On the upside, this proposal appears to include some good news. Emanuel said the gap between revenues and expenditures is shrinking, from $655 million in 2011 to a projected $339 million next year. At the same time, he plans to invest more in services like recycling and resources for kids and teenagers.
But 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. Here are the facts behind some of the mayor's claims.
"This budget will mark the third year in a row that we have balanced the city's finances without raising property, sales, or gasoline taxes."
The mayor conveniently ignores one small, expensive fact—that in addition to what's in the official city budget, hundreds of millions of property tax dollars are scooped up each year by the tax increment financing program. In 2012, the most recent year available, the TIF program collected $457 million from property taxpayers, $3 million more than the year before, according to county clerk David Orr. That means that in Emanuel's second year in office, the city's total property tax take was nearly $1.3 billion, far higher than the $801 million listed in the official city budget.
Plus, the proposed 2014 budget hikes fees and fines for other things you might do if you're alive in Chicago, such as subscribing to cable television or getting a speeding or parking ticket.
"For the third year in a row, we don't employ any gimmicks or raid long-term reserves to balance the budget."
Except that the Emanuel administration continues an old budget trick—dipping into tax funds designated for one purpose and using them for all sorts of other things. The best examples are the water and sewer funds. Two years ago Emanuel hiked city water and sewer fees to repair deteriorating infrastructure. These fees will generate an expected $984 million in 2014, according to the budget, but tens of millions of dollars will be diverted for things that have nothing to do with your tap or your toilet: "Professional and technical services" for the technology department, postage for human resources, salaries for city attorneys, and benefits for employees around city government.
"We have invested in a longer school day in our public schools, so Chicago's children will get more hours in the classroom."
Last year, the first of the longer school day, the schools found money to make sure the extra time was used on reading, art, and other enrichment programs. But many of the initiatives were wiped out earlier this year by budget cuts that included 1,500 teacher and staff pink slips. Some principals have tried to patch things together by skimping on computers and toilet paper.
"In the last two years I've joined nearly 100 businesses to announce their new offices, new headquarters, or job growth in our city. . . . Just as important, we are investing in small businesses across Chicago."
Unfortunately, the city's economic-development policies, starting with the TIF program, have helped accelerate the widening gulf between the city's prosperous and depressed areas. A recent analysis of employment data by the Grassroots Collaborative found that as the city added jobs downtown over the last decade, thousands disappeared from black and Hispanic neighborhoods most in need of a boost. The city's own belt-tightening added to the problems.
And as the Tribune reported last year, many of Emanuel's job announcements don't add up—the numbers never materialize or the new work is temporary, and job cuts aren't included in the totals.
"We have moved hundreds of police officers from behind desks to policing our streets. . . . Our new budget will fund another full year of academy graduates, ensuring that Chicago's police force remains at full strength."
Most of the 1,000 officers the mayor claimed to redeploy were already out on the street in specialized units assigned to high-crime areas. In fact, many veteran officers believe that dismantling these units was disastrous as murders and shootings spiked last year. Since then, the city has spent an estimated $1 million a week paying cops to work overtime shifts in troubled parts of the city.
At the same time, new police hires are barely keeping pace with retirements and attrition. Currently about 10,700 police officers are on the force—about 200 fewer than when Emanuel took office, according to payroll records posted online. That's also 1,100 fewer than in 2007.
"Here in Chicago, we have shown how to focus on serious violent crimes, and keep nonviolent criminals out of our jail system. Just last year, we reduced the penalties for marijuana in Chicago."
It's true that pot busts have dropped, but not for everyone. This year police have made an average of 46 arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession each day, most of them in black neighborhoods. And the jail population is near capacity, largely because thousands of defendants can't afford to bail out after being arrested in Chicago and charged with low-level drug offenses or other nonviolent crimes.
"My administration remains willing to work with anybody and talk with anybody to achieve pension reform. Our door is always open to work with anyone who has balanced proposals to solve this crisis."
In other words, we're still hoping somebody will show up with a way out of this pension mess.