The following is an op-ed from Celeste Meiffren, field director for Illinois PIRG.
No one will argue with the fact that Chicago’s budget situation is dire—and has been for some time now. But Mayor Richard Daley masked the drastic fiscal situation in Chicago year after year with short-term budget gimmicks. The hope now is that, as he puts forth his first budget proposal next week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel will learn from his predecessor’s mistakes, and avoid a lot of the budget shenanigans that Mayor Daley was known for.
Last year, Mayor Daley’s solution to Chicago’s budget deficit was to raid most of the remaining reserves from the parking meter deal and some TIF funds. He did this after years of balancing the budget through short-term budget gimmicks like privatizing the Skyway Tollway and Chicago’s system of 36,000 parking meters—angering many Chicagoans and ignoring the long term impacts of these decisions.
A short-term fix like asset privatization is certainly an attractive option for elected officials, not just in Chicago, but across the country. After all, it offers an easy way to get a big upfront wad of cash without raising taxes, laying-off workers or cutting popular city services. But, it’s not sustainable and it doesn’t address the root causes of our budget problems.
In addition to steering clear of asset privatization and their reserves, Mayor Emanuel should not build privatization savings into the budget if he is proposing privatizing any city services.
Savings from privatizing or outsourcing city services should only be applicable to the city budget if and when those contracts are finalized. He should not put anticipated savings in the budget and then force the aldermen to offset them or think up other ideas. That 11th hour politicking helped Mayor Daley move controversial proposals, but ended up badly hurting our budget.
Other recommendations include giving the City Council ample time to review the budget, avoiding last minute stunts, including the public in the process every step of the way, and continuing to put the budget online in an easy to use, searchable format.
Finally, Mayor Emanuel should provide a separate TIF budget, so the public can see the money that is being diverted from taxing bodies like schools and parks to TIF districts for economic development projects.
As Mayor Emanuel and the City Council are forced to make difficult budgetary decisions, it is even more important for the public to be able to understand how tax dollars are being spent.
Celeste Meiffren is a field director for Illinois PIRG.