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Final budget OK’d, Rahm touts record: ‘I never once punted on a tough decision’

Rahm Emanuel

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

Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes to go down in history as the financial savior who pulled Chicago back from the brink by making the tough choices his predecessor wouldn’t, so his successor won’t have to.

“I never took a problem and said somebody else should do it,” the mayor said Wednesday.

“I never once punted on a tough decision. I may not have done everything that you thought I should do. But you do not solve decades-old problems in one step. Every time there was a problem, I met it head-on.”

It’s likely to take a while before beleaguered Chicago taxpayers forgive their outgoing mayor for a $2 billion avalanche of tax increases that has only begun to solve the $28 billion pension crisis.

But Emanuel’s feel-good final budget at least does not add more salt to that open wound.

On Wednesday, that $10.7 billion spending plan sailed through the City Council, 48-to-1, after a debate that was more like a testimonial to Emanuel’s financial stewardship.

“Mr. Mayor, you are truly a visionary. You have led Chicago and put the city back on track,” Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) told the mayor.

Even Ald. John Arena (45th) climbed aboard the bandwagon after praising Emanuel for resurrecting the city’s disbanded Department of Housing, creating a new Office of Labor Standards and adding 17 officers to the Jefferson Park police district.

“Mr. Mayor, you have taken us a long way. I appreciate your leadership. We haven’t always agreed. But I voted for your first budget. I will vote for your last,” said Arena, who opposed many of Emanuel’s budgets in-between.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), chairman of the Progressive Caucus, cast the only dissenting vote, citing problems “papered over,” like lead service lines that threaten the safety of Chicago’s drinking water.

There was only one dissenting vote for good reason: taxpayers and the aldermen who represent them get an election-year reprieve.

Thanks to taxes already raised and cuts already made, the 2019 budget holds the line on additional taxes, fines and fees and still invests heavily in police reform, crime fighting, housekeeping services and mentoring and summer jobs for at-risk youth.

The only exceptions are a smattering of user fees: the nickel-a-ride increase in ride-sharing fees for the CTA built into last year’s spending plan; the third installment of a 29.5 percent surcharge tacked on to water and sewer bills; and a $63 million property tax increase approved in 2015 that will appear on the bills of beleaguered Chicago homeowners next year.

After the roll call, Emanuel rose to take a victory lap and thank aldermen for joining him on the difficult journey.

“We have mustered the political courage to bring Chicago back from the brink it was on in 2011. We have taken the tough votes and made the smart decisions to make Chicago stronger for generations to come,” Emanuel told the City Council.

“While we did not create the fiscal challenges, you stepped up to address them. … Because we have chosen the path of fiscal responsibility over political expediency and confronted our challenges rather than passing them along, I am more confident than ever that Chicago’s best days are still to come.”

When the mayor’s remarks from the rostrum ended, aldermen gave him a standing ovation.

The break will be short-lived. A $1 billion spike in pension payments will confront the next mayor and City Council, and making those payments almost certainly will demand another punishing round of tax increases.

The only hint of controversy in the most tranquil budget season of Rahm Emanuel’s tenure was the failed attempt to add $25 million to reopen and staff mental health clinics closed by Emanuel in 2012. That amendment, championed by retiring Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), was never considered by the Budget Committee. A raucous rally before Wednesday’s Council meeting did not change that.

Thanks to a $450 million windfall from the state, the Chicago Public Schools will reimburse the city for half the cost of the 211 Chicago Police officers assigned to public schools. That’s $16.5 million.

In addition, a $14 million corporate fund subsidy that helped CPS bankroll Safe Passage and other after-school programs this year will be cut off.

Surge pricing around Wrigley Field will be disbanded. City Clerk Anna Valencia will start selling a four-month city sticker to ease the burden on 500,000 delinquent motorists, some of whom have been driven into bankruptcy.

To put a more intense focus on Chicago’s affordable housing crisis, the budget resurrects the city’s disbanded Department of Housing.

It also includes $113 million in “additional investments” for 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.

More than 22 percent of that money — $25.7 million — will help implement a consent decree outlining the terms of federal court oversight over the Chicago Police Department.