Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to raise property taxes by $500 million for police and fire pensions and school construction will force Chicago aldermen to put their political futures on the line and cast the most difficult vote any of them ever have taken.
That’s particularly true for rookie Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and grandson of former Mayor Richard J. Daley.
The younger Daley will have to swallow hard and buy into Emanuel’s central argument: That the largest property tax increase in modern Chicago history is essential to shore up police and fire pensions his uncle neglected, eliminate the structural deficit his uncle left behind and end what Emanuel calls the “gimmicks and shenanigans” Richard M. Daley used to “mask the real cost” of city government.
The fact that Emanuel says all that without ever mentioning the name Richard M. Daley does not make it any easier for Thompson to swallow.
Thompson argues that it’s not fair to blame his uncle either for years of pension sweeteners that made the pension crisis worse or for leaving a state-mandated, $550 million payment for police and fire pensions like a hot potato on Emanuel’s desk.
“I wouldn’t say that. I mean — when they negotiated contracts in years past, they negotiated. You either get paid current or you get deferred payment, which is often referred to as a pension,” Thompson told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“So I don’t think that’s an issue of who’s to blame. There’s no reason to look backwards. We’re moving forward. We have to figure out how we can fund government, continue to provide the services we need and the critical services.”
But how does it feel for the Daley family scion to hear Emanuel talk about ending Richard M. Daley’s “gimmicks and shenanigans” — like scoop-and-toss borrowing, selling off parking meters and draining the rainy day fund created with proceeds from the sale of city assets and using those one-time revenues to hold the line on taxes?
Does it make Thompson angry?
“No. No,” said Thompson, who still lives in his grandparents’ Bridgeport bungalow.
“I don’t want to get into personalities here. That’s nothin’. My job is to represent the 11th Ward as a member of the City Council, represent the city of Chicago and try to move forward with providing the services that we need at an affordable cost to all of those who live in the city, visit the city and work in the city.”
Thompson was asked point-blank whether he is prepared to vote for the 60-percent property tax increase and a first-ever, monthly garbage collection fee of $11-to-$12 per household. He responded with a pair of questions.
“Are we adding more policemen? Are we adding more public safety? I think we have to look at those when we start talking about taxes,” Thompson said.
The Bridgeport alderman did not explain how the city could afford to hire more police officers — at a cost of roughly $100,000 in salary and benefits per officer — at a time when the $30 billion pension crisis has dropped Chicago’s bond rating to junk status. Instead, Emanuel has used up to $100 million in annual police overtime as a more affordable and flexible substitute.
Thompson urged the mayor not to give up the ghost on the idea he championed during the 2011 mayoral campaign before dropping it after it was branded the “Rahm tax”: extending the sales tax umbrella by applying it to an array of services not now covered.
That’s a concept also embraced by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, though it would need approval from the Illinois General Assembly. But it won’t happen as long as Democratic legislative leaders are embroiled in a state budget stalemate with Rauner over the governor’s demand for pro-business, anti-union reforms.
“We need to work with the state. I’ve talked about expanding the sales tax to include services — whether it be my law firm or other accounting firms,” Thompson said.
“Chicago is the capital of the Midwest. You have a lot of service firms located here. That helps pay their fair share. They do it in New York and other big cities. Gaming is another area that we have to continue to look at.”
Thompson made it clear he’s not suggesting that Emanuel roll the dice and count on revenues from a service tax or Chicago casino to cover the looming payment for police and fire pensions. He’s simply suggested that the mayor “continue to work” toward legislative approval of both.
“If the relief comes at a later date and you can abate taxes, of course we’re going to look at doing things like that,” Thompson said.
“We did that at the Water Reclamation District. … We did raise property taxes there. But then, we abated it the following year. We were running our government more efficiently. We had other revenues that came in. We didn’t need the money. And rather than hold it, we gave it back to the taxpayers. That’s what we’ll have to [do] here.”
For Emanuel, the second term is likely to be his last — either because he will choose to call it quits or because the painful array of tax increases that will be necessary to solve the pension crisis will make it politically impossible for the mayor to run for a third term.
If that’s true, the list of mayoral candidates is likely to include Thompson, the first member of the Daley clan’s younger generation to win public office.
But Thompson will first have to find a way to escape political blame himself for what is certain to be the largest collection of tax and fee increases Chicagoans have ever seen.