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Editorial: Going easy on taxpayers in tough times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel discusses his budget plan Wednesday with Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board.  |   Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel discusses his budget plan Wednesday with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 12, 2012 11:53AM



Let’s hope everything breaks right for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013.

His budget is banking on it.

The mayor on Wednesday released a reasonable and fair-minded budget proposal, one that holds the line on taxes but instead makes up for a $298 million deficit mostly by relying on projected cost savings and anticipated revenue growth.

It’s the right budget for the times, one that primarily leans on right-sizing government to cover costs, not on taxpayers. It’s the second budget in a row for Emanuel that looks reality in the eye, largely built on what money the city has or realistically can expect to generate, not money gained from selling assets or raiding a rainy-day fund.

But several key questions must be fully answered before aldermen sign on to next year’s budget:

† Will the city really generate $70 million in health-care savings this year and next?

† Will city revenue really increase by $87 million?

† Will personnel savings really reach $45 million even though the city has yet to sign new contracts with firefighters and police, two of the city’s biggest-ticket items?

Emanuel acknowledged in a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board that revenue growth isn’t guaranteed, but he noted that the trends were positive and the estimates were conservative.

Aldermen and taxpayers should also think about Emanuel’s pledge to keep the police department at “full strength” at all times. That simply means keeping up with attrition.

Is this too modest a goal for a city with a skyrocketing murder rate? Many aldermen and city residents think so. We asked Emanuel, who spoke eloquently before the City Council about making public safety priority No. 1, if he would prefer more officers if money weren’t an obstacle.

The cash-strapped mayor didn’t answer, instead pointing to promising new policing strategies and investments elsewhere that affect crime, such as after-school programs, curfews and gun strategies: “Leadership counts,” he said.

“It’s not just how much [you spend] but where it’s applied,” Emanuel said.

It’s our job to poke at Emanuel’s budget proposal, knowing full well that he has limited choices and a growing track record to show that he can deliver. Last year’s budget relied on anticipated savings and new revenue as well, and we’re seeing much of it materialize.

Highlights of those achievements include boosting debt collection to $69 million, twice the projected amount; boosting procurement savings by up to $25 million by year’s end; creating managed competition for trash recycling; implementing a new, more efficient grid-based garbage collection system, and changing labor work rules to save $5 million a year.

But Emanuel knows this is no time for a victory lap, and he pointedly refused to take one. He was at his best Wednesday when he spoke forcefully about the city’s looming pension crisis.

And when we say looming, we mean right now.

Without legislative action in Springfield to reduce pension benefits, the city’s pension bill in 2015 will jump to $1.2 billion, up from $476 million now. If you pay $5,000 in property taxes today, you can expect a 43 percent increase in 2017 — to $7,150 — to cover the pension bill, according to city estimates.

Alternatively, pension payments will consume 22 percent of the city budget in less than four years, Emanuel said. Now — this fall or early 2013 at the latest — is the time for legislators to act.

“If we do not come to terms with our past and take on our long-term challenges, all of this hard work will go out the window,” Emanuel told the City Council. “This is what we face if we do not fix the crisis surrounding our pension payments — or if we do too little, too late.”



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