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Updated 10/19/11 – 5:24 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – City budget hearings got underway Wednesday morning at City Hall, as aldermen questioned Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget team about the spending plan for 2012.
The first day of budget hearings typically reveals which parts of the mayor’s spending plan are likely to generate the most controversy among aldermen and could, therefore, lead to changes in the budget plan.
As CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports, among the issues that aldermen expressed concern about was the mayor’s plan to double water and sewer fees by 2014 and to eliminate water bill exemptions for most non-profits.
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Aldermen also questioned the mayor’s proposal to increase the city sticker fee for larger passenger vehicles from $120 to $135, while also expanding the definition of larger passenger vehicles from cars that weigh at least 4,500 pounds to those weighing 4,000 pounds or more.
Smaller passenger vehicles are subject a $75 city sticker fee.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) noted that Emanuel’s proposed change would mean many Ford Taurus models would be defined as larger passenger vehicles. The proposed change would mean 184,000 more Chicago vehicles would qualify for the higher sticker fee and their owners would pay $60 more for a sticker than they pay now.
City Comptroller Amer Ahmad provided a bit of levity in the proceedings as he explained that larger cars cause more wear and tear on city streets.
“A pimped-out Taurus does more damage,” Ahmed said, prompting Budget Committee Chairwoman Carrie Austin (34th) to say, “Come on, pimp my ride.”
Moore, who urged budget officials to reconsider the change in sticker fees, joked that “You knew exactly what I was driving, don’t you? I didn’t realize that.”
“Actually, I don’t drive a Taurus anymore, so I’m okay … but it did strike me as kind of odd. I would urge you to work with the city clerk,” Moore added.
City Clerk Susana Mendoza has suggested the city instead impose stiffer penalties on motorists who fail to buy their city stickers, rather than changing the minimum weight of a large passenger vehicle.
Mendoza’s office released new figures on Wednesday, showing 200,000 tickets were issued to scofflaws who didn’t buy city stickers last year. Increasing the fine from $120 to $200 would raise another $16 million – more than Emanuel’s proposed increase for sticker fees for heavier cars.
Budget Director Alexandra Holt said that water and sewer bills would rise for most residents unless they get municipal water meters. Most non-profits also will lose their exemptions from paying water bills, but there are exceptions – such as the Chicago Public Schools.
“Senior citizens will continue to benefit from the waiver and rebate of sewer charges that they receive now and hospitals that are serving a large number of Medicaid and uninsured patients will granted a 20 percent discount on this fee,” Holt said.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th), who chairs the City Council Finance Committee, said he’s worried about ending the water bill exemptions for most non-profits. He suggested also extending discounts to churches that serve the poor.
“As you’ve made concessions for hospitals that serve the indigent, you might think about continuing waivers for some small Catholic parish or Lutheran parish or synagogue,” Burke said. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the proverbial bath water.”
But Holt noted the exemptions for churches and church schools amount to $7 million.
On the whole, aldermen praised the mayor’s budget team for an honest spending plan for 2012.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he was concerned that the proposed 1 percentage point increase in the city’s hotel tax will hurt tourism.
Ahmad sought to reassure the downtown alderman.
“We don’t believe that this modest increase in the hotel tax will have an impact on our convention or tourism industry. It is $1.78 a night.”
Reilly also questioned Emanuel’s plan to impose a $2 “congestion fee” on parking at lots and garages in downtown and River North during the week.
“I’m hearing from the garage operators in that industry, en masse, that this is going to put them out of business,” Reilly said.
But Ahmed defended the proposal, saying “the point of the downtown congestion premium is to reduce traffic during the most busy times – the weekdays – and to charge suburban drivers a premium for coming to the city and using our resources without paying their fair share.”
Ahmed said the city believes the congestion fee could lead to a decrease in use of downtown parking garages, but doubted it would put them out of business altogether. He also noted that condominium owners who park in their high-rise garages would be exempt from the congestion fee.
All in all, the aldermen were complimentary of Emanuel’s budget plan. In fact, Ald. Dick Mell (33rd) said the budget could secure the mayor a second term – sort of.
“He’s willing to make that hard call, which nobody else was ever wanted to do. I think that he won’t be a one-termer,” Mell said. “We got to be prepared to give the mayor the shot at it. We can always be against him next year.”
So far, there’s no way of knowing if the mayor’s office might reconsider any of the higher fees Emanuel has proposed for the 2012 budget, but a spokesperson for the mayor said Wednesday afternoon that Emanuel is paying close attention to aldermen’s concerns.