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Editorial: Emanuel draws budget with no quick fixes

Updated: November 16, 2011 2:03PM

When Chicago’s new mayor laid out his very first city budget Wednesday, he didn’t propose selling off city assets, raiding rainy-day funds or putting off for tomorrow what must be done today.

Instead, Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered up a strong and tough-minded opening bid for tackling the city’s monstrous deficit.

What a healthy change of pace.

For the last few years, Mayor Richard M. Daley balanced the city budget with a heavy dose of one-time fixes. It is now painfully clear that economic salvation is not around corner.

Emanuel deserves much credit for his willingness to do the painful and crucial work of resizing government.

Faced with a $636 million deficit, Emanuel wants to whittle down nearly two-thirds of it with spending cuts and efficiencies, some unpopular but long overdue — eliminating 2,200 open positions; laying off 517 employees; switching to a grid system for garbage pickup; charging hospitals and other nonprofits for water service, and reducing library hours.

To make up much of the rest of the deficit, Emanuel is proposing $79 million in new fees and taxes, most of which we can support because they reflect well thought-out priorities and don’t burden all Chicagoans.

They punish bad behavior — higher fees for drunken driving, drag-racing and illegal dumping, for example.

Or they advance a clear policy goal, a “value proposition,” as Emanuel likes to say.

He is proposing increased fees for SUV and truck drivers (who cause 80 percent of damage to streets), for example, and a “congestion premium” that would add $2 to the parking tax in downtown garages. The new revenue would support CTA improvements, hopefully luring people from their cars to the CTA.

The structure of his budget is right on, opening the door for a vigorous debate on the specifics.

Emanuel makes a strong case for many proposals but promotes them as if their virtues were absolute and their correctness self-evident. Before the City Council says yes, several proposals deserve a more thorough vetting:

†Emanuel wants a 1 percentage point increase in the hotel tax. He says this would put Chicago on par with New York and Los Angeles and noted that past increases haven’t hurt hotels. Also, the increase would be offset by reducing the hated employee head tax. All good points. But how would Chicago’s taxes compare those cities that compete for convention business, such as Orlando?

†The mayor wants to close three police districts, consolidating them into newer, nearby buildings to create larger districts with greater manpower. This is part of a larger strategy to better deploy police resources. Before moving forward, Emanuel would be wise to listen closely to concerns of the aldermen and citizens who know those communities best.

† Emanuel wants to nearly double over four years what Chicagoans and suburbanites pay for water and sewer service, noting that we pay among the lowest rates in the country. The increase would finance a much-needed upgrade to the city’s century-old network of water pipes. We can’t argue with the need, but it’s reasonable to ask whether residents can afford such a steep increase.

† More than half of the $417 million in spending reductions proposed by Emanuel come straight out of city departments, including a major cut to the Department of Family and Support Services. These cuts have to be carefully evaluated to make sure vulnerable Chicagoans don’t lose vital services.

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