Chicagoans sound off at Emanuel’s first budget forum

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CHICAGO -- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was seeking support Monday night for some tough budget decisions, what may amount to the biggest round of tax and fee hikes Chicago has ever seen.

A cordial mayoral walk-through of the venue doesn’t stay friendly for long. The half-empty hall at Malcolm X College is filled with activists concerned not about the dire state of Chicago’s finances, but the hunger strike now in its third week at Dyett High School in Washington Park. The school’s closure, budget-related, threatens to hijack the entire agenda, inside the mayor’s forum and outside.

“It’s a sustained effort of the community -- hold on, hold on -- it’s a sustained effort of the community, so any ideas you have, I’d appreciate," Emanuel said.

It’s a throwback to the days of Mayor Daley, who held these community meetings several times a year. People call them "gripe sessions." On Monday night, the mayor's budget team laid it on the line.

"Since 2012, when the mayor came into office, we’ve been very focused, as I said, on reforms and savings and sustainable revenue," said City Budget Director Alexandra Holt.

But the city’s in big financial trouble. The budget deficit has ballooned past a quarter of a billion dollars, with the 2016 budget address just a  few weeks away. And while the mayor’s seeking input, for the first time since his first year in office, hecklers ruled the night as citizens try to have their say.

"Do we want to thank the mayor and all these hand-picked cronies?" said Austin resident Zerlina Smiht. "I don’t have a grocery store. I don’t have a quality school."

Two more budget forums will be held Wednesday and Thursday at 6:30 p.m. The budget address is Sept. 22, which has many here wondering whether the mayor really wants their input, or just wants to be able to say he asked.