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Here’s the good news: Mayor Daley believes that, with your help and a few dozen aye votes from the City Council, he can keep Chicago moving forward.
Here’s the bad news: Because of the imploding economy, not even staff cuts, new taxes and fee increases, reduced services, and additional leasing of public assets—and, if you can believe it, not even a doubling of library fines—are likely to fix the city’s budget problems. Even in the best circumstances, city officials project deficits of at least $200 million a year through 2012.
That, in essence, was the message of the mayor’s annual budget address, delivered to an overflow crowd in council chambers Wednesday morning. It prompted a standing ovation.
"I have confidence that over the long term American’s economy will rebound," Daley said. "It may take time, but we’ll get there. Until then, like every family, we must continue to manage our city budget with a slow economy in mind."
To that end, the mayor proposed several ways to cut spending—and a few more ways to bring in revenue that in previous years was generated by various real estate, sales, and property taxes now in rapid decline. Among the highlights, or lowlights, depending on your perspective: 929 city employee pink slips and 1,350 vacancies that won’t be filled; the consolidation of several city departments; diversion of some of the Midway lease proceeds, and anticipated cash from leasing city parking meters, to general operating funds; dismissal—that’s right—for city employees who don’t "do a day’s work for a day’s pay"; refinancing existing debt; hiking certain parking fees and raising taxes on entertainment and private-sector garbage collection; service shutdowns for six days around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. The city will also cut funding for free downtown trolley rides and the jumping jack program for kids, and library scofflaws can expect to pay twice as much in fines.
The budget proposal, Daley said, “improves management, minimizes reductions in services, and maintains funding for public safety while still investing in neighborhood infrastructure to keep Chicago moving forward.”
Translation: in these tough times, when just about every governmental entity in the country is scrambling to piece together a survival plan, the mayor and his staff were smart enough to include a few party favors in theirs that will be hard for aldermen to resist. Millions from the Midway deal will be poured into the ward menu program, which allows aldermen to spend money on whatever capital improvements they choose. Ever-increasing pots of TIF money will continue to be doled out to finance other pet projects. Daley says he'll lobby the federal government for a jobs program that will help all of Chicago.
Without dropping his name, the mayor even made a pledge to his on-again, off-again critic James Meeks—who as far as I could tell wasn’t physically in the building—by vowing to pressure Springfield to reform the school funding system.
"If we work together and avoid the bickering that has divided the federal government and other cities and states attempting to pass their budgets, we’ll be taking an important step toward addressing the financial challenges we face," Daley said.
Aldermen may have stood and applauded the mayor afterward, but nobody could pretend to be happy about what he’d said. Some of the out-and-out skeptics, like Bob Fioretti, Pat Dowell, and Scott Waguespack, wondered why some of the "management improvements" hadn’t been implemented already if they were such great ideas. "We plan six months ahead; other cities have five and six-year plans," said Waguespack. "There’s no way you can say you didn’t see some of this coming."
Even stalwart allies said their constituents didn’t want to hear about slowed or reduced service—they wanted more trash pickup and tree-trimming, not less. Not that anyone had better ideas than the mayor’s. And all could acknowledge that desperate times call for desperate measures. Before a phalanx of TV cameras, 31st Ward alderman Ray Suarez held up a copy of the 611-page budget proposal and made a pledge that would have been unthinkable, or at least unutterable, in many of the flush years past: "We are going to have to look closely at this thing."
Hearings start next Monday at 10 AM in council chambers; they're open to the public.