It’s official–Mayor Daley is human. For the many who doubted, the 2004 city budget process proved it.

Exhibit one: The mayor made a self-incriminating statement at a press conference last Wednesday, November 19, after the City Council unanimously approved his $4.8-billion financial blueprint. It was the council’s fifth unanimous budget vote in five years, and reporters predictably questioned whether the aldermen played a meaningful role in shaping the budget.

“I work the City Council!” Daley insisted. “It’s a constant effort, give-and-take….They had criticism, sure. I listened to ’em….I don’t just come down here with the budget and say, ‘Pass it.'” He was still fairly calm, for the mayor.

Then Channel Five’s Dick Kay asked about Daley’s “absolute power.”

The short version of that high-pitched, excited response: “I don’t have absolute power! You’re greatly mistaken! I’m just a human like anyone else!”

Exhibit two: The main attraction of Daley’s 2004 budget was an early-retirement package for city workers. The package had to be passed by the Illinois General Assembly during its fall veto session, scheduled to end last Friday, November 21. Without it, budget director William Abolt said, the city would have to lay off at least 600 employees.

It takes a three-fifths majority to pass anything in the General Assembly’s veto session, and things were sure to get hairy as state legislators barreled toward the session’s end. Yet on November 19 the council confidently passed the budget, and Daley appeared unworried at the press conference afterward. “We’re working down there [in Springfield],” he said, shrugging. “As long as it’s not a partisan issue. So far it’s not a partisan issue.”

But the retirement package became a very partisan issue the next day, when senate Republicans all voted against it following a spat with Democrats about some election proposals. On Friday, Republicans defeated it for the last time. Abolt promptly announced that the city would begin layoffs on January 1.

To err is human, as Alexander Pope once pointed out. Especially when your party controls both houses of the state legislature, he might add today.

Still, Daley’s budget had passed the City Council nearly intact. Nearly. During the October budget hearings the aldermen had pounded their chests a bit and won a couple of skirmishes. They’d also come up with some useful ideas, two of which are already heading toward reality as new ordinances.

This year’s budget process was apparently harrowing for 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus. As soon as City Clerk James Laski announced the final vote tally at last week’s meeting, Natarus’s hand shot up. Daley recognized him.

“I wanna say, I’m gonna get drunk,” said Natarus.

“I thought you were,” cracked Daley. “HAHAHAHAHA!”

But before we look at why the budget would make an alderman hit the bottle, here’s a quick primer on the process.

Daley’s budget director oversees the disagreeable business of sculpting a budget. In lean times like these that includes raising more money and hunting for savings. Daley of course has the final word, especially on raising property taxes.

This year Abolt was stuck figuring out how to cover a projected deficit of $116 million without raising property taxes. And that was after plugging equally large deficits in the previous two budgets. His final proposal cut about 1,400 city jobs, half through eliminating currently vacant positions, the rest through early retirements or layoffs. It also included a host of increased fees and fines and a .25 percent hike in the restaurant tax.

In early October, Daley presents the proposed budget in a speech to the City Council. Before that address, the budget director or a minion meets with the aldermen, individually or in small groups, to brief them on what’s coming and to hear their concerns. The council’s budget committee chairman, now Seventh Ward alderman William Beavers, works more closely with the budget department and acts as a kind of moderator between budget officials and the aldermen.

In mid- or late October the council’s 33-member committee holds hearings. City department heads troop into the council chambers one by one to face the aldermen and take their lumps, receive sincere and insincere congratulations, and answer lots of questions. Some questions are actually about the budget, but sometimes the aldermen just like to skewer bureaucrats who weren’t helpful that year.

Mayor Daley has no part in all this, and Abolt appears only on his scheduled day. After the hearings end, there are a couple weeks of behind-the-scenes dealing between the aldermen and the administration. Finally the full council meets and passes Daley’s budget unanimously, though a simple majority would do. At the press conference afterward reporters ask Mayor Daley if he has too much power over the council. You’ve already read his usual response.

Woe to anyone who crosses Alderman Beavers, especially when he’s chairing those budget committee hearings.This year’s went full throttle every day for the last two weeks of October, sometimes long into the evening. On the second day Beavers announced that two department heads had asked to change their scheduled appearance dates. He looked cross. “There’s only one department head–there’s 50 aldermen,” he boomed across the chambers. He had a microphone, but since his voice is deeper than God’s, it would have boomed anyway. “I’m lettin’ ’em all know, in the future, don’t make any plans for October. All right? No plans for October. That goes to all department heads.”

Beavers is a very tall, very imposing, and very well-dressed former policeman. He’s 68, a black native south-sider whose ward includes South Shore and South Chicago. His impeccable suits are accompanied by a gold link bracelet large enough to use as a tire chain in winter. He punctuates all conversation and speeches with a clipped “OK?” and “All right?” If he’s joking, each “OK” is a jovial verbal slap on the back. If he’s mad, it’s a slap in the face.

“If you got a date, you’re gonna keep that date, unless you die,” Beavers continued. “OK?”

“That’s cruel,” someone muttered.

“It’s not cruel,” Beavers shot back. “The most important thing here is the budget. The. Most. Important. And one department head is not gonna stop this budget. OK? Y’know, I been here when they wheeled people in from the hospital in a wheelchair. I been here when they let people out of jail to vote. OK? I been here when they hooked people up to a monitor–they was in a hospital–in case they needed to vote. So I’m sure a department head can get here. All right? So those are the only changes that’s gonna be made.”

But the very next day Beavers made a change in the schedule. And he was happy to do it.

A small group of aldermen who crossed racial, geographic, and party lines decided to walk out of the hearings, denying the budget committee a quorum and halting the hearings. Forty-first Ward alderman Brian Doherty led the group. As the council’s lone Republican, he enjoys a little more political freedom. As he puts it, “I didn’t come to the dance with a lot of these guys, so I don’t necessarily have to leave the dance with them either.”

Doherty said he and fellow northwest-side aldermen Tom Allen (38th) and Pat Levar (45th) “were getting a lot of heat from the union guys” about the potential layoffs. He said they–and Ed Smith (28th), Rick Munoz (22nd), Howard Brookins Jr. (21st), Ginger Rugai (19th), and Margaret Laurino (39th)–“were angry that [the budget officials] weren’t answering our questions.”

Since the days of former budget director Paul Vallas, aldermen have grown accustomed to budget briefings with real communication, or at least a lifelike simulation. This year the phrase most often used to describe the briefings was “waste of time.”

There are competing theories about why budget department officials thoroughly pissed off the aldermen so early in the process. “Basically they didn’t know if they were going to try to do a property-tax increase or revenue enhancements until the day before the mayor made his [budget speech],” said Allen later. “That’s how it was explained to us after the fact. But that’s not how it was explained in the briefings. So a lot of us were miffed and felt we were being shortchanged.”

Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle offered a more cynical possibility: “They don’t want to be scooped by the aldermen, so they give out next to no information prior to the budget actually coming before us at the council meeting–so they can do whatever leaks [to the press] they want themselves.”

Now, Abolt had shown up for the first day of budget hearings, but he’d appeared jointly with revenue director Bea Reyna-Hickey and city comptroller Tariq Malhance. One alderman suggested that Abolt arranged the joint appearance to shift attention away from himself. If so, the plan worked.

Among its other duties, the revenue department boots cars and chases down Chicagoans for parking tickets issued way back in the past century. So Reyna-Hickey took shots from everyone for being the governmental equivalent of a repo man. Abolt barely had to talk, and he revealed little more about the budget than he’d already told the press. Malhance could have stayed in bed.

On the third day of hearings, Doherty said later, he told Beavers about the plan to walk out. “He said, ‘Fine. How long you planning on being gone?’ I said a half hour. He said, ‘Fine. I need a cigarette anyway.’ He said, ‘Well, it’s about time you guys did something.'”

Doherty asked for a quorum vote, but Beavers declared a recess. “They needed to walk out,” Beavers said later. “I didn’t give ’em a quorum call–I gave ’em a recess. That makes everybody look good. That’s being a seasoned chairman.” He added, “They wanted to send a message and they did.”

Abolt agreed to come for a second time, on the next to last day of the hearings. “He woulda come back anyways, but we just wanted to show him we can stop these proceedings if we want to,” said Doherty. After that, he added, budget officials were “more giving.”

Daley’s budget department did give on at least two points–AIDS funding and zoning-inspector transfers. Forty-fourth Ward alderman Tom Tunney, elected last spring as the city’s first openly gay legislator after being appointed by Daley to replace retiring alderman Bernard Hansen, immediately objected to the budget’s proposed increase of just $100,000 to fight AIDS, for a total of $3.5 million. He quickly gathered 28 signatures from colleagues demanding a bigger increase and got ten to support a call for an additional $1 million.

Daley made his typical budget-time response. “I wish I could do more,” he told reporters. “Everybody wants more money.” Tunney countered with words like “epidemic” and statistics showing that 81 percent of new AIDS patients are black or Hispanic. In early November, Abolt announced that Daley had been swayed. The final budget contains $600,000 more for AIDS education and prevention than last year.

The budget department’s plan to transfer zoning inspectors to the buildings department produced a less high-profile tussle. When zoning administrator Edward Kus showed up for his hearing, the powerful zoning committee chairman, 36th Ward alderman William Banks, called the proposed transfers “perhaps the most absurd concept that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” He said he’d already talked with Abolt, who’d promised to fix the problem. But, Banks added, he’d prepared some amendments of his own just in case. “That’s not to be taken in a negative way,” he added smoothly.

Abolt had wanted to consolidate inspections done by both departments so they’d have enough people to schedule night and weekend shifts, an omission that became glaringly obvious after the E2 stampede earlier this year. The aldermen weren’t buying it. They don’t trust building inspectors to help them with zoning problems, and they weren’t optimistic that zoning inspectors would be able to find building violations. “Many of the building inspectors have expertise in certain trades,” 18th Ward alderman Tom Murphy told Kus, “and that’s something that just isn’t acquired overnight.” The city, he pointed out, might be liable if a zoning inspector missed a building violation.

Banks got his way. Zoning inspectors will stay in zoning, and the buildings department will add some inspectors and train them to do basic zoning inspections.

Doherty and Tunney also complained about the .25 percent additional tax on restaurants. Doherty’s ward is heavy on restaurants, and Tunney owns Ann Sather’s. Before his council days Tunney led the fight that overturned the city’s 0.5 percent litter tax on restaurant take-out food. Doherty said he suggested to budget officials that when the council voted on the budget he and Tunney could ask finance committee chairman Ed Burke to note that they opposed the additional tax. The officials were afraid the other aldermen would rush to join in. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a problem with that,'” Doherty responded.

The administration did, so it offered a task force that would consider various complaints from the local hospitality industry. Doherty and Tunney dropped their opposition.

The aldermen raised other budget issues that went nowhere but deserve watching. At Abolt’s first budget appearance, Doherty complained about the increasing privatization of city services in his ward without his knowledge. He listed several budget lines showing increases of millions of dollars in private contracts. “My biggest fear,” he said, “is one day I’m gonna call the ward yard and I’m gonna get a phone message [that] says, ‘Welcome to Waste Management. If you’re missing a pickup, press one. If you want tree trims, press two. If you want something else, call 311.’ We are privatizing large sections of our government without the legislative council’s awareness.”

A budget department spokesperson says that in the past year the city has privatized the work of painting street lines and restoring parkways–replacing whatever gets destroyed when city crews tear up a street for repairs. Privatization can be positive, of course. Abolt announced last August, for instance, that the city’s transportation department would be audited to see if city work crews are competitive with those of private companies. But, as one alderman who preferred to remain anonymous points out, privatization can also mean that someone in Daley’s administration “wants private contractors to get some more work, whether it’s for personal favors or campaign purposes or whatever.” And we don’t have to look further than the nearest wrought-iron fence to imagine the problems involved with that.

Doherty brought the subject up again during Abolt’s second budget-hearings visit. “First of all,” he began, “is it true there’s a proposal to privatize the aldermen?”

“I’m awaiting the outcome of the cost-benefit study,” Abolt said, grinning.

Alderman Allen also expressed concern about the city’s huge and growing debt load. Many Chicagoans would be surprised to hear that the city’s entire $713.5 million property-tax levy for 2004 will go solely to debt-service payments ($414.2 million) and pensions ($299.3 million). And that doesn’t pay for all of either obligation: the city’s long-term general-obligation debt is $4.5 billion, and the long-term revenue-bond debt is $7.2 billion. The 2004 pension costs are $382.9 million.

At Abolt’s first budget-hearing appearance Allen said he hoped “we don’t borrow any more money, because we’re up to our eyeballs in debt, and every year I see that number goin’ up and up. We’re reaping the benefits of the new infrastructure and capital projects, but there comes a point when you have to put the brakes on it and slow it down–if not for us, certainly for future generations.”

Abolt agreed the debt had grown “at a substantial rate” and said that’s why he intended to look for alternative ways to pay for capital programs. A budget department spokesperson says the increased debt is mainly the result of Daley’s four-year, $800-million Neighborhoods Alive program. According to the city comptroller’s statement on the budget, in 2004 the city will take on another $195 million in debt to pay for further infrastructure improvements.

The comptroller’s statement noted that Chicago has maintained its current bond ratings with Standard and Poor’s (A+), Moody’s Investor’s Service (A1), and Fitch Ratings (AA-). Still, Moody’s latest appraisal called Chicago’s debt burden “above average.” It rated Chicago’s near-term outlook “stable” but warned that the city’s weak cash balance and “increasing use of short-term debt for operations” would “bear watching.” If the city’s cash reserves deteriorate any more, it said, Chicago’s bond rating could go down.

John Kenward, a senior credit analyst for Standard and Poor’s, sounds more optimistic. He says Chicago’s total debt burden is “high, but not superhigh.” The debt, which includes overlapping taxing bodies such as Cook County, is $4,500 per person, or 6.9 percent of the city’s fair-market property value. “If you’re over $2,500 per capita and over 6 percent market value,” he says, “you’re on the high side.” But he points out that continued borrowing for infrastructure programs makes sense as long as interest rates are low, since borrowing in the future will be more expensive. He also says economists think the midwest is overdue for economic recovery and expect improvement in unemployment by spring, which would increase income- and sales-tax revenues for the city. Still, he agreed that the city’s cash reserves are low and need watching.

Today in the city of clout aldermen can’t even fix their own parking tickets–the revenue department has gotten so fearless it screws them over too. So during the hearings some aldermen were highly motivated to rein in the department. When revenue director Bea Reyna-Hickey appeared, Helen Shiller (46th), Dorothy Tillman (3rd), and Carrie Austin (34th) all told their own parking-ticket horror stories.

“I have four times since 1991 had to prove that I paid tickets in 1986,” said Shiller.

“I paid my tickets, and just before the election they told me I had some tickets that was three or four years past due,” said Tillman. “I was gonna fight it, and I was told, ‘Alderman, please don’t do that. Why don’t you just write the check, and we’ll deal with it later?’ But it was never dealt with once I paid it. So I just wanna say that. And if they do an alderman like that, I can imagine what they do to an ordinary citizen.”

Reyna-Hickey tried, unsuccessfully, to appeal to her audience’s sympathy by calling attention to her sore throat and raspy voice. Fiftieth Ward alderman Bernard Stone wasn’t moved. After he confirmed that there was no statute of limitations on parking tickets, he railed against the department for fining a businessman who’d sent in a tax payment on time but forgotten to sign the form.

Reyna-Hickey responded that the fine was necessary because it was an issue of “accountability.”

“You know what?” yelled Stone. “That’s not accountability–that’s nonsense. Quite frankly, your department is the department of nonsense, harassment, blackmail! You know, if the average citizen knew what they were faced with in dealing with your department they’d move! Anybody who applies for a license and has to deal with the Department of Revenue comes back talking to themselves! Until you understand that your job isn’t just to collect money, it’s to treat people like human beings–until you understand that, you’ll never fulfill your job as head of the Department of Revenue!” He slammed down his microphone.

There was a long silence. Finally Beavers asked, “Are you through, Alderman Stone?”

“And how!” shouted Stone.

Later Alderman Allen noted, “The only crimes in Chicago that don’t have a statute of limitations are murder and parking tickets.” But he amiably told Reyna-Hickey, “It’s not your fault. It’s the law–and if we change the law, then you won’t have the authority to collect ’em.”

And so relief is on the way. Stone introduced an ordinance mandating a statute of limitations of seven years on parking tickets at the council’s November 5 meeting, and last week Shiller introduced an ordinance setting up a payment plan for people with parking fines.

Winston Mardis, director of the Mayor’s License Commission and Local Liquor Control Commission, took even more abuse when he showed up. “You got the smallest department, and you catch more hell [from the aldermen] than anybody, OK?” Beavers told him at one point. “There’s a reason for that. We don’t just pick on you….Your office is not friendly to the public, OK?” When Alderman Howard Brookins Jr. suggested charging for liquor licenses on a sliding scale determined by sales volume, billing mom-and-pop operations less and gigantic chains more, Mardis didn’t even attempt to feign interest in the idea.

Brookins and Murphy both had an idea for City Clerk James Laski, who’d proposed an ordinance (now passed) allowing the city to search city-licensed garages for cars registered in Chicago but without city vehicle stickers. The two aldermen pointed out that he could easily get around civil liberty concerns some aldermen had raised by merging the city’s computer records of city-sticker purchases with the secretary of state’s computer records of city vehicle registrations, then mailing tickets to the scofflaws.

Laski seemed surprised by the idea–and disappointed that he might not get to send inspectors snooping around garages. He halfheartedly said he’d look into it, and his office says it’s being investigated.

When zoning administrator Edward Kus showed up, Natarus suggested he encourage Cook County assessor James Houlihan to push for taxing vacant land with billboards as commercial property. “Have you ever thought of writing [Houlihan] a letter like that?” he asked Kus.

“No,” said Kus, “because I know you already have written that letter, because that was your idea.”

“Forget about my idea,” said Natarus. “If you tell him it’s my idea it’s dead.”

Only until next October’s budget hearings.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.