If City Treasurer Kurt Summers hopes to run for higher office — be it mayor, governor or whatever — he needs to convince voters that he’s not beholden to the mayor who appointed him.
That pulling-away process continued Thursday when Summers used his turn on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings to complain that the mayor has not consulted him on Chicago’s debt structure.
“We invest in municipal bonds every day. We talk to other investors every day. We talk to credit rating agencies every day. The mayor and I have a greater opportunity to work together on the financial issues of the city. One of the most important issues is our balance sheet and how we approach our use of debt,” he said.
“We have financial advisers. But today, they’re working for us. Tomorrow they’re working for a bank. I have one job, which is to work for the city of Chicago. So, I have no conflict. I can provide that advice free and clear.”
Summers stopped short of declaring an “imbalance” that places too much financial authority in the mayor’s hands. He would only say that “given my background, I have a lot to offer to help.”
“It’s not a power issue at all. As a team, there are things we work on together and we can work on even more things together,” he added. “Like our conversations with investors and rating agencies, our issuance of debt and how we think about our balance sheet. I’m happy to help with those things if asked. . . . I have a strong opinion. I haven’t been asked about those things.”
During his budget address to the City Council, Emanuel talked of inheriting a city “on the financial brink” five years ago and putting it “back on solid ground” by confronting pension challenges that had been festering for decades.
The mayor said that has freed him to propose a 2017 budget “free of an immediate pension crisis, free of the black cloud of insolvency threatening the retirements of city employees and the financial future of Chicago.”
Chicago taxpayers have paid a heavy price for easing the city’s $30 billion pension crisis.
They have been hit with $838 million in property tax increases for police, fire and teacher pensions; a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills to save the Municipal Employees pension fund; and a 56 percent increase in the monthly tax on telephone bills — cellphones and land lines — for the Laborers Pension fund.
The heavy tax burden already imposed is why Emanuel’s sixth budget is his easiest: The tough stuff has already been done.
But Summers warned Thursday that Chicago is not out of the woods financially. Not by a long shot.
In sounding the alarm about the high level of city debt, he’s joining Wall Street rating agencies that have raised similar concerns.
Summers hedged when asked whether he believes Emanuel has done enough fast enough to wean Chicago from the bad financial habits that got the city into this mess.
“He inherited a nearly impossible situation. He’s done a pretty good job in getting to clean up the balance sheet. But he would say, and I would agree, we all still have a long way to go. And there are things I’m sure that investors and rating agencies would like to see him do and us do more quickly,” the treasurer said.
“They’d love us to have no more scoop-and-toss. They’d love us to have no more drawn lines of credit . . . or drawn lines for long-term financing for short-term needs. Some of those practices still exist. They’re nowhere near where they were, and that’s a testament to the mayor and his team. But folks in the market would love to see any of those things happen sooner or down to zero.”
Asked Thursday whether he’s running for mayor, Summers joked, “I’m hoping to be able to get a run in tomorrow morning. I haven’t really been working out that much in the last month or so.”
Turning serious, he said, “I’m honestly not thinking about this. . . . We have real challenges. I know that we have an easier budget this year. But our pension funding solutions haven’t passed in Springfield yet, and they’re not funded all the way through the arc yet. We’re not out of the woods with our school system by any stretch.”