- Sun-Times Media
- Forty-seventh Ward alderman Ameya Pawar wants you to know that he’s going to vote to raise your taxes.
The morning after the city’s pension “reform” bill became a done deal, 47th Ward alderman Ameya Pawar walked into a North Center cafe wanting breakfast. Some strategic thinking was also in order, because Chicago is in a bit of a fix.
“The bills are coming due,” Pawar said, “and we have to deal with them.”
He wasn’t talking about the breakfast check. The pension legislation—pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel for months and signed by Governor Pat Quinn on Monday—will reduce benefits for thousands of municipal retirees while requiring the city to kick in more money, which it was already supposed to be doing.
Emanuel initially said that financing the revisions would require jacking up property taxes by a jaw-dropping total of $750 million over five years. But then he and Quinn agreed to raise a tax on telephones in the hopes of delaying some of the property tax increases—at least until after Quinn faces reelection in November and Emanuel and the City Council in February.
Pawar counts himself as a supporter of the mayor’s—as well as his alderman, since Emanuel lives in the 47th Ward—and he backs the pension plan. But Pawar wasn’t celebrating as he sat down at the Julius Meinl coffee shop on Montrose and Lincoln.
In addition to the obligations laid out in the new law, the city is required to pay another $600 million into police and fire pension systems next year. And even after years of cuts and an improving economy, the city continues to face annual budget deficits of $300 million to $500 million—money needed to keep picking up the trash and sending officers on patrol.
“I’ve been telling people at community meetings that ‘At some point I’m going to vote to raise your taxes,'” Pawar said. “Even without the pension bill, we still have about $1 billion coming due, and everybody knows it. Why do you think so many aldermen retired three years ago?”
Hey, nobody said it was all bad news.
Longtime 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter was one of the dozen who decided to hang it up before the last elections, and Pawar upset Schulter’s designated successor by declaring it was time to end the costly old system of favor-trading politics.
In the time since, Pawar has bucked Mayor Emanuel on occasion but says he’d rather work with him to get things done. The alderman also argues that Emanuel is helping the city through its hangover from generations of patronage politics.
“We’re coming off decades of doing things a certain way—’I know a guy who can get me an extra garbage can.’ I mean, there is no reason we should have been picking up garbage by political boundaries. And while aldermen did that, it was a source of Chicago pride. It was a culture.”
Just a few weeks ago, former alderman Richard Mell offered a spirited defense of patronage during an interview with me and Ben Joravsky at the Hideout. Mell was proud of the roughly 1,000 jobs he once controlled—including a number of positions as bridge tenders, who sat in boathouses along the Chicago River long after there were no boats. Mell said such jobs helped dozens of people get through college.
Pawar doesn’t deny it. “But it’s like they didn’t have to take out student loans, because now we’re paying for it,” he says.
The neighborhoods that Pawar represents—Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, North Center—once had more than their share of such jobs; Schulter got his start with one of them at the Park District. Pawar says he understands that downsizing city government creates its own problems, and not just in south-side neighborhoods teetering from unemployment and foreclosures. Without investment in infrastructure and services—from bike lanes to schools—even thriving areas like his will lose residents to other cities or the suburbs, especially when their kids reach school age.
Emanuel has said the same thing, which is how he’s explained closing dozens of neighborhood schools and pouring resources into charter and selective-enrollment schools that take the best or most motivated students.
In the politest way possible, Pawar argues that’s the wrong way to go. “Imagine if you have the NBA draft and only some teams get to pick players,” he said. “If people believe in their neighborhood schools, they believe in their neighborhood. If I was the mayor it would be K-12 schools all in, and that would be the way to grow the city.”
Yet the alderman says he’s prepared to vote for Emanuel again next year, and he believes most of his constituents will as well—even if they’re facing higher taxes and less investment.
“If people don’t like him, it’s usually because of his education policy or his style,” Pawar said. “But people clearly don’t want another one or two more parking meter deals, and we have to do something. I think they understand that he makes some really tough choices.”
One of his choices, by the way, was to fight to keep the current meter deal in place.