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Council puts cart before horse, borrows $25 million for cop cars

A Chicago City Council committee on Friday approved borrowing more money to pay for the police cars that will be needed by hundreds of new officers Mayor Rahm Emanuel intends to hire. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago aldermen agreed Friday to put the cart before the horse — or rather, the squad car before the police officer.

The City Council’s Finance Committee tacked $25 million onto a previously-approved, $1.25 billion borrowing to bankroll the purchase of 600 new police vehicles for the 970 new officers Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to hire over the next two years.

The earlier borrowing included $40 million for new vehicles of all kinds, including garbage trucks, snow plows and street sweepers. But the $7 million worth of police vehicles included in that prior purchase will not be enough to serve the new officers.

That’s why Emanuel asked for and got the authority to add another $25 million to the city’s mountain of debt.

After the vote, Budget Director Alex Holt was asked the overriding question that has loomed ever since Emanuel announced the police hiring surge:

How does the mayor plan to deliver on his promise to fill 471 police vacancies, keep pace with rising attrition and still hire enough police officers to add 516 patrol officers, 92 field training officers, 112 sergeants, 50 lieutenants and 200 detectives to raise an abysmal clearance rate for homicides and shootings?

At a first-year cost of $138,000-per-officer — including salary, benefits and supervision — the 970 additional officers carry a two-year cost of $133.8 million.

Holt would only reiterate the mayor’s promise not to raise sales, property or gasoline taxes. She pointedly did not rule out increases in other taxes, fines and fees.

“We work through the budget every year. We look at all of the places we can save money. And then, we look at where the revenue opportunities are. We’re still in the process of finalizing those. I’ve got a week to go,” Holt said, referring to the Oct. 11 unveiling of the mayor’s 2017 budget.

“We’re working through looking for the opportunities on the savings side and then we also look for the opportunities on the revenue side. It’s gonna be part of that whole package.”

Property, sales and gasoline taxes are off the table, only because Chicago homeowners have had their fill.

They’ve 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 tacked on to telephone bills — on cell phones and land lines — for the Laborers Pension fund.

In light of that avalanche of tax increases, Holt was asked whether she was concerned about being accused of “nickel-and-diming” taxpayers if the police hiring surge requires a smaller fee or tax.

“A smaller fee or tax probably isn’t gonna be sufficient, given the investment we need to make,” Holt said.

“When we look at fees, we do that every year by matter of course. Fees are intended to support a service we’re providing. So, we do go through the process of looking through those — making sure they’re sufficient to support whatever service it is we’re providing. But the mayor tells me to start with the reforms and savings and move on. The point being that, if it’s part of our overall budgeting process, which it is, it’s an overall look at our revenues and an overall look at our expenses and not just looking at this cost individually.”

All of the new squad cars will be Ford Interceptor SUV’s purchased from the Ford assembly plant on the Far South Side.

Before approving the borrowing, aldermen questioned the concept of using long-term borrowing to pay for short-term assets.

Chief Financial Officer Carole Brown insisted that there’s no need to worry.

“We have to do a tax allocation based on the useful life of what we’re financing. Debt that amortizes in the first three years will be allocated to shorter-lived assets. We’re not issuing 30-year bonds to pay for three-year assets,” Brown said.

With the way the Chicago Police Department rotates its vehicles, Holt said the “useful life” of police cars is roughly seven years for SUVs and 11 years for other vehicles.

That statement raised eyebrows as well.

“Ten or eleven years? I’m questioning whether a police car would last that long,” said Ald. Marge Laurino (39th), whose Northwest Side ward is home to scores of police officers.

Brown replied, “Not all cars are used equally. Cars used on patrol have a much shorter life. Vehicles used for purposes other than on patrol have a much longer life. They’re moved in a way that nobody is driving an unsafe vehicle.”

Considering the fact that Chicago’s crushing debt load has already raised warning flags with Wall Street rating agencies, Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) demanded to know whether top mayoral aides anticipate any additional borrowing beyond the revised, two-year authorization already granted.

“As the market absorbs the financial adjustments we’ve made, I do expect our credit will improve,” Brown said.

“I don’t anticipate more new money authorization, but refinancing, if we can do it for savings, it’s a good thing.”