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Emanuel urges Rauner to sign police and fire pension bill

Some city retirees resented the tone of an email Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent about eliminating their health care benefits. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday appealed to his old friend, Gov. Bruce Rauner, to avert the need for an “unnecessary tax increase” in Chicago, by signing legislation giving the city 15 more years to ramp up to a 90 percent funding level for police and fire pensions.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), Emanuel’s closest ally in Springfield, has ended 10 months of cat-and-mouse by sending the legislation to the governor.

Cullerton had been holding the bill — approved by the Illinois House and Senate last spring — amid concern that Rauner would veto the legislation to squeeze cash-strapped Chicago and strengthen his own hand in the budget stalemate over the governor’s demand for pro-business, anti-union reforms.

The delay forced Emanuel to use $220 million in “short-term bridge” financing to make a state-mandated payment to police and fire pension funds that’s higher than his tax-laden 2016 budget anticipated because the police and fire pension reform bill has not been signed into law.

If Rauner vetoes the bill, there would still be time to attempt an override before the spring session ends. If he does nothing, the legislation, which would save Chicago taxpayers $220 million this year and $843 million over five years, automatically takes effect.

On Wednesday, Emanuel made his public pitch to his longtime friend, vacation companion and former business associate.

The mayor noted that he has already convinced a reluctant City Council to pass a $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and school construction. He also has offered to raise property taxes by an additional $170 million for teacher pensions, whether or not the state does its part to help the nearly bankrupt Chicago Public Schools.

“We have done the hard thing of working through the issue with police and fire. We have done the hard thing of passing it in both chambers. And we have done the hard thing of asking local taxpayers to help stabilize the funds and do it in a responsible way,” the mayor said.

“You never want to ask people to pay more in taxes in any form than they need to,” he said. “His signature would prevent us having to raise more in taxes than we need to to still meet our obligations to police officers and firefighters for their retirement, but do it in a responsible way.”

Emanuel also offered his first public comment on the this week’s Sun-Times disclosure that the Chicago Police Department spent a record $116.1 million on overtime in 2015 — up 17.2 percent from the previous year — to mask a manpower shortage that has mushroomed under his watch, with police retirements outpacing hiring by 975 officers.

The mayor said he agrees with Interim Supt, Eddie Johnson, who has directed his staff to analyze the use of overtime to “better manage how, when and why” it’s used.

“It’s a tool in the toolbox. It’s not the toolbox. You’ve got to have a rigor to it so you’re smart about how you use it. . . . We’ve got to make sure that we’re using it right and using it appropriately to focus on crime,” he said.

Emanuel said he’s proud of his decision to balance his first budget by eliminating more than 1,400 police vacancies.

“We had a budget in which elected officials felt very good, but we weren’t honest with the public about our police officers. There were a lot of, what I would call ghost positions. Never got filled. I said that shell game was going to come to an end. And we have been consistent since that time making sure we have a full force at all times,” Emanuel said.

He also poked a little fun at Chicago aldermen for finding the time amid pressing financial crises to resurrect an ordinance paving the way for strip clubs to serve up two things their customers desire — alcohol and topless dancers — without choosing between the two.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), chief sponsor, has argued that the change makes Chicago “a more world-class city” attractive to the tourists and conventioneers that Emanuel covets.

The mayor begged to differ.

“There’s only three cities in all the country [that] have north of 50 million visitors: New York, Orlando and Chicago now, which did not exist before. And we did it without serving liquor at certain establishments,” he said.

“I’m not against the ordinance. I’ve got to really look at it. But there’s a lot that goes into attracting people to the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said. “Great restaurants, great hotels, great cultural amenities. A wonderful lakefront and wonderful people.”

Obviously referring to Chicago’s $30 billion pension crisis and the troubling spike in homicides and shootings, the mayor said, “I’ve got to be honest, guys. I kind of applaud them [aldermen] for having the time to think about these issues. . . . I’ve had a couple others that I’ve got to be thinking about.”