Editorial: Mixing up a stew of Chicago revenue solutions

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Let’s get this conversation started already.

Just what mix of revenue increases should Chicago consider to begin climbing out of a financial abyss, while also cutting costs? If Chicago wants to remain a diverse city, accessible for all, it won’t dare put the full burden on a property tax hike. But that’s all Chicagoans have heard about, plus that elusive city casino, which almost certainly will generate less revenue than promised, at some distant date. Hail Mary revenue sources almost never deliver.

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Ald. Joe Moore got the ball rolling on a real conversation last week, telling the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman that a first-ever city income tax should be on the table. In a major break from the past, Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not immediately shoot it down. The mayor’s unwillingness in the past few years to consider a range of revenue ideas has tamped down the public conversation, especially in the City Council, that Chicago sorely needs. We’re hoping that’s about to change.

“A progressive city income tax aimed at those who can most afford to pay — so we don’t add further burdens to working and middle-class folks trying to get by — is one idea that’s an alternative to relying solely on a property tax increase,” Moore said.

Might a Chicago income tax have bad, unintended consequences? Of course. And we’re by no means endorsing the idea here. But so might all the other taxes Chicago needs to consider: a commuter tax, a modest financial transaction, the broadening of the sale tax to cover more services, closing some tax-increment financing districts, congestion pricing and a pay-as-you-go garbage fee, to name some of the biggies.

Each revenue-generator should be vetted and priced out publicly, and the results should be explained far and wide so that the City Council and every Chicagoan come to accept two realities. One is the sheer size of Chicago’s financial crisis. The second is that no single solution will cut it. The pain has to be spread as widely as possible. The question then becomes: Which ingredients, in what proportions, make for the best stew — or at least the one that goes down easiest?

We have long said that raising property taxes — the city’s most stable revenue source, and one of the few it controls directly — is inevitable. But if property taxes are raised too much, both for Chicago and the school system, the city we know and love will cease to exist. An already dwindling middle class will flee.

A property tax hike should only be part of that bigger stew — and City Hall in the meantime must find ever more ways to cut costs. Case in point would be to stop contractors from dumping construction waste at unauthorized disposal sites, as Inspector General Joe Ferguson suggested Wednesday.

Time is short. A back-breaking $1.1 billion police and firefighter pension payment is due this year, on top of an out-of-whack budget that must be balanced. The possible solutions, plus estimates on how much they can generate, are well known and documented.

Let the conversation begin.

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