Credit: Tonika Johnson

It was hard to attend Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first-ever budget hearing last month without thinking of the mayor who ruled before him.

That would be Richard M. Daley, of course, though Mayor Emanuel never called him by name even as he ripped his “smoke and mirror” budget policies.

Instead, he kept calling him “my predecessor” as if the word “Daley” shouldn’t be mentioned in good company and what happened over the last 22 years was too traumatic to talk about. You’d never know that Emanuel not only enthusiastically supported Daley in every election, but was gearing up to do the same this year before Daley mercifully gave it a rest.

At his August 29 hearing at Kennedy-King College, in the heart of Englewood, Emanuel literally took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and told the crowd of several hundred that he’d made the hard choices to keep the city and schools fiscally solvent, delivering on the promises he’d made during last winter’s campaign.

Of course, none of it is true. Mayor Emanuel has broken the three significant budget promises that candidate Emanuel made.

Candidate Emanuel promised not to raise property taxes. But Mayor Emanuel did just that—asking taxpayers for about $150 million extra for the Chicago Public Schools.

Candidate Emanuel promised to hire more police but hasn’t. He did transfer police from one division of the department to another, but there are still no more cops than there were under his predecessor, Mayor What’s-His Name. Overall, in fact, there are roughly 260 fewer police on the force now than last year, a fact that my colleague Mick Dumke discovered after poring over city payroll data. Funny, Mayor Emanuel never mentioned the police cuts at his Kennedy-King performance.

And, of course, candidate Emanuel promised to reform the TIFs—you knew I’d get to the city’s tax increment financing scam sooner or later.

Coincidentally, the hearing at Kennedy-King came a few hours after Mayor Emanuel held a press conference to pat himself on the back and announce the release of a much-trumpeted report by his TIF task force.

Oh, man—where do we start?

The report makes clear what’s been obvious for weeks: Mayor Emanuel has absolutely no intention of significantly changing the TIF program, other than perhaps releasing more information about it (and we’ll have to watch to make sure he does that).

And why should he? The TIFs divert roughly $500 million in property taxes from the schools, parks, county, and other government entities into slush funds controlled by the mayor. It’s never been in Emanuel’s best interest to change this formula and I can’t see him changing it now, especially since all the bootlickers in town—from the downtown civic community to the Chicago Tribune editorial board—have praised him for essentially doing nothing. Even Congressman Mike Quigley has joined in the amen chorus. Shame, shame, shame—he should know better.

“A TIF is a tool in a toolbox—it’s not the toolbox,” Emanuel told the crowd at Kennedy-King.

That’s become his TIF mantra these days, as he tries to get folks to forget that the program even exists so he’s free to squander all that dough as he sees fit—just like his unnamed predecessor.

Well, I hate to be the one who breaks the news, but Mayor Daley was right when he said TIFs are the only game in town. For better and for worse, they are pretty much the only source of discretionary income the city has. How and to whom the mayor doles it out affects everything from street repairs to development deals.

For the last two decades poor communities—for whom the program was intended—have been getting the shaft. For example, the Englewood TIF, covering one of the poorest of the poor, collected about $4.9 million last year. Meanwhile, the LaSalle Central TIF, which covers the central business district, brought in about $19.6 million.

Just another fact that Mayor Emanuel didn’t bother to mention at his Kennedy-King hearing.

Certainly the schools could use their share of the TIF funds—roughly $250 million a year. In fact, if you closed some of the downtown TIF districts, starting with LaSalle Central, maybe the schools wouldn’t have to raise taxes to close their deficit.

At the hearing, Emanuel didn’t get around to identifying what programs would be cut to close the city’s $635 million deficit. The city won’t release its official budget for at least another month.

But it’s a safe bet that whatever savings it includes will come at the expense of the people with the least amount of clout—like the 70 relatively low-wage traffic aides Emanuel fired over the summer. Some of them showed up at Kennedy-King to call Emanuel heartless.

“I can’t even pay my rent,” one woman cried out. “I don’t even know where I can live.”

Emanuel told her he’d been elected to make tough decisions.

In short, it looks like more of the same: fire the little guy and keep the TIFs for yourself. You know, it’s easy to say you’re making hard choices when someone else pays the price.

The last mayor—whatever his name is—did it all the time. Q

Q Speaking of Mayor Daley . . .

I can’t let this moment pass without one last shout-out for the old-school way he ran his annual budget hearings.

Out in the lobby, lower-level aides would pass out neat little trinkets, like pens, pads of paper, or key chains, while inside the meeting room, Daley sat imperiously at the center of a long table, flanked by his police chief, budget chief, fire chief, and other top appointees.

For several hours, Daley and his aides tried not to look bored as the locals paraded to microphones to speak their minds. Sometimes they lambasted the mayor, but mostly they praised him in the hopes that the King would be benevolent and fill their potholes if they fell to their knees and kissed the royal behind.

Emanuel has changed the format. Sad to say, the trinkets are gone—guess we all have to share in the budget-cutting sacrifice.

And instead of the Last Supper tableau favored by Daley, Emanuel’s going Oprah.

After City Colleges chancellor Cheryl Hyman welcomed the crowd on August 29, Emanuel made his grand entrance, striding in from a back room while his appointees, including police chief Garry McCarthy and schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, rose to cheer from seats in the front row of the audience.

Throughout the hearing he and Hyman sat or stood on a podium at the center of the room. Hyman read him questions submitted in writing from citizens and then vetted by aides.

Say this for Daley: he took what came his way.

Occasionally, Emanuel asked McCarthy, Brizard, or another of his chieftains to clarify a policy. And they generally began their comments with something like “The mayor’s right . . .” or “As the mayor told you . . .”

Ah, yes. Mayors come and mayors go, but the royal ass-kissing remains.