The following story originally appeared in EXTRA News, a bi-lingual community newspaper in Chicago, IL, on Oct 8, 2015.
Chicago Aldermen Arena, Spostato, Wagueskpack.
Photo by Dominic Gwinn
Over 60 people gathered at the Copernicus Center last week in Jefferson Park to discuss a number of controversial city finance issues.“We are friends; we are not foes here,” stated 38th Ward Ald. Nicholas Sposato to a packed crowd at the first of two budget meetings held by the Progressive Reform Caucus this past Thursday.
“What we’re doing is saying this can’t be a budget cycle where we just look at this year,” said 45th Ward Ald. John Arena. “We have to start looking at a five-year plan for our funding, our city, and not do this as a constant crisis where we have to figure out what we need to cut, or what we need to tax just to get through that one year.”
The caucus presented a number of reforms that challenge Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed budget that would see an increase in taxes on businesses and residents throughout the city in an attempt to pay off mounting debts to pensions and creditors. In March, the city’s bad bookkeeping caused downgrade in its credit rating by Moody’s Investor Service to Baa1, commonly known as “junk” status.
A large part of the caucus’s plan seeks to increase taxes on the most wealthy residents and large corporations. Proposals such as an alternative minimum tax on the central business district downtown, a “bad business fee” tax that would levy fines for businesses that pay less than a living wage, increased taxes on luxury goods such as furs and jewelry, as well as amnesty for penalties stemming from outstanding parking tickets, in an attempt to recover lost revenue, were met with applause.
Despite the warm reception for the proposals, some residents stressed even more stringent measures, such as Chicago resident Lisa Stringer, who called for a wage freeze on all city employees.
“I’m not saying to take pay cuts, but let’s freeze everybody’s pay right now until we get this figured out,” stressed Stringer. “I think there has to be some understanding that everybody has to have some skin in the game.”
Other residents urged aldermen that the mayor’s recent proposal to privatize 311 services was a bad idea, and that criticism against 311 operators had been misplaced.
“We as call takers know how to do our job, we just don’t have enough operators,” pleaded 311 operator Aline Coopwood. “We’re down to about 58 operators. I’ve worked two months straight without days off just to help out coworkers.”
“When you’re calling Chicago, you want to speak with someone that knows Chicago, that knows what’s going on, and can help you out with what’s going on,” Coopwood insisted. “If someone is in Japan or in California, how are they going to tell you what’s going on here?”
“It’s time for us to really get serious about looking for other ways to raise revenue. We need to fix our pension problems and make sure that our city budgets are smaller,” said 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack. “We’re also looking to reduce spending in ways that don’t hurt basic services and make sure that we have staff available to get the job done.”
Illinois is currently operating without a budget due to gridlock in Springfield, funding only the most critical programs, like Medicaid and schools, by a court order. As a result, many social welfare programs that would typically see support from the state, like childcare and assistance for undocumented immigrants, have been suspended until state legislators can reach a spending agreement.
“These are critical meetings,” Arena said. ”This is a big burden that we’re trying to resolve here. It’s all come to a head; we have to deal with this problem…We’re trying to find ways to alleviate the burden on the middle class and low-income families.”
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