Monday, November 14, 2011

Rahm touches the third rail, gingerly

When Rahm Emanuel was in the White House, he called immigration "the third rail of American politics," which probably set some heads scratching. Not many politicians come from districts with an electrified rapid transit system. But his meaning was clear: It's a charged issue. Don't even touch it, or you'll get a jolt you may not survive.

Now Emanuel has a new job and a new third rail. Last month as mayor he made plans to cut Chicago services next year. His first budget closes three police stations, one at 29th and Prairie in Bronzeville, another in Roscoe Village at Belmont and Western and another at Augusta and Wood, a quarter-mile from where I live in East Village. In making the announcement, Emanuel called closing police stations "the third rail of Chicago politics."

This time he wasn't steering clear; Emanuel made it a centerpiece of his budget even before his police chief could say where the cops would park their squad cars. So has it really been such an untouchable issue?

As you might expect, neighbors are opposed to the police station closing, and I can tell you how that's playing out. But it's not the only issue that can get people charged up. Pretty quickly I started seeing e-mails about cuts in library hours and 9-1-1 dispatchers. A letter from aldermen wants money put back into graffiti removal. A week before the City Council votes on the budget, I'm hearing about the six mental health clinics that would close.

I'm not hearing the high-voltage sizzle of the third rail in any of this, just a lot of static. Closing squadrooms is only one of his budget gambits, and not even the one that has gotten the most buzz.

Let's look more closely at the East Village closing. Even before Emanuel produced his budget, newspapers were identifying the 13th District as the unlucky one to lose its station house. But what does that mean? Many Chicagoans aren't quite sure what neighborhood they live in, much less which police district. When police arrested four men in a Wicker Park foot chase, the 13th District got online kudos, even though Wicker Park is not in the 13th District.

About all the station house determines is where officers show up for roll call at the beginning of their shift. The Wood Street squadroom is built like a 1950s fallout shelter but showing its age. The lockup was shut down four years ago and prisoners are transported elsewhere. In closing the station house, police move to a new building with efficient heating and new computers.

Neighbors fear what would happen without police showing the flag in their backyard, yet the city's own crime statistics show nearly as many incidents near the Wood Street station as elsewhere in the district, maybe just a bit quieter just for being located on a side street.

It's more telling how many police are on patrol, and here's where Emanuel's third rail begins to look more like an extension cord. Emanuel pledged to “put 1,000 more police on the streets” but the budget sends 50 new recruits will enter the police academy, a number that won't even offset the number of cops nearing retirement. The city has reassigned street teams into the beats, which hasn't put new cops on the street.

With the police taking $190 million in cuts, about the best Emanuel can say about manpower was that he isn't larding the budget with positions he had no intention of filling.

In this environment, one neighborhood fear about merging police districts has some merit. The remaining cops are more likely to be shifted to where there's more crime. It's hard to get upset over that. But the city has been moving cops around the city for years, so we have some idea where that might lead. When Taste of Chicago borrows cops from the neighborhoods, we literally see fireworks: Every Fourth of July our neighborhood lights up with bottle rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers set off in alleys. None of this is legal in Illinois. It's an open question whether other crimes will be tolerated the same way.

If Emanuel were serious about changes in crimefighting, he would have to put up money for crimefighters. He can't do it with spare change. But none of the city's budget cuts have had anywhere near the impact of the prospect of new taxes. Water and sewer fees are rising. So are taxes at parking garages and hotels. Street-corner cameras soon will start tracking drivers for speeding. And the mayor already has caved in on one of the aldermen's hot-button issues: the prospect that city stickers would cost more for SUVs than for economy cars.

The real problem with these taxes is that they bring so little to the table. Somehow Emanuel plans to find $25 million by putting billboards on bridge houses, blue bins, garbage trucks, snowplows, light boxes and lifeguard towers. Selling ads to pull out of a financial jam is no sure thing. Just ask around at the Tribune.

Read my lips: Raising taxes have always been the real third rail of politics. Emanuel has been giving a wide berth to this danger zone. He may live to regret it.