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Tight city budget draws praise, criticism

by Jen Thomas and Samantha Abernethy
Oct 15, 2008

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'Blue light' cameras focus of protest

The mayor’s said his proposed budget cuts won’t stop the city from installing more “blue light” police cameras, but residents in Little Village aren’t convinced the promise will translate into action in their community.

“We’re tired of the violence in Little Village,” said Raul Montes, one of about 20 protestors who lined up outside the City Council Chambers Wednesday to advocate for more cameras in their community.

Holding signs that said “Where is the money for cameras in the 22nd Ward?”and “Stop the Bloodshed and Violence in Little Village,” protestors wanted to get the attention of Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), who they say has ignored their pleas for surveillance cameras.

“We need the cameras to control crime for the protection of our children,” said Edith Mendez, a 45-year-old mother of two. “Everywhere they have a camera, crime is diminished.”

In his budget address to the City Council, Mayor Richard M. Daley said the city had plans to install more police cameras.

“Because of creative management, we will be able to use a variety of non-operating funding resources so that we can continue purchasing and installing neighborhood safety cameras to help prevent gangs, guns and drug violence,” he said.

Budget highlights at a glance

  •  Lay off 929 city employees, including 309 in the Department of Streets and Sanitation.
  • Freeze hiring and eliminate 1,346 vacancies.
  • Install red-light cameras at 10 percent of signalized intersections by the end of 2010.
  • Lower threshold for booting from three to two unpaid parking or red-light tickets.
  • Increase price of daily guest passes in Municipal Parking to $20 for 30 passes.
  • Increase library fines.
  • Privatize parking meters to get $50 million.
  • Eliminate tax collector commissions.
  • Increase parking taxes on daily parking charges of $12 or more.

A parking tax hike, 929 city layoffs and a $6 million increase in user and permit fees are among the strategies Mayor Richard M. Daley unveiled Wednesday to close a $469 million budget deficit, a proposition that elicited both praise and concern.

“This is not a good news budget, but it is a responsible budget that balances the need to substantially cut spending with our commitment to minimize the impact of these cuts on working families and those who need our support,” Daley told a standing-room only crowd gathered in the City Council Chambers.

Daley’s budget includes a hiring freeze in addition to the layoffs, the consolidation of nine city departments into four and privatizing the city’s parking meters.

“We have been able to manage our way through past economic slowdowns without job cuts or service reductions,” Daley said. “I have come before you each year with new proposals to meet the changing needs of our city. Given the severity of the recession, that isn’t possible this year.”

Daley said Chicagoans would feel the pinch most in streets and sanitation services, which he called the largest non-safety department.

The city hopes to make an additional $10 million in 2009 in revenue from recreation tax increases, including the amusement, liquor, cigarette and non-alcoholic beverage taxes.

The budget proposal includes a 1 percentage point increase in the amusement tax, from 4 percent to 5 percent on live performances in venues larger than 750 people, and from 8 percent to 9 percent for sporting events, concerts and movies.

Jerry Mickelson, owner of Jam Productions, said that the amusement tax increase would affect how much a band can earn, and Chicago venues could lose shows to venues in other places.

"If the cost of producing the show in Chicago is higher than the suburbs, the suburbs will reap the benefit of that," he said.

The amusement tax for suburban Cook County is 7 percent, while Evanston and Rosemont charge 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Mickelson also said that Chicago could lose more shows to nearby casinos.

While rumors of a parking tax increase have been circulating since last week, Daley’s confirmation this morning could mean a price hike at the parking garages as soon as January.

“Every time the budget comes around, six out of the last 12 years, there have been hikes in the parking tax,” said Brian Rainville, a spokesman for the Parking Industry Labor Management Council. “It’s been a target and it’s an easy target.”

The tax will rise from $2.25 to $3 per car under the new budget proposal, and Rainville said 50 percent of a parking sticker price goes to taxes.

“Chicago has spent a lot of time, money and effort in attracting businesses downtown, but if you make it prohibitively expensive for people to work downtown, they’ll relocate,” Rainville said.

Other budget-tightening measures will have detrimental consequences, even absent direct cuts or price hikes, critics said.

Though the mayor said he took pride in not cutting sworn officer or firefighter positions, Fraternal Order of Police President Mark Donahue said the police department could expect a huge shortfall due to budget cuts.

“The department will feel the impact in the layoffs of the civilians who do clerical work,” Donahue said. “Their work will still have to get done so sworn officers will spend more time off the streets.”

With hiring limited to only 200 officers in 2009, Donahue said he expects 800 fewer officers at the end of 2009.

“We’re just going to have to wait and see how it turns out,” he said.

Others were more forgiving of the mayor’s lean budget.

“While we are concerned about the human and practical effect of city worker layoffs, we believe that the proposed streamlining and reorganization of city government is long overdue,” said Jerry Roper, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce in a statement.

“We must confront our budget challenges head on this year or we risk making the problem worse every year,” Daley said.