and parks to help bankroll his “children first” budget.

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 for 2013 and still make a big investment in kids.

During a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, the mayor denied that the $30 million figure contradicts his longstanding claim that speed cameras are about saving lives — not about raising revenue.

“I’m keeping my word. I said we were gonna invest in kids and their safety. … We’re gonna expand by 30 percent our after-school programs, double the size of our summer jobs and add 5,000 kids to our pre-K, wrap-around, full-day services,” the mayor said.

“It wasn’t a money-maker in the sense that you were leaving the impression, which is that it was gonna be just some sloshing around inside the budget. It’s going right back into what I said it was. And there’s no better child safety program than after-school programs.”

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, Budget Director Alex Holt acknowledged that the $30 million figure makes it imperative that the city ramp up quickly during the first quarter of 2013 so speed cameras can start churning out 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” — as required under state law — must be quickly resolved.

Last week, Emanuel disclosed his decision to hold the line on taxes, fines and fees in his 2013 budget and count on rebounding revenues, continued cost-cutting and dunning deadbeats to erase a revised $298 million shortfall.

On Wednesday, the mayor delivered on that promise with a proposed $8.3 billion budget that includes 275 employee layoffs, all but a handful through attrition, eliminates the job-killing head tax by Dec. 31 and makes strategic investments in tree-trimming, rodent control and children’s programs.

The Chicago Police Department will: hire the 500 officers needed to keep pace with retirements; “re-invent” community policing by moving resources and staffing to “districts where they belong” and extend year-round a “surge” program that hires off-duty officers on overtime during summer weekends .

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

But, 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, obviously counting on concessions by police and fire unions to make the new contracts revenue-neutral.

During his budget address to the City Council — and again at the Editorial Board meeting — Emanuel warned that the good times would come crashing to a halt without a solution to Chicago’s $25 billion pension crisis.

The mayor proposed no new sources of local tax revenue to help solve the pension problem — other than to repeat his dire warning that a 150 percent increase in property taxes would be needed without employee concessions.

Nor did he mention the bitter pill he asked union leaders to swallow last spring: a 10-year freeze in cost-of-living increases for retirees; a five-year increase in the retirement age; a five-percent increase in employee contributions and a two-tiered pension system for new and old employees.

The mayor simply declared that the day of reckoning for Chicago has arrived. In just four years, Chicago’s pension obligations will rise to $1.2 billion — 22 percent of the city budget.

“This either is a permanent break with the past — making the changes and the reforms— or that’s out the window and you’ll look back at it and say, ‘Boy, those were the days.’ Because what’s coming is, in my view, unpalpable and it’s the wrong set of choices,” the mayor told the Sun-Times.

“I don’t diminish [the hardship on city employees]. … We are changing peoples’ expectations. They think they negotiated ‘em fair and square — and they did. But, the other set of choices, since they’re all residents of the city, is also not fair: Cutting back on services they expect or raising their property taxes.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) answered the mayor’s clarion call by proposing a new revenue source that will surely be needed, even if labor meets the city half-way.

“Maybe a commuter tax for those [who] work in the city and live outside the city. Start contributing something to the growth of our city. That would create hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. That’s something we need to look at. It may not be popular. But, it’s something” the city needs to consider, Sawyer said.

“I would prefer that person who worked in the city live in the city. Then, they wouldn’t have to pay that tax. [But], if you’re making money off the city and you take those tax dollars to Flossmoor or Elk Grove Village, it’s not doing us any good. … You should contribute your fair share.”

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, would only say that solving the pension crisis on the backs of Chicago property owners “would result in a taxpayer revolution. People couldn’t afford to be in Chicago. It can’t happen.”

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall said Emanuel has outlined a “fairly reasonable plan” to whittle away at the city’s structural deficit and return $15 million to a “rainy day” fund former Mayor Richard M. Daley depleted after selling off Chicago parking meters.

But, Msall said, “The budget will still rely on one-time revenue sources — such as TIF surplus and debt re-financing — that won’t be there next year.”

He added, “The biggest challenge to this budget will be whether or not the city is able to get pension reform through the Legislature. The pension crisis will reach a critical point later in 2013, when the Chicago Public Schools face the end of their pension holiday, and in 2014, when police and fire pensions have increased contributions of over $700 million.”

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