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Mayor Rahm Emanuel is challenging the status quo

Updated: November 16, 2011 3:19PM

There’s plenty to critique in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first city budget, and I hope to do my share, but one thing you absolutely cannot say is that the guy took a duck.

Although it came wrapped in considerable spin, this was the most honest city budget I’ve ever seen and probably the most ambitious for its willingness to kick one hornet’s nest after another in hopes of rescuing the city’s finances while still moving ahead.

A huge water rate increase for homeowners, nonprofits — including churches — paying water bills for the first time; closed police stations; eliminating unfilled police officer positions; tax increases for hotel guests and for commuters who use downtown parking; higher vehicle sticker fees for SUV owners city worker layoffs;switching garbage collection to a grid system. Holy cow!

Everywhere you look in this budget, the new mayor is challenging the status quo and poking sacred cows. The budget is nearly as hyperkinetic as the man himself.

Whether or not you agree with everything he has in mind, it’s also refreshing, especially coming in the wake of several years of short-sighted, quick-fix budgets from Mayor Richard M. Daley that resulted in such fiascoes as the city blowing all its parking meter revenue for the next 75 years.

Topping the list of those with a legitimate beef with Emanuel are the residents living in neighborhoods served by police stations to be closed. Emanuel wants them to believe the station closings will bring them better police protection than they have now — by freeing more officers for street duty. Understandably, they’ll believe it when they see it.

While much of the budget had leaked out before Wednesday, Emanuel managed to keep the most controversial part secret.

The water rate increase was the big jaw dropper. The mayor plans to boost rates 82 percent over the next four years, starting with a 25 percent jump this year.

That’s not something that Emanuel told voters would be necessary when he was running for election — or in the five months since. He says he will use the money to overhaul the city’s aging water system by replacing 900 miles of century-old water pipes and relining 750 miles of sewers.

I don’t doubt the work needs to be done, and Emanuel is correct when he says city residents currently receive their water at a bargain price — though he might need to work a little harder to convince everyone of that. But 82 percent is still a big price bump to impose in a short time.

Maybe this will finally provide the impetus for Chicagoans to take the environmentally friendly step of getting a water meter installed, which comes with a promise of an immediate, if temporary, cost savings.

The budget will cause some conversation about whether the mayor is breaking a campaign promise not to raise taxes.

Actually, I think the only promise Emanuel made was not to raise property taxes. He tended to sidestep most tax questions by saying he couldn’t even talk about a tax increase until he had done everything he could to get city spending under control.

In government, the charge for water is usually classified as a fee, not a tax, but you can make your own judgment on that.

For some reason, Emanuel was taking credit Wednesday for not imposing a city income tax. We all can agree he would have found himself in a world of hurt if he had.

Emanuel had also previously told reporters he would not dip into the city’s honey pot of tax-increment financing dollars to help plug the 2012 deficit, but his budget plans on distributing $60 million in “surplus” TIF funds— of which the city gets $12 million. Emanuel denied backtracking on his earlier statements, explaining this is different because draining surplus TIFs will now be the city’s policy going forward. He’s definitely backtracking, but it may be for the best. Schools will get the biggest share of the money.

Similarly, Emanuel had said he wasn’t interested in using gimmicks to bring in a temporary influx of revenue such as the parking meter contract.

But his budget contains a similar — albeit much smaller scale — plan for the city to borrow against future anticipated bus shelter advertising revenue. Emanuel said this will generate $20 million that he will use to create what he’s calling an Innovation Fund to invest in technologies that would help the city save money over the long term.

Aldermen seemed a little stunned by all the mayor had put on their plate. In the end, though, you can expect them to swallow it pretty much whole.

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