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.
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.”
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.