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Editorial: Mayor had to go big on new taxes

Mayor Rahm Emanuel meets with the media to discuss the possibility of a property tax increase and the 2016 city budget at Erie Family Health Center on Thursday.

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Half a billion bucks, Chicagoans.

That’s the bite Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to take out of your wallet in the form of higher taxes to get this town back on its feet.

It hurts. It is horrible. It is necessary.

Nobody likes higher taxes, especially higher property taxes, but anybody could see this one coming.

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And if anybody on the City Council screams, as some already are, ask them where they were ten or 20 years ago when the city refused to live within its means or raise taxes. Instead, the aldermen acquiesced — so safe and easy to do — as former Mayor Richard M. Daley maxed out the city’s credit cards and effectively took out a second mortgage on every house and apartment building in town.

It takes time and an utter commitment to irresponsibility to dig a $30 billion pension hole.

After a judge last month shot down Emanuel’s constitutionally dubious plan to restructure two of the city’s woefully underfunded pension plans, it became painfully clear to any school child with a calculator that Chicago taxpayers soon would have to jump — and jump high. The mayor’s proposed 2016 city budget, to be presented to the Council on Sept. 22, would have to include an enormous increase in revenue. The mayor has been cutting costs all along, but that was never going to resolve the pension funding crisis.

The biggest proposed revenue increase, according to an exclusive report by Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman, is a property tax increase of about $500 per year on a home worth $250,000.

Whether Emanuel can round up enough votes in the City Council remains an open question. Even this docile collection of habitual followers is likely to bridle when asked to vote to raise property taxes a whopping 60 percent, impose a garbage collection fee on every household, and sign off on several other unpopular service and retail taxes.

It’s hard to show up at a block party after votes like those, let alone get re-elected.

But several of the smaller revenue-producing gambits originated with the aldermen themselves, giving them buy-in. And if any alderman still balks, he or she needs to come up with a better idea. As of yet, nobody has. We’re way past talking about fanciful measures like a commuter tax.

Give Mayor Emanuel his due. He’s going big on this, calling for a package of $500 million in new taxes, rather than continue City Hall’s old ways of managing disaster along the margins. But even that half billion, it should be noted, doesn’t quite get us there. As Spielman reports, the mayor needs at least $754 million in new revenue to balance his 2016 budget, and he is demanding concessions from the Chicago Teachers Union before he’ll commit to another $170 million in new taxes for the schools.

Hear that, teachers union? The mayor wants to raise taxes on your fellow Chicagoans by hundreds of millions of dollars. The ball is in your court. What will you do in return?

In truth, Emanuel probably had no choice but to go big on taxes, the bond rating agencies have signaled that half-measures won’t suffice to lift the city’s rating from junk status. But the mayor’s bold move is good politics — get the job done now and move on — and good for Chicago’s future. Decades of fiscal irresponsibility had finally caught up with the city’s reputation. Basic city services could be in jeopardy.

If it’s any solace, Chicago has low property taxes compared to other cities in Illinois — dead last among 89 cities for a tax bill on a $250,000 home, according to the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois.

When it comes to government paying its bills, spinelessness has been contagious in Illinois. Chicago has not been the exception, but the rule. From the State of Illinois to Cook County to the Chicago Park District to the Chicago Public Schools to dozens of cities and governmental units across the state, padding pensions while declining to actually fund them has been the Illinois Way.

Now it’s Springfield’s turn.

Pass a budget. Pay the bills. Quit fooling around.

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