Smooth sailing expected for Rahm’s 2017 budget

SHARE Smooth sailing expected for Rahm’s 2017 budget

Some Chicago aldermen are reluctant to raise taxes again to fix a budget gap at Chicago Public Schools. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago will bolster its depleted police force by 529 officers in 2017 — and charge more for airport parking, street parking around Wrigley Field and shopping with disposable bags — under an $8.2 billion budget expected to sail through the City Council on Wednesday.

Don’t be fooled by the modest $50 million tax package tied to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2017 budget.

Aldermen have walked the tax plank three times in the last two years to solve the city’s pension crisis. Those earlier votes locked in three years of property tax increases; a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills; and a 56 percent increase in the monthly surcharge tacked on to telephone bills.

All of those increases are built into the 2017 budget.

Thanks to those bitter pills already swallowed, the additional tax bite is small.

“It’s not like anybody is hiding the ball. . . . I don’t think it’s part of a grand scheme to say, ‘Let’s pass the hard stuff three months ago, six months ago and one year ago.’ Those things are passed when the finances have allowed it or circumstances have required it,” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader.

“Not every vote needs to be a life-or-death vote. If [Wednesday] is a vote that’s easier for members of the City Council, that’ll be a nice thing for a change,” he said. “We have made some very hard decisions.”

The cornerstone of the new tax package is a 7-cents-a-bag tax on paper and plastic bags that’s certain to leave consumers feeling even more nickeled-and-dimed. That’s because they will pay it every time they go to the grocery or any other Chicago store without reusable bags.

From that 7 cents, a nickel will go the city. The remaining 2 cents will go to retailers, who turned the city’s partial ban on plastic bags into a farce by switching to thicker plastic bags that they could call “reusable.”

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association had pushed for a tax of 10 cents a bag. Retailers accepted 7 cents, with their 2-cent share, only after Emanuel agreed to lift the ban on plastic bags.

“It gives us something. We’re allowed to go back to thinner plastic bags we used to provide customers. The thin plastic bags cost 1 or 2 cents. The thicker ones cost 7 to 12 cents. So, it’s a big difference. It really helps cut our costs,” said Tanya Triche, the association’s vice president and general counsel.

When Washington, D.C., imposed a nickel-a-bag tax, consumers cut their use of disposable bags in half. City Hall hopes the same will happen here.

The revenue package also includes a new $14-an-hour fee to park in loading zones in or near the downtown area; a plan to double — to $4 an hour — parking meters rates at 820 spaces around Wrigley Field; and 752 additional paid parking spaces on Chicago streets.

High rollers willing to cough up big bucks for tickets to sporting events and hit shows like “Hamilton” will pay a 3.5 percent amusement tax on the full value of the tickets, instead of a 5 or 9 percent tax only on the markup of the ticket price.

Parking rates at O’Hare and Midway airports will rise dramatically to generate $4.3 million in parking tax revenue for the city and $15 million more for the fund used to operate both airports.

And the city will license pharmaceutical representatives to stem a wave of opioid abuse tied to over-prescription of those addictive drugs.

For all of the tax increases new and old, Emanuel’s budget is built around his 2-year plan to bolster the police force by 970 officers to stop a spike in homicides and shootings that has Chicago on pace to top 700 homicides this year.

Aldermen and the national police union remain skeptical about the mayor’s ability to deliver on his promise to fill 471 vacancies; keep pace with rising retirements; and still hire enough police officers in 2017 to add 250 patrol officers, 37 sergeants, 50 lieutenants, 92 field-training officers and 100 detectives next year to raise an abysmal clearance rate for homicides and shootings.

They have noted that Emanuel campaigned for a first term on a similar promise, only to break it.

To prove them wrong and maintain a continuous pipeline of candidates, Chicago will hold another police entrance exam in April; shave two months off the pre-employment process; and shift the training of veteran officers and candidates for promotion to seven City Colleges and DeVry University.

That will free up the cramped and antiquated police academy at 1300 W. Jackson to become the factory for new recruits it needs to be to handle classes of 100 recruits a month for 11 of 12 months, beginning in January.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley once promised to bolster the police force by 600 officers, only to fall short.

Then-Police Supt. LeRoy Martin retired a few months after embarrassing Daley by saying Chicago would end the year with fewer police officers on the street than it had in 1990 because Daley “ran out of money” to hire the 600 additional officers the mayor had promised.

O’Connor was asked whether Emanuel can avoid falling into the same trap.

“We are going to give it every effort that we can. We’re gonna try and keep up with the schedule that we’ve put out there. And if it’s not something we can meet, we’ll continue to try and add as many as we can within the confines of the numbers we’ve committed to,” he said.

The budget also embarks on a three-year, $36 million commitment to mentoring programs for at-risk youth. Over the same period, the city will contribute $100 million to a “Catalyst Fund” to rebuild neighborhoods and bridge the funding gap outside Chicago’s thriving downtown area.

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