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City should annex suburbs, McCarthy says. No thanks, suburbs say

Mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Tuesday, February 5, 2019. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Tuesday, February 5, 2019. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy on Tuesday proposed annexing suburban communities — including Norridge, Oak Park, Oak Lawn and Evergreen Park — to generate revenue needed to chip away at a looming $1 billion spike in pension payments.

During an endorsement session before the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, McCarthy suggested annexation as a double barreled solution to Chicago’s alarming loss of population and the $270 million pension payment in the 2020 budget that will be the first for Chicago’s newly-elected mayor.

“We really need to talk about annexation. Nobody wants to talk about it. It’s a political football. [But] we’ve lost population. I could tell you how we could scoop up almost 160,000 people in a heartbeat,” McCarthy said.

“Annexation will give us the ability to combine municipal services, which will be cost savings, and at the same time expand our tax base. The incentive for them is I could name like six or seven jurisdictions that have higher composite taxes than we pay here. … There’s no downside to it except for the fact we’re locked into the way we do things.”

The last time Chicago annexed any suburban land, the purpose was to build O’Hare Airport in the 1950s.

McCarthy acknowledged that the burgeoning City Hall corruption scandal is likely to be a disincentive to annexation in suburbs where honest government is more than just a slogan.

But he argued that the economies of scale in city services and the lure of lower tax rates could be overriding factors.

No way, suburbs say

Evergreen Park Mayor Jim Sexton strongly disagreed.

“Our police pension fund is paid over 80 percent. Unheard of. We have a great [bond] rating. I don’t know why a village would want to get involved in some of the problems the big city is having,” Sexton said.

Sexton noted that the village of Evergreen Park “decided to incorporate instead of being part of the city” 125 years ago.

“They never looked back. I don’t think there are too many suburbs interested in joining that mess,” he said.

Debate over protecting pensions

McCarthy’s annexation idea was the most intriguing to emerge from a mayoral endorsement session divided into two meetings to accommodate all 14 mayoral candidates.

In addition to McCarthy, the first session included Bill Daley, Amara Enyia, Jeremiah Joyce, Willie Wilson and John Kozlar.

Daley was alone among candidates in the first group in advocating for an amendment to the Illinois constitution to change a pension protection clause that states that those benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.”

Joyce, the son and namesake of one of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s most calculating political operatives, strongly disagreed, noting that retirees “held up their end” and deserve what they were promised.

“Whether it be a first responder who agreed to run through a burning building or run into a shoot-out, they didn’t say, `If there’s not enough money, I won’t do that,’ “ Joyce said.

“To change the constitution and take that benefit away from them is not only unjustified. It’s morally reprehensible.”

Enyia said she, too, opposes altering the pension protection clause “against the backdrop” of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that “weakened labor unions almost beyond repair,” wage stagnation and the erosion of worker rights.

“All we will do is change the constitution while workers fall further and further behind,” Enyia said.

Noting that public sector jobs as teachers, police officers and firefighters were a ticket to the middle class, Enyia said, “If we’re [changing] the constitution, we are essentially eroding the middle class that the city needs to have some revenue to support our finances.”

Kozlar argued that Richard M. Daley’s decision to ignore the ticking pension time bomb is the reason Chicago is in this mess. He argued that the Daley family “gambled away” city employee pension funds and that “corruption” made it worse.

He was obviously referring to the pension fund investment gone sour with Daley’s nephew, Robert Vanecko, that turned a $68 million investment into a $54 million loss.

The remark clearly got under Bill Daley’s skin. But not as much as the back and forth between candidates about whether a third Mayor Daley would be a good thing for Chicago.

“Rich Daley got elected six times by the people of this city, OK? And they voted for him,” Daley said.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing people talk about the people of this city who voted for somebody six times as though they’re all idiots for doing that.”

Wilson agreed Daley is not his brother’s keeper, adding: “The son does not take on the father’s sins. Everybody has to be accountable for themselves.”