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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