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Emanuel hopes to solidify financial legacy with feel-good final budget

Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel will try Wednesday to solidify his legacy as Chicago’s financial savior while throwing a life-preserver to City Council allies who have repeatedly walked the tax plank at his behest.

“Because we were willing to fight for what’s right rather than what was expedient, Chicago is now on firmer financial footing than we were right years ago. And because of that, we can look to the future, plan for the future and invest in the future with confidence,” the mayor was poised to say in an excerpt of his final city budget address to the City Council shared with the Chicago Sun-Times.

After pushing through a punishing parade of tax increases, just to begin to solve Chicago’s $28 billion pension crisis, Emanuel will introduce a feel-good, final city budget fit for an election year.

The budget holds the line on taxes, fines and fees — with the exception of the nickel-a-ride increase in ride-sharing fees for the CTA built into last year’s spending plan, as well as another installment of a 29.5 percent surcharge tacked on to water and sewer bills for pensions.

ANALYSIS

It also includes an impressive array of investments in summer jobs, mentoring and nuts-and-bolts housekeeping services like rodent control, tree-trimming and garbage cart replacement that aldermen and their constituents hold dear.

“If they can change the direction of their lives with the support of a summer job, an after-school activity or a mentor, we owe them that chance,” Emanuel plans to say in the speech.

“We have been able to invest in them because we have done the hard work of putting Chicago’s fiscal house and priorities on stable footing … in service of growing the economy, creating jobs and shaping a stronger future.”

The Chicago Police Department is in line for tens of millions of dollars in additional funding to bolster Chicago’s never-ending battle against gang violence, continue the long march toward police reform and bankroll the first-year cost of a federal monitoring team likely to be in place for the next decade.

The Police Department is winding down a two-year hiring surge aimed at adding 970 additional police officers over and above attrition after years of retrenchment under Emanuel that caused overtime to skyrocket.

The new budget is expected to preserve that authorized strength at 13,631. That will require the police academy to continue to churn out a conveyor belt of recruit classes.

Already, 161 Chicago Police officers have notified the city by an Oct. 1 deadline that they intend to take advantage of the city’s longstanding offer to extend premium health benefits to officers who call it quits at age 55.

That’s a nearly 48 percent increase from the 109 officers in that category over the same period a year ago.

Aviation Committee Chairman Matt O’Shea (19th) is well aware Emanuel’s final budget simply represents only a brief respite in the pain heaped upon Chicago taxpayers.

But O’Shea said he nevertheless appreciates the hiatus — and so will his Far Southwest Side constituents.

“People are frustrated. They’re frustrated with crime. They’re frustrated with taxes. People are just frustrated as a country right now. And that’s frustrating to me,” O’Shea said.

“I’m relieved that the difficult decisions of the last several years [remove] a lot of the immense pressure we had on ourselves as a city. … We’ve come a long way. We’ve dug ourselves out of a terrible deep hole. But there’s still a lot of work to do. I know there are difficult decisions moving forward.”

Chicago taxpayers have already endured a parade of property tax increases for police, fire and teacher pensions, two increases in the monthly tax tacked on to telephone bills and a 29.5 percent surcharge on water and sewer bills.

More tax increases are on the way, but not until after the mayoral election.

That’s when the five-year ramp to actuarial funding ends, and Chicago taxpayers will be on the hook for a nearly $1 billion spike in pension payments to keep city employee pension funds on the road to 90 percent funding.

Last week, Emanuel vowed to confront Chicago’s skyrocketing pension payments “before the end of the year,” but he refused to say whether the solution he seeks will include a controversial $10 billion pension borrowing.

O’Shea said it’s likely the mayor will punt the pension crisis to his successor — just like Daley punted it to him.

“Based on the hole we were in, no one was gonna dig out of this in eight or nine years — no matter who it was,” he said.

“I don’t want to say the mayor was burned out. But having worked with him the past eight years, he didn’t take a day off. … He worked 15-to-18-hour days. I don’t care how good a shape you’re in. That’s difficult to keep up. But we’re in much better position today than the day the mayor came into office.”