News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

The people sound off on Mayor Emanuel's budget—but he's not listening

The City Council's progressive caucus holds a budget hearing, because someone has to.



A couple weeks ago Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered his view of the state of Chicago in his budget address to the City Council. It was a mix of facts, half facts, boasts, and outright spin that's become an annual rite.

According to the mayor, the budget's balanced—even though it's really not. Property taxes aren't going up—even though they actually are, thanks to the tax increment financing program. The mayor has hired more police officers, even though he hasn't.

As my colleague Mick Dumke wrote: "Even as Emanuel called for 'telling the truth' about city finances, his speech avoided doing so, glossing over details about how hundreds of millions of public dollars are spent."

Other than that, great speech!

Fortunately, not everyone buys the mayor's take on things. That's why I headed over to the drafty old UE Hall at 37 S. Ashland for last Wednesday's budget hearing sponsored by the City Council's progressive caucus.

More than 150 residents from all over the city braved the winds and rain to show up. I'm not saying Mayor Emanuel strong-armed Mother Nature to keep attendance low—even I wouldn't blame the mayor for things he can't control, though I do note that the Bulls have had a long run of bad luck since he took office.

The progressives' gathering was the only public budget hearing held this year. Mayor Emanuel certainly didn't convene one—though his predecessors had done so going back to the days of Harold Washington.

The idea was always that public hearings offer a chance for the mayor to hear from residents so he can draft his budget accordingly

But Mayor Emanuel stopped holding them after residents hit him with tough questions at the two he held during his first year in office. Apparently, the mayor much prefers genuflection.

So it was left to the eight members of the council's progressive caucus to hold one. For the record, they are: Robert Fioretti (2nd Ward), Roderick Sawyer (6th), Toni Foulkes (15th), Rick Munoz (22nd), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Nicholas Sposato (36th), and John Arena (45th). (Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston (5th) would have been there except she was under the weather.) Take your bows, aldermen.

In his opening remarks Waguespack warned that, as a block of eight in a council of 50, they could only do so much. And let's face it: the other aldermen are so wussy they'd do the hokey pokey on State Street if that's what the mayor told them.

Waguespack then invited members of the public to weigh in. "Step up and speak out," he said. "And should you feel compelled to talk about the mayor, remember—there are children here."

Who knew Alderman Waguespack had jokes?

One by one the speakers stepped to the microphone.

Mental health patients described struggling to make do without therapy since the mayor closed six neighborhood clinics.

A businessman from Roseland explained how TIF money intended for neighborhood business strips was being diverted to the new Wal-Mart on the far south side.

Another man gave an impromptu shoutout to Kari Lydersen's new book, Mayor 1%. I think we all know who that's about.

Others complained about cuts in the police force as the mayor calls on cops to work overtime to bolster the thinning ranks, and others ripped his drive to privatize public education by replacing regular schools with charters—like the one he wants to put across the street from Prosser High, which pretty much guarantees daily rumbles between students from the rival schools.

Sort of his Lord of the Flies approach to public education.

And several retired city workers gave compelling testimony about how mayoral budget cuts are creating whopping increases in their monthly health premiums.

Dorothy Harding - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Dorothy Harding

"I have one foot in the grave," said Dorothy Harding, a 70-year-old retired library employee. "Now that the mayor is cutting us out, I am starting to feel like I have both feet in the grave."

Now that's definitely a point of view you'll never hear in one of Mayor Emanuel's annual budget addresses.

After the meeting I chatted with Harding, a lifelong Chicagoan. "My family lived at 35th and Vincennes until we got displaced by Lake Meadows [housing complex] in the 1940s. We moved to Douglas Park on the west side—Douglas and Kedzie. I went to Marshall high."

Now she lives on the south side, where she raised her family. "I'm as Chicago as they come," she said.

I also caught up with Mary Jones, one of Harding's colleagues, who had a similar story to tell.

Born in Arkansas, she moved to Chicago when she was ten. She grew up in the Robert Taylor homes and graduated from Forrestville High School, which is now King High.

For more than 30 years she was a data-entry employee for the library system. She says her pension brings in about $35,000 a year and she pays $340 a month in health care premiums. Starting next year, the city wants to raise that premium to $454 a month, she said.

"I don't know how the mayor expects us to live," she said.

As she points out, Mayor Richard J. Daley instituted a residency requirement for city employees. It was his way of keeping a solid middle-class base, so the city didn't become another Detroit.

Mayor Emanuel has a knack for making current and former employees feel disposable.

"I guess the city must be doing pretty well, so they don't need us anymore," says Jones.

So beat it!

Look, I realize we've got fiscal challenges. And I know that the problem of soaring health care is one that can probably only be addressed on a national level.

Which is why President Obama and Mayor Emanuel should join Dr. Quentin Young's movement for a single-payer system.

Speaking of causes our mayor will never join.

But we can't address our fiscal challenges as long as the mayor is effectively keeping two sets of budget books.

One set says the city's damn near broke and has to force retirees—like Jones and Harding—into near destitution.

The other apparently shows we're so flush that we can spend tens of millions of property tax dollars on that new basketball arena for DePaul and the neighboring Marriott hotel the mayor wants to build in the South Loop.

Several speakers at the hearing mentioned that boondoggle.

I'm not sure how Mayor Emanuel expects retirees like Jones and Harding to get by as he jacks up their health costs.

But one thing's for certain—by not holding a budget hearing, he can pretend as though they don't exist.

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