Pawar on Budget: ‘If There’s an Electoral Consequence, So Be It’

By Patty Wetli | Friday, November 4, 2011

Budget town hall meeting at McPherson Elementary. Credit: Patty Wetli

At a town hall meeting held Wednesday night at McPherson Elementary School, 4728 N. Wolcott, attendees presented 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar with a laundry list of complaints related to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 budget. Residents expressed their concern over and displeasure with a number of line items, including proposed cuts to funding for Chicago Public Library, increases in vehicle sticker costs, elimination of scavenger rebates for condos and water subsidies for non-profits, and the merging of the 19th and 23rd Police Districts.

While largely sympathetic to his constituents’ concerns, Pawar continued to hammer home his theme that the city’s current $600+ million deficit has been decades in the making, and bringing the budget back into balance will call for tough decisions. “Every interest group needs to be able to say, ‘I’m willing to take a haircut.’ But I don’t hear that. I hear, ‘I need to protect mine,’” he said.

Speaking frankly, Pawar added, “I don’t see the city’s fiscal issues getting better in the next 5 to 10 years. I understand it’s going to be painful, especially when we’re talking about job losses and people’s livelihoods.” But pointing to the sale of the Skyway and parking meters as stop-gap revenue sources that barely served as band-aids, the alderman noted, “We’ve seen this coming for 20 years. The city doesn’t take in enough money to pay its bills. We have to live within our means.”

Translation: Everyone isn’t going to get everything they want. “If we are going to fund libraries, there are going to be painful cuts in other areas,” he said. “If we don’t feel it at the library, we’ll feel it somewhere else.” Pawar acknowledged these difficult choices are likely to be unpopular with voters: “If there’s an electoral consequence, so be it.”

At the same time Pawar was preparing residents for the worst, Mayor Emanuel, perhaps more concerned than Pawar with preserving his political hide, was scaling back a number of his proposals. According to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, Emanuel’s budget concessions include restoring $3 million to the library, phasing in the water bill to non-profits, and throwing condos a refuse rebate bone. Expect more give and take in the weeks leading up to City Council’s Dec. 31 budget deadline.

Highlights from the Nov. 2 town hall meeting:

Libraries: Pleas in favor of restoring funds to Chicago Public Library were eloquent and passionate, referring to libraries as both a “storehouse of knowledge” and a “sanctuary from this crazy world.” CPL Commissioner Mary Dempsey, who has herself taken to shelving books of late, expressed gratitude for the support and seized the opportunity to further clarify the library’s financial situation.

  • Why is the city building new libraries at the same time it’s threatening to slash staffing at existing branches? Dempsey explained that the construction is tied to a long-term plan that’s been in place for years, funded by bonds that can only be used for infrastructure as opposed to operational needs. Not a good answer, but an answer.
  • Can CPL apply for federal grants or solicit private citizens, a la Millennium Park? Dempsey pointed to the CPL Foundation, which raises private contributions to subsidize summer reading and the Teacher in the Library programs. “It complements what we do,” she said, but according to the library’s ordinance, the primary funding responsibility resides with the city. The federal government, which has its own deficit woes, has never been in the business of bankrolling local libraries, according to Dempsey, who added, “It would be nice if they would recognize the role libraries play in lifelong learning.”
  • If the library loses its entire contingent of pages, can volunteers step in and shelve books? “Those are union jobs,” said Dempsey. “We would have to go to the unions to allow volunteers to shelve books. If we have to cross that bridge, we’ll have that conversation.”

Pawar, while “hopeful and optimistic” that funds would be restored (library supporters are not appeased by the $3 million; they want the full $10 million returned), cautioned, “We have to make sure it’s sustainable. I don’t want to go through this again next year.”

Policing: Adalbert Bielski, a 40-year resident of the 47th Ward, expected hundreds of his fellow angry citizens to storm the town hall to protest the closing of the 19th District police station. Instead, approximately 75 of his mild-mannered neighbors (and a massive contingent of journalism students on assignment from Northwestern) turned out, largely to express support for the Chicago Public Library.

“It befuddles me,” Bielski said, the first to broach the policing issue a full hour into the town hall. “I’m the only person who cares that the 19th District is closing.” (The applause for his comments suggested otherwise.)

Having seen the neighborhood through its worst years of gang violence and depressed housing and then subsequent renaissance, Bielski said, “This place is so safe and so clean; it’s been good for so long. But if we’re getting robbed on the way home from work, none of that’s going to matter.” Frustrated by Pawar’s seeming lack of response to the district merger, Bielski added, “Apparently the entire 47th Ward just rolls over. If we don’t fight for this now, this is going to haunt us.”

Pawar’s response: “I’m not going to jump up and down and make a stink. That’s not my style.” What is his style: holding conversations with the mayor, in which he’s been assured that the merger will actually result in more officers within the ward. “Buildings don’t protect people,” he said. “Officers don’t respond from Belmont and Western [home of the 19th District], they respond from their beat.”

Brian Murphy, deputy superintendent, who was on hand at the town hall, backed up Pawar’s claims. “We are not closing the 19th District. We are not taking those officers and moving to Englewood,” he said. “We’ll have the third most sworn personnel in the city; all they’re doing is reporting to 23. We’re adding more detectives and gang enforcement officers. Our intention is to get more officers out onto the street.”

Other issues:

  • Pawar was still awaiting details on the proposed grid-based refuse collection system. Under the current ward-based system, with its political as opposed to geographic boundaries, Chicago pays $100 more per ton than Boston. The grid system has the potential to save $20 million. Missed pick-ups would likely be handled by a quadrant system of roving crews.
  • The pool of money available through the city’s Community Development Block Grants program is shrinking. As a result, organizations such as the American Indian Center, 1630 W. Wilson, are being forced to eliminate youth programming. “There’s been a conversation about getting funding back,” said Pawar. “But unless we’re talking about sustainability, we’re just moving money around. We’ve got to figure out how to connect these organizations with the community at large.”

With a property tax increase set to automatically trigger in 2015, when the city’s pension holiday comes to an end, and several union contracts up for renegotiation in 2012, Pawar doesn’t expect fiscal discussions to become any easier. “This is just the start,” he said.

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    Give Free City Stickers – one each to every legally zoned residence.  Charge $50/month for any others.  

  • xxx xxx

    Give Free City Stickers – one each to every legally zoned residence.  Charge $50/month for any others.
    What are the good arguments against this approach to parking and revenue ?  I mean – besides – “it’s just not how it’s done here.  Da’ Bears!” 

  • Anonymous

    I was one of the residents who attended the meeting and it was to a degree informative but was also a place to vent. I was the one who asked why build libraries if you can not staff them and the commissioners answer about general Obligation bonds require to be built I do not believe was honest as I doubt some bond were sold only for the Andersonville Library. They were sold thru the Public Building Commission for a variety buildings own by the PBC.

    I also asked about why, since the need to raise the city sticker fee is to repair roads, and the Mayor has now tied the weight of vehicles to it, why the city does not tax, either thru licenses or sticker fees, vehicles the really do tear up the streets, big trucks, semi’s and the like, vehicles that in reality are housed in the suburbs, registered in the suburbs and whom buys their fuel in the suburbs, thus avoiding the city gas and fuel taxes.A mini van does not wreck a street, semi’s do.

    And lastly for pensions, another subject I brought up. While I may have sounded like I was against city pensions, I am not.Nor am I against unions or work rules, I am a union member. One of the many problems is that there is no law or consequences to make a municipality pay in to pensions annually, any the city left many of their pension plans under funded, missing out on the opportunity to fund them fully and missing out on investment income had they done there job. Like any remodeling job, one often has to do some demo before doing and kind of repair, and the pension plans need fixing. Things that I have read being proposed do not fix the pension plans and I have heard little in what the Mayo’s budget does to reform past practices.

    Alderman Pawar was quite honest and truthful when he aid to hold our leaders accountable and mention the ballot box in the same sentence. That is really all we can ask to help to do our part.

  • http://twitter.com/EllynFortino Ellyn Fortino

    Point of clarification, Patty.

    It was Brian Murphy, deputy superintendent and bureau of administrative services chief, who commented– “We are not closing the 19th District. We are not taking those officers
    and moving to Englewood,” he said. “We’ll have the third most sworn
    personnel in the city; all they’re doing is reporting to 23. We’re
    adding more detectives and gang enforcement officers. Our intention is
    to get more officers out onto the street.”–not Commander Kenny.

    Ellyn Fortino

    • Patty Wetli

      Fixed–thanks Ellyn

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/XR5TELYZVWCUTZDEWOT7U77LUQ Robert

    I hope that the Alderman will be fair to condo owners and push to give them back their garbage rebates.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ericrojas2 Eric Rojas

    I have never been more proud of the way meetings and information is being handled since I’ve lived in this city.  Despite the economic realities and past waste and secrecy, these conversations and movement toward solutions is very impressive.  Thanks neighbors!

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