Cook County Clerk David Orr, co-chair of Jesus "Chuy" Garcia's mayoral campaign and veteran political reformer, says Mayor Rahm Emanuel has "nearly bankrupted the city." Credit: Photo by Bryan Docter/Cook County Clerk’s Office

If the media are right when they insinuate that Chuy Garcia is so unprepared to deal with the city’s finances, why are so many veteran good-government reformers backing him?

For one thing, they remember how disastrous much of the media thought Harold Washington was going to be on finances when he ran for mayor in 1983 — he couldn’t even pay his own taxes on time! he was a criminal! — and how he went on to lead the most fiscally responsible administration in recent history.

But there’s much more.  “For me, it’s particularly important that we deal with [the budget crisis] in a way that involves citizens and is accountable to citizens rather than technocrats or backroom operators,” said former Ald. Dick Simpson, now a political science professor.  “There are going to be choices and sacrifices, and I think we as citizens need to have a voice in that.  We won’t under Rahm Emanuel and a rubber-stamp City Council.”

He recalled the budget hearings held in communities across the city by Washington, scaled back by Mayor Richard Daley and eliminated by Emanuel. “It was actually a process where you were heard and you were taken seriously,” Simpson said. “If we’re going to have to make some service cuts and have some tax increases, you want citizens to be part of the decision-making, because there will be choices and tradeoffs.”

Garcia has dealt with budgets at the city, county and state levels, said former City Clerk Miguel del Valle, who ran for mayor against Emanuel four years ago.

“He has an unblemished record as an elected official, and on top of that, he has a deep understanding of the city and its neighborhoods,” del Valle said. “He understands what it means to provide balanced development — as was done in the Harold Washington administration — with a balance between downtown and neighborhood development, to correct the inequities when it comes to distributing city resources.”

Those who herald Emanuel as a competent administrator ignore his record, while those who attack Garcia ignore the plan he’s put forward, said Cook County Clerk David Orr, who is co-chair of Garcia’s campaign.

“Rahm Emanuel has failed,” Orr said.  “He’s nearly bankrupted the city.

“I don’t know what tough decisions he’s made. He’s put off his school budget — his school board used 14 months for a 12-month budget.  He’s put off pension payments.  Sure, he passed four city budgets without property-tax increases — using hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fines and fees, red light cameras and speed cameras, and with $1.9 billion in expanded borrowing.  And of course his school board and Park District raised property taxes to the limit.”

Emanuel’s huge campaign war chest allows him to distort his record and evade accountability, Orr said.

“He blames everything under the sun on Daley — without mentioning his name — but his relationship with Daley is what got him where he is today.  Then he tries to tag Chuy with ‘the failed policies of the past,’ and Chuy, if anybody, has been fighting the machine since the day he stepped into City Hall.  He’s never been anything but a reformer.”

Some in the media keep demanding, “tell us how much you’re going to raise taxes,” Orr said.  “I think that’s unfair. First of all you have to prove to the taxpayers, as any good reformer would do, that you’re going to spend their money more wisely.

“They have a right to keep asking the question, but they should present Chuy’s answers to the public.”

Orr insists Garcia’s budget plan is serious in identifying a half billion dollars in potential efficiencies.  “He said, number one, we’re going to change the way we approach government.  We’re going to look not just at the city budget but all four governments the mayor controls: the city, the Park District, the school board, the City Colleges.  Together they take in $17.6 billion in property taxes.

“Some of this is long-term, but he’s saying everything reformers have been talking about for years.  We can’t have all these governments with their own procurement departments and so on.  That’s from the days when the machine was in power and government was too big.  We have to change that.  There can be very significant savings.  He lowballed it.

“We believe you can squeeze out of the city budget, easily, $200 [million]-$250 million.  I don’t have any doubt that there are enormous inefficiencies in the city budget. Open up the books, which nobody believes are honest.  You’ve got Scott Waguespack, who’s the most respected alderman (among progressives) on the budget, saying over and over, the books are cooked, they’re not telling us everything.

“And third, you can revert money from TIFs.”  This is an issue on which Orr has long been vocal.  (And he rejects recent assertions that closing TIF districts wouldn’t save money for schools and other taxing bodies, citing state law as well as diversions by Mayors Daley and Emanuel.)

On TIF reform, “Rahm’s done almost nothing,” Orr said.  “He did improve their website, but ask anybody, it’s still really hard to get the information you want.”  He shifted some TIF spending to infrastructure, “but frankly he wouldn’t have to use TIF so much for infrastructure and schools — things that normally come out of capital-development budgets — if he hadn’t messed up our finances so much.”

Garcia would systematically evaluate TIF districts and projects, Orr said.  “They’ve never scrubbed this program the way they promised,” he said. “They never did any audits. We all know they were stockpiling money for the Olympics, and for all we know they could be stockpiling money for a casino now.”

Some TIF district plans are “very vague,” Orr said.  “Maybe they say we’ll do this housing project, but the TIF is bringing in $10 [million] or $20 million a year. They do not have really hard, specific plans for the life of all these TIFs.  And that’s why they created all this portability, with districts touching each other, so they can move money around.

“I believe strongly that when we get a mayor who’s not trying to hide this stuff, but will really scrub them, then you will have two choices.  Number one, you can divert money for savings, as Daley and Emanuel have done.  And you can have a broader policy discussion: Given our fiscal situation, should we be spending money for A or for B?”

He adds that Garcia has long emphasized the need to put the city and state’s revenue structure on a more progressive basis.

“Chuy is offering an alternative,” Orr said. “That’s why he’s a hero to much of the city; that’s why he’s hanging in there in the polls despite all the money being spent against him. That’s why he may very well win this election.”

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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