Brown: Rahm's property tax hike won't 'finish the job'

SHARE Brown: Rahm's property tax hike won't 'finish the job'

Mayor Rahm Emanuel delivers his 2016 budget address to the Chicago City Council at City Hall, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed $588 million property tax increase is both a painful and long overdue response to the city’s financial predicament.

What it isn’t, however, is the end of either the predicament or the pain.

Three times in the first five minutes of his speech Tuesday to the City Council, the mayor spoke in terms of asking aldermen to help him “finish the job” of curing the city’s sickly finances.

I agree that’s what they should do, and the budget measures outlined by the mayor are an important step in that direction.

But I wouldn’t want anyone to be left with the impression that job will be finished this year — or necessarily within the new four-term that Emanuel and the aldermen just started.

It’s going to take a lot more than this property tax increase and the proposed new garbage collection fee to pull Chicago “back from the financial brink” caused mainly by the underfunded pension plans of city workers.

Finishing that particular job remains years off in the future, years that will require either cuts to services or additional revenue measures that may include more painful property tax increases as the bill for other city pensioners comes due.

With this budget, though, the mayor is at least showing the city is willing when necessary to make tough political choices that he knows will not be popular with voters. Now we’ll see how many aldermen will back him.


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Emanuel had only just finished proposing his budget Tuesday before some aldermen began stating their opposition to the $588 million property tax increase.

So much for the mayor’s effort to appeal to their place in history and sense of public service, a major theme of this year’s budget speech.

Not usually given to rhetorical flourishes, or particularly good at it, Emanuel packed his budget address with lofty visions of aldermen securing their legacies with this year’s budget vote instead of just worrying about the next election.

“I know this budget is tough. I know it carries political risk. I get it. Make no mistake,” the mayor said.

“But there is a choice to be made. Either we muster the political courage to deal with this mounting challenge we inherited, or we repeat the same practices and allow the financial challenges to grow.”

It was thoughtful of the mayor to absolve the City Council of blame for the past mistakes, even though some of the senior aldermen have been in place through many of the decisions that brought us to this point.

But that’s crying over spilled milk, and I expect those same aldermen will now be among those who will take the lead in doing what has to be done.

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That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be some changes around the edges of Emanuel’s budget to make it more palatable.

The mayor’s plan has an extraordinary number of moving parts, starting with his long-shot effort to win state approval of an increase in the homeowner’s exemption to partly offset the property tax increase.

Throw in the new garbage collection fee, a surcharge on ride share services and taxi rides plus a tax on e-cigarettes, and you’ve got a lot of maneuvering room.

Emanuel could help if he would take the lead in renewing the push for revenue reform on the state level, not to underestimate the problems of getting anything done in Springfield at the moment.

We’re still going to need a state income tax increase, preferably a switch at some point to a progressive income tax from the current flat tax, and a broader sales tax that includes services. Both could take the pressure off the property tax in the long run.

To his credit, Emanuel is not waiting on any such outside help this time. He’s turning to the one major revenue source under his control — the property tax — and letting the political chips fall where they may.

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