Progressive Chicagoans Take Budget Hearings into Their Own Hands—No Emanuel Necessary

Matthew Blake

Chicagoans gave their feedback on Emanuel's new budget on Wednesday night before the Aldermen of the Chicago Progressive Caucus. (Chicago Progressive Reform Coalition Facebook)

Many Chica­go pro­gres­sives might remem­ber Richard M. Daley, the Windy City’s may­or between 1989 and 2011, as rul­ing with an iron fist, ram­ming through poli­cies like the mid­night demo­li­tion of an air­port or the pri­va­ti­za­tion of city park­ing meters with lit­tle pub­lic discussion.

But Daley did make one demo­c­ra­t­ic ges­ture that his suc­ces­sor, Rahm Emanuel, has yanked. Through­out his tenure, Daley was present at com­mu­ni­ty hear­ings where Chica­go res­i­dents could direct­ly ques­tion him and oth­er city offi­cials about the mayor’s annu­al pro­posed bud­get and some­times oth­er city matters.

Emanuel, mean­while, did away with the prac­tice last year, after hold­ing hear­ings about his first bud­get. So there are no com­mu­ni­ty hear­ings to review the $6.98 bil­lion bud­get that Emanuel unveiled on Octo­ber 23.

Even with­out an offi­cial hear­ing, how­ev­er, Chica­go res­i­dents are still eager to air their con­cerns. That much was clear on Wednes­day night, when the sev­en of the eight alder­men who com­prise the city council’s pro­gres­sive cau­cus, the Chica­go Pro­gres­sive Reform Coali­tion, con­vened a packed meet­ing at the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers Hall in West Town to hear pub­lic com­ment on the bud­get before the city council’s vote on it next month.

Alder­man Scott Wagues­pack, who over­sees the city’s 32nd ward, opened the meet­ing by explain­ing, Today we’re here to lis­ten to your con­cerns about this year’s 2014 bud­get, in part because the may­or decid­ed he did not want to have pub­lic meetings.”

For his part, Wagues­pack pre­sent­ed four items the cau­cus has pro­posed that the may­or include in the 2014 bud­get: $50 mil­lion for 1,000 more police offi­cers on the street, $2.2 mil­lion to reopen six Chica­go men­tal health clin­ics, an expan­sion of the city’s cor­po­rate tax base and a redi­rec­tion of unspent prop­er­ty tax mon­ey from the city’s con­tro­ver­sial Tax Incre­ment Finance pro­gram to schools and oth­er pub­lic bodies.

Police attri­tion and its impact on vio­lent crime are fre­quent points of con­tention between Emanuel and Chicagoans, includ­ing oth­er city coun­cil mem­bers and local media. But the may­or has arguably escaped wide­spread scruti­ny on the oth­er mat­ters pro­posed by the pro­gres­sive cau­cus on Wednes­day, par­tic­u­lar­ly the men­tal health clinics.

Matt Gins­berg-Jaeck­le and oth­er activists affil­i­at­ed with the advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion Men­tal Health Move­ment claimed that the city has not kept count of hun­dreds of patients that were in the Chica­go Depart­ment of Health’s men­tal health care sys­tem in 2012 but were required to trans­fer clin­ics due to the closings.

We need to re-open these clin­ics,” Gins­burg-Jaeck­le said. Men­tal health care is the glue that holds com­mu­ni­ties together.”

After the meet­ing, 6th Ward Alder­man Rod­er­ick Sawyer said, The one thing that real­ly hit me from the pub­lic com­ments is the men­tal health cuts that we’re all respon­si­ble for.” Sawyer was refer­ring to the fact that coun­cil mem­bers vot­ed 50 – 0 in Novem­ber 2011 to approve Emanuel’s first bud­get, which includ­ed the men­tal health clin­ic closings.

Oth­er pub­lic speak­ers, like preschool teacher Kim­ber­ly Cot­ton, lament­ed that the city stores some prop­er­ty tax rev­enue in spe­cial Tax Incre­ment Finance eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment dis­tricts. Cot­ton wants that mon­ey fun­neled to the schools where she sees over­worked teach­ers” and stu­dents who can’t get field trips” and oth­er edu­ca­tion­al ser­vices that sub­ur­ban Chica­go school dis­tricts take for granted.

Emanuel’s bud­get includes $8.7 mil­lion in unspent TIF sur­plus mon­ey (after allo­cat­ing $24 mil­lion to the schools). But edu­ca­tion advo­cates sus­pect that more than $100 mil­lion could con­ceiv­ably be from these TIF dis­tricts. Advo­ca­cy groups Raise Your Hands and the Com­mon Sense Coali­tion of Local School Coun­cils have filed a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act request with the city to find out how much TIF sur­plus mon­ey actu­al­ly exists.

Beyond elab­o­rat­ing on the pro­gres­sive caucus’s talk­ing points, a few res­i­dents also used their allot­ted two min­utes of open mic to speak about Emanuel’s report­ed plans to phase out health care sub­si­dies for retired city workers.

Mary Jones, who worked in the Chica­go Pub­lic Library sys­tem for 32 years, between 1973 to 2004, tes­ti­fied that city work­ers who start­ed at their jobs before 1985 are inel­i­gi­ble to receive Medicare. Con­se­quent­ly, these work­ers rely on city sub­si­dies for gen­er­al health care ser­vices, sub­si­dies that cov­er up to 55 per­cent of their total health care costs.

I can tell you from per­son­al expe­ri­ence that the health care sub­sidy is very impor­tant,” Jones said, explain­ing that she recent­ly used the city mon­ey for mam­mo­gram ser­vices. AFSM­CE Coun­cil 31, which rep­re­sents thou­sands of city work­ers, has sued Emanuel’s office in fed­er­al court to block the sub­sidy phase out.

Emanuel defends the sub­sidy phase out by say­ing retirees can now apply for fed­er­al sub­si­dies offered on the Afford­able Care Act health exchange. Jones coun­ters that the city is break­ing a con­trac­tu­al promise with AFSCME, and that it seems clear that many retirees will not get as much assis­tance from fed­er­al sub­si­dies” as from the 55 per­cent city subsidy.

Oth­er speak­ers drew atten­tion to issues like the city’s plan to con­struct a bus rapid tran­sit sys­tem, issues that the may­or has not addressed in his bud­get remarks.

Amisha Patel, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Grass­roots Col­lab­o­ra­tive coali­tion of city activist and labor groups, said after the meet­ing that Emanuel cre­at­ed a fatal­ly flawed bud­get process by not hold­ing com­mu­ni­ty hear­ings. How can the may­or make poli­cies that rep­re­sent the needs of the peo­ple when he’s not lis­ten­ing to us?” Patel says. Daley was no hero, but I think May­or Emanuel is actu­al­ly even more removed than May­or Daley.

Removed from the vot­ers or not, Emanuel — like Daley — seems to have a firm con­trol on the city coun­cil. Though they’re pub­licly elect­ed, alder­men depend on the may­or for city coun­cil lead­er­ship appoint­ments, the mayor’s work with cor­po­ra­tions to put busi­ness­es in their ward, and a vari­ety of oth­er ser­vices.

After alder­men vot­ed 50 – 0 to approve his first bud­get in 2012, the city coun­cil green light­ed Emanuel’s 2013 bud­get 46 – 3 last Novem­ber. The three no votes were cast by pro­gres­sive cau­cus mem­bers Wagues­pack, Robert Fioret­ti (2nd Ward) and John Are­na (45th), but oth­er cau­cus mem­bers ulti­mate­ly vot­ed yes.’

Right now, the real­i­ty is that alder­men are much more fear­ful of the may­or than they are of their own vot­ers,” Patel says. That’s the dynam­ic we’re work­ing to change.”

The Grass­roots Col­lab­o­ra­tive is doing that by phone bank­ing and door knock­ing on vot­ers’ doors, ask­ing them to pres­sure alder­men to move bills for­ward, like a pri­va­ti­za­tion account­abil­i­ty ordi­nance and bill to release fur­ther TIF sur­plus mon­ey, despite may­oral opposition.

In the short term, it is not clear to what degree the city coun­cil will oppose the pro­posed bud­get. Even Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus mem­bers are hope­ful they can still nego­ti­ate with Emanuel rather than reject the bud­get alto­geth­er

Asked if he would vote no’ on the bud­get, Alder­man Rick Munoz of the 25th Ward said that, We’re still look­ing at what the options are — We’re try­ing to work with the may­or.” Munoz and oth­er pro­gres­sive cau­cus mem­bers said that they hoped the hear­ing indi­cat­ed sup­port for their sug­gest­ed bud­get change – and a pub­lic appetite to revive the com­mu­ni­ty hear­ing process. 

Matthew Blake is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Chica­go. He has writ­ten for the Chica­go Jour­nal, Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, Wash­ing­ton Inde­pen­dent and The Nation, among oth­er publications.
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