‘New Rahm’ sets town hall meetings to solicit budget ideas

SHARE ‘New Rahm’ sets town hall meetings to solicit budget ideas
SHARE ‘New Rahm’ sets town hall meetings to solicit budget ideas

After enduring his first budget season as mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel made a decision that would come back to haunt him.

He did away with the public hearings-turned-all-purpose-gripe-sessions former Mayor Richard M. Daley held each year after unveiling Chicago’s preliminary budget. Emanuel replaced them with focus groups stacked with supporters.

The political contrast was clear.

For all of his faults, Daley was at least willing to listen and take the heat. Emanuel, trying to confront the financial mess Daley left behind, had a top-down management style that alienated voters. Emanuel’s challengers applied the “Mayor 1%” label and made it stick.

Now Emanuel is following through on his campaign promise to listen more and talk less by taking a page from the Daley playbook.

He’s scheduled three town hall meetings to solicit cost-cutting and revenue-raising ideas from everyday Chicagoans in hopes of incorporating some of those ideas in the budget he presents to the City Council on Sept. 22

The meetings will be on Monday, at Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren; on Wednesday, at South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 South Shore Drive; and on Thursday, at Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett. Each meeting starts at 6:30 p.m.; doors will open at 5:30 p.m.

Emanuel and his finance team, cabinet members and agency chiefs will be there to answer questions. Chicagoans unable to attend in person can put in their two cents using social media.

“My goal is to also walk people through what are the choices we have to make? What are some of the challenges we have? Where were we 20 years ago? Where were we four years ago? Where were we ten years ago? What are some of the choices we make? What are our priorities that we share in common?” Emanuel said Monday after accepting an award from the National Summer Learning Association for Chicago’s library-based Summer Learning Challenge at the Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted.

“A lot of parents want to make sure their kids have summer activities. Libraries play a role in that effort. … If we’re investing in our neighborhood services and we’re investing in our after-school activities, those are priorities. But, they have to be balanced off against another set of choices that also need change. I’m going to hear what are their choices. And I hope to give them the information that all of us … have to work with that create boundaries and create limits.”

That means the hearings will be equal parts gripe session, ideas forum and history lesson.

“Everybody knows because of past decisions that were made and past decisions that weren’t made over the last couple decades, we are where we are. The challenges are big enough, significant enough that I want to make sure everybody [who] has a set of ideas has a chance to contribute those ideas,” the mayor said.

Ald. Danny Solis (25th), chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, said Emanuel paid a political price for getting rid of the public hearings and stands to benefit from the decision to bring them back.

“He went through a tough election. He weathered it. He’s tougher and better for it. He learned to be more inclusive. He learned to pay attention and to connect with people. He knows he has to go through this,” Solis said.

“He has a certain type of personality, which I don’t mind. In private, I’m the same way. But, a lot of people didn’t connect with that. Now, he’s bending over backwards to show he’s for real. He knows people need to vent in our city. OK. Let’s get it on. Let’s do it.”

Solis predicted the town hall meetings would produce few, if any ideas on ways to raise revenue. Instead, he said, the hearings are likely to be the “bitch sessions” they were during the Daley years. Only this time, the mayor doing the listening will be Rahm Emanuel, who has a reputation for refusing to listen.

Emanuel will also have a forum to level with Chicagoans about the shared sacrifice that lies ahead.

“They’ll listen. They’ll complain. They’ll get angry,” Solis said. “They’ll probably say, ‘Don’t cut this. Don’t cut that.’ But when it’s all over, a lot of people will understand. When they leave, they may not all be happy, but nobody will be able to say that the opportunity to explain what’s going on wasn’t presented to them.”

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) said there is “no downside” politically for Emanuel — even if he gets an earful from angry Chicagoans at all three town hall meetings.

In fact, the more people implore Emanuel to hire more police officers and bolster — not cut — city services, the better off he’ll be. The more it will justify the massive property tax increase, the first-ever garbage collection fee and the smorgasbord of other tax and fee increases he is certain to impose.

“Getting yelled at and hearing peoples’ issues is part of the job. It allows people to see their elected official — not in some ivory tower somewhere but as a human being,” said Pawar, who holds three or four town hall meetings of his own every year.

“We all know the kinds of decisions we have to make in the next few months. People in Chicago know what’s coming. It’s incumbent on all elected officials to go out there, look people in the eye and say, ‘This is what we’re planning to do to resolve the financial crisis.’ They’re not going to be happy about it. But, they need to see that we’re in it with them. Everybody can vent. But, we’re all in this together.”

Struggling to solve a $30 billion pension crisis that has dropped the city’s bond rating to junk status, Emanuel needs $754 million in new revenue to balance his 2016 budget and shore up police and fire pensions, even under the best-case scenario. And that’s not counting the $9.5 billion pension crisis at the Chicago Public Schools.

Emanuel has already offered to raise property taxes by $225 million for the Chicago Public Schools, provided teachers accept the equivalent of a seven-percent pay cut and the state reimburses CPS for “normal” pension costs.

If he relies exclusively or even heavily on the most dependable source of revenue to solve the city’s pension crisis, Chicago’s $824 million property tax levy would have to nearly double.

After his budget team held closed-door meetings with aldermen that produced “70-plus ideas,” Emanuel said there was a “building consensus” in the City Council on “at least two” revenue ideas: “Some form of a garbage fee like other communities around the state and country have. [And] a fee around e-cigarettes and other tobacco products that are not cigarettes.”

On Monday, Emanuel warmed to yet another aldermanic idea: a parking ticket amnesty program that would be extended to the $100 tickets churned out by red-light cameras and the $35 and $100 tickets generated by speed cameras.

“We’ve done amnesties before. The library did an amnesty program before … as it relates to overdue books. And we’ve done amnesties before to make sure that people get whole, so to speak. We’ve even thought about that as it relates to scofflaws on individual things,” he said. “I don’t know about those particular. So, those are things we’ll explore.”

Shortly after falling short with just 45.6 percent of the vote on Feb. 24, Emanuel hit the air with an extraordinary mea culpa for a man who seldom, if ever, publicly admits mistakes.

Dressed in a V-neck sweater and an open-collar shirt, Emanuel looked straight into the camera and acknowledged that his “greatest strengths” are also his “greatest weakness.” He admitted he can “rub people the wrong way” and often “talk when I should listen.”

The mayor closed the Round Two campaign in similarly vulnerable fashion.

“Chicago is a great city, but we can be even better. And yeah, I hear you – so can I,” Emanuel said.

The three town hall meetings that will set the stage for, what will certainly be the largest collection of tax and fee increases that Chicagoans have ever seen are yet another indication that Emanuel learned a political lesson from Chicago’s first-ever mayoral runoff.

“With Mayor Daley, you’d watch those town halls and people would say, ‘I don’t agree with him, but he’s still our guy,’” Pawar said, predicting that the same reaction could await Emanuel if the hearings are deftly handled.

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