South Siders blast mayor at budget forum

Mayor Rahm Emanuel makes closing remarks at his first public forum held earlier this week at Malcolm X College.

Photo by Max Herman

Mayor Rahm Emanuel makes closing remarks at his first public forum held earlier this week at Malcolm X College.

Many of the people who attended a public forum on the city’s budget with Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday night said they left disappointed, frustrated and angry.

Emanuel, who sat on a stool at the front of the packed room in the South Shore Cultural Center, appeared to smirk as he was booed and as dozens of community members, mostly African-American and Latino, lined up to air their concerns about the city’s impending budget.

It’s rare for the mayor to hold public meetings—his last was held in August 2011, his first year in office—and his discomfort was clear to the assembled crowd, who grew increasingly agitated, convinced that the mayor was not paying attention to their grievances.

“This is a listening tour, not a hearing tour,” one audience member angrily told the mayor. “You (only) hear the voices of the communities you want to hear.”

The forum was one of three community meetings scheduled to discuss the budget, which is expected to be unveiled on Sept. 22.

Many people who attended the meeting said the mayor only paid lip service to issues that disproportionately impact low-income, minority neighborhoods on the South and West sides. Some attendees complained about inequities in the way resources are allocated across the city and said they were skeptical about the mayor’s commitment to their neighborhoods.

“We need developments on the South Side,” Michael Jones, a resident of the Southeast Side and a native Chicagoan, commented as people were leaving the meeting. “There’s not an empty spot on the North Side, but take a look at the vacant lots around here. You could build a farm on them. You can guess where the money’s going to go, though, and it’s not here.”

About 100 attendees, unable to fit in the packed room, were directed to a nearby overflow room. At times, technical problems prevented them from being able to watch or hear the forum. Eventually the screen went blank. Frustrated, they walked into the lobby, where they expressed their opinions on comment cards.

In the lobby, South Shore resident Michelle Bibbs said she had attended primarily out of concern about the lack of a full-service grocery store in South Shore, but said she was put off by the mayor’s dismissive attitude.

“You come to see your elected leadership answer questions, but I didn’t hear anyone give answers to my neighbors’ concerns,” she said.

The mayor is poised to raise property taxes next year by as much as $500 million to cover huge budget shortfalls. Other moneymaking proposals include a monthly garbage collection fee that could run as high as $240 a year, a penny-per-ounce tax on soda, taxes on e-cigarettes and a surcharge on Uber rides.

Jones said he was worried about the garbage fee, saying it was unfair to ask people who are already struggling to pay more for basic services.

The meeting was cut short after Dyett protesters rushed the stage. The demonstrators represented a dozen people who are 18 days into a hunger strike to pressure the mayor to reopen the high school, one of many shuttered during his administration. They chanted “right now,” after the mayor repeatedly avoided making a commitment on Dyett. The mayor retreated, surrounded by his security detail, and after a half-hour, aides announced that the meeting was over.

Although Emanuel won easily in the last general election, black support has waned since he was first elected in 2011.

Many questions at the hearing focused on regressive taxes and fees—especially those generated from red light cameras, parking meters, and property taxes—all of which disproportionately affect low-income people. Others asked about the closing of mental health clinics on the South Side.

One woman suggested that the city take the millions that it spends on police misconduct settlements each year and use it to replace revenue generated from stoplight cameras. A teacher asked whether the mayor planned to implement a progressive property tax to shift some of the burden onto the city’s wealthier citizens.

The mayor responded by saying he supported progressive taxes and that the city was already tackling the issue. The example he offered—which received boos from the crowd—was the elimination of a loophole for skybox tickets at sports venues.

Sheri Dabney-Parker, a teaching assistant at Willa Cather Elementary School in East Garfield Park, said she wasn’t surprised that the meeting came to an abrupt end.

“He picked and he chose what he answered,” she said. “Then he ran out the back like a coward. Well, that’s what I expected. We never get answers, because we don’t have a mayor who cares about black and brown kids or neighborhoods.”