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Aldermen urge CPS to steer clear of another property tax hike

Chicago City Hall. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Just because the Chicago Board of Education would be empowered to impose another massive property tax increase for teacher pensions doesn’t mean the “fail-safe” measure will be used, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader said Monday.

The authority is part of a school-funding plan still being worked out in Springfield.

“They definitely plan to make sure schools will not only open on time but have the wherewithal to continue to be open. And that’s the fail-safe that allows it to happen,” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee.

“I don’t think they’re running full speed ahead towards that as the solution. … It’s like taking out a line-of-credit figuring that, if you need it, you would have it. Good business would require you to look at all other options before you go further into debt. It’s a last-case scenario.”

O’Connor argued that Chicago homeowners and businesses are “pretty much at critical mass” after being hit with $838 million in property tax increases for police, fire and teacher pensions.

They’ve also endured a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills to save the city’s largest pension fund and a 56 percent telephone tax hike — on cell phones and land lines — to save the city’s smallest pension fund.

“If someone were looking for people in this chamber to increase property taxes, I would say that would be next to impossible,” O’Connor said.

The CPS budget relies on $269 million in help from the city. Emanuel has refused to say where a cash-strapped city grappling with its own sizeable budget shortfall would find that money.

The Chicago Sun-Times has reported for months that the mayor is considering raising taxes on downtown businesses, high net-worth individuals or both to honor that commitment and preserve his vaunted longer school day and school year.

“There are a number of options that they’re looking at and they’re just trying to determine if they’re real or viable. If they are, I’m sure they’ll make some announcements in the future that they’ve got other solutions. But if not, this, I assume, would be their fail-safe,” O’Connor said Monday.

Pressed to identify those options, O’Connor said: “I can’t tell you at this point.”

But, he argued that another effort to tap the tax-increment-financing surplus — like the $87.5 million used to stave off another teachers strike — should not be among them.

“If we continue those one-time things, it continues practices that continue to push your problem up the road.”

O’Connor wasn’t the only alderman urging the school board to steer clear of raising property taxes again.

“It’s pushing people out of the city,” said Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st). “When is enough enough when you keep going to the same well?”