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Emanuel's budget passes City Council on unanimous vote

Ald. Dick Mell speaks to city council, Wednesday, November 16, 2011, where council members voted 50-0 to approve the Administration’s 2012 budget. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

By pitching a shutout in his first big game on a new field, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has strengthened his hand when it comes to tackling the next big challenges ahead: pension reform and winning contract concessions from police and fire unions.

Emanuel’s $6.3 billion 2012 budget – and the $220 million in taxes, fines and fees needed to pay for it – scored a 50-to-0 vote in the City Council on Wednesday.

That’s a triumph for a rookie mayor – even one who honed his lobbying skills on Capital Hill – and a tribute to the partnership he forged with aldermen by tweaking his budget to accommodate their concerns.

Moments after the final vote, Emanuel warned aldermen from the rostrum that it was only “the beginning” and that “hard decisions” await. Police and fire contracts expire June 30.

“We have to deal with peoples’ pensions. We have to deal with … the costs hidden within our labor contracts …. burdening our taxpayers,” he said.

At a news conference later, Emanuel argued that the 50-to-0 vote, “strengthens the city’s future – not mine” when it comes to confronting those mega-problems.

“As we tackle the tough issues of pension reform and labor contracts, we are all strengthened to deal with that because those, too, will be difficult. And I expect to work with the aldermen as we work through those issues,” he said.

“But, having gone through this process and coming to this result, we are more united in tackling the other issues that have their own political meanings and their own financial meanings.”

Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) won a bet with Emanuel that Wednesday’s vote would be unanimous. Burke agreed that the shutout sends a powerful message to rating agencies, investors, the business community and the “labor movement.”

“Whenever you have … unanimous support of the mayor, it demonstrates … that the executive and legislative branches of government are united in moving the agenda of the city ahead,” he said.

Wednesday’s vote followed weeks of negotiations that tinkered at the margins, but let the big stuff slide.

Aldermen swallowed the mayor’s plan to more than double water and sewer rates over the next four years and lock in annual cost of living increases after that.

They went along with his plan to raise city stickers fees by $10 to $15, also followed by annual inflationary increases. They raised the city’s hotel tax, imposed a $2-a-weekday hike in parking taxes – billed as a congestion fee, even though it’s confined neither to rush periods nor congested downtown and River North areas – and hiked a laundry list of criminal, nuisance and parking fines.

Despite neighborhood concern about the perception of public safety, aldermen also signed off on the mayor’s plan to close the Wood, Prairie and Belmont district police stations, the first station closings in more than 50 years.

Ald. Will Burns (4th) said some of his constituents urged him to cast a protest vote against the Prairie station closing. But, four community meetings with police brass convinced him that the consolidation plan could work.

“I believe Supt. [Garry] McCarthy and your administration that our community will receive additional police officers and that 21st District officers familiar with our community will remain,” Burns said.

“On the South Side, there is a tradition to distrust what folks downtown will do with us. Promises made are not always promises kept. But, I believe you will keep those promises.”

The budget calls for: laying off 385 employees on Jan. 1 and 150 more in mid-year; reducing library hours when schools are in session; consolidating 12 mental health clinics into six and reducing the ranks of police and fire dispatchers in a way that could send 911 response times and employee burnout rates through the roof.

Two-thirds of the city $635.7 million shortfall will be erased through personnel reductions, departmental consolidations and other efficiencies. That’s a sharp contrast from the trick bag of one-time revenues that former Mayor Richard M. Daley used to avoid tax increases for the last two years.

“Obviously, as a child, you never learned the game kick the can because you are not doing it in this budget,” Rules Committee Chairman Richard Mell (33rd) told Emanuel.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), vice-chairman of the Budget Committee, called Emanuel’s first budget a stark contrast from Daley’s short-sighted approach.

“If it wasn’t tied down, what can we do to sell it? Throw [the proceeds] down the hole,” Reilly said.

“This is a different approach. Today is a day of reckoning.”