The bad-news budget

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Aldermen did actually debate for a couple of hours before they voted on Mayor Daley's 2009 budget, but not about whether it should be approved—that was a foregone conclusion under the pressures of an imploding economy, a domineering mayor, and a shortage of alternative ideas, as the 49-1 head count eventually showed. So instead they went back and forth about what was wrong with it even though it had to be passed.

Sixth Ward alderman Freddrenna Lyle described it as a “bad-news budget” but said the council had fought for and won important revisions since the mayor introduced it last month. “We’ve done our homework,” she said. But the Fourth Ward’s Toni Preckwinkle didn’t think she and her colleagues had done enough homework. She called for an additional week of budget hearings next year. “How can we run through 40 departments in two weeks?” she asked. “I don’t think it leads to a very thoughtful process.”

And so it went on issues large and small. Ray Suarez (31st) said he still didn’t like the new fee for dumpsters, which essentially taxes businesses and multi-unit apartment dwellers, but he was grateful that a newly formed council subcommittee would discuss it further and possibly replace it in the coming months. Helen Shiller (46th) then urged Suarez and everybody else to broaden the dumpster discussions to include the city’s recycling and waste management policies. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said this budget was the best the city could do in dire times, but ripped the administration for poorly managing department mergers and not planning ahead; he was followed by George Cardenas (12th), who lauded the administration for being smart and responsible. Howard Brookins (21st) praised the atmosphere of cooperation that had led to a plan to reduce layoffs; Bob Fioretti (2nd) demanded that the administration work more collaboratively with aldermen next year. While Richard Mell (33rd) lamented the demise of the old industrial economy, Manny Flores (1st) encouraged everyone to work on building a new green one. Mary Ann Smith (48th) blamed the federal and state governments for not doing enough to stanch the economic bleeding, but to James Balcer (11th) the real problem is the country’s addiction to foreign oil.

The lone nay vote came from 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio. “Yes, these are hard times, but I think in this budget we haven’t been that responsible,” he said. Ocasio was angry that the city could find money for Millennium Park and the 2016 Olympics bid but not for communities like his, and he accused the administration of axing productive low-level workers instead of unnecessary middle managers. “For the reasons mentioned—the wrong people being laid off, my community being taken for granted, all the false promises, and the fact that this administration believes that everything and everyone is expendable—I vote no.”

It was, ironically, almost the exact opposite of—or, given the spirit of the times, the perfect complement to—a speech Shiller had delivered a few minutes earlier. For several years in the late 1990s she was the one who cast the lone no vote on Mayor Daley’s budgets, but this time she made a plea for collaboration and dialog during the rotten economic climate. “Often the City Council is looked as a body, that if we all vote one way or another, it’s a rubber stamp,” she said. “But that doesn’t fit the times.”

Not surprisingly, no members of the council argued that it was, in fact, a rubber stamp, and, amid the usual political rhetoric about how it might be the media's fault but it certainly wasn't theirs, they found common ground on several other critical issues. They repeatedly reminded each other that real live people across the city are losing their jobs and their homes and feeling desperate. They agreed that this is nothing short of a disaster, and they agreed that, frighteningly, next year will probably be worse.

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