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As Emanuel fights for political life, aldermen show independence

Chicago aldermen emboldened by a once-powerful but now wounded Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday questioned just about everything on the agenda of the City Council’s Finance Committee.

Routine matters that once sailed through without a whimper were placed under the microscope — and it wasn’t limited to the protracted debate over Emanuel’s plan to borrow a record $3 billion. No issue was too small for the laser-like focus.

A plan to use tax-increment-financing to build a $2 million park at 21st and Prairie near the Marriott Marquis Hotel being built with a $55 million TIF subsidy was placed on hold.

So was a request for $2.6 million in fee waivers for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which is building a new DePaul basketball arena that will double as an event center for McCormick Place. Emanuel’s original plan called for the $55 million TIF subsidy to be used to build the stadium. But the subsidy was switched to the hotel after the arena became a symbol of what critics called the mayor’s misplaced priorities.

Aldermen Scott Waguespack (32nd), Brendan Reilly (42nd) and John Arena (45th) demanded to know why the park wasn’t being bankrolled by the Marriott hotel chain. Reilly and Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, demanded more information about how the McPier authority has spent proceeds from the 1 percent tax on downtown restaurant meals.

“They added 1 percent over 20 years ago. This tax was supposed to go away, but they continue to add projects. I don’t know if consumers will ever see that sales tax go away,” Tunney said.

A proposal to reimburse the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools for an already built, $4.7 million artificial turf athletic field for Jones College Prep also raised eyebrows.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) demanded to know why aldermen were being asked to approve the project after the fact. Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) said he’s all for the Jones project. But what about the new athletic field promised to students at Wells High School, he asked. They’re still playing on what Moreno called an “asphalt jungle.”

The Finance Committee meeting dragged on as aldermen questioned a blanket request to waive fees for all 2016 projects built by the Emanuel-chaired Public Building Commission. Still more questions were asked about the mayor’s plan to issue up to $98.4 million in tax-exempt “special assessment bonds” to reduce borrowing costs dramatically for developers building a massive residential development within the Franklin Point and River South areas.

“I’m not sure I agree that development wouldn’t happen without this,” Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said.

Developers of the 3,000-unit plan talked about the traffic improvements they’re bankrolling and about the embankment and riverwalk improvements that will be open to the public and will be “on a scale much larger than those typically seen” on a privately funded project.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that aldermen were likely to question virtually everything Emanuel does for the next 3 1/2 years, in part, to save their own political necks.

Like Emanuel, they were harshly criticized for signing off on a $5 million settlement to the family of Laquan McDonald one week after the April 7 runoff — even before a lawsuit had been filed — without asking tough enough questions and seeing the incendiary video.

That means the embattled mayor who managed to persuade 35 aldermen to support a $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and school construction will have a tough time getting 26 votes for the tax increases that lie ahead if, as expected, the Illinois Supreme Court overturns Emanuel’s plan to save two other city employee pension funds.

Even before any Round 2 tax hikes, Chicago taxpayers are likely to raise the roof when property tax bills hit their mailboxes next summer reflecting the double whammy of Emanuel’s record tax hike and increases triggered by property reassessments.

On Monday, that new era of independence was on full display. And it’s likely to continue for the remainder of Emanuel’s second-term. With aldermen smelling blood in the water, a once-powerful mayor now fighting for his political life will no longer get the benefit of the doubt.