City council to close budget season in record time


Mayor Lori Lightfoot likes to celebrate her budget victories with a steak, a scotch and a cigar.

After Wednesday’s city council vote, which will culminate the quietest budget season in recent memory, she may want to add dessert to the menu.

Lightfoot’s $ 16.7 billion budget is on track to pass through city council, thanks to an avalanche of federal stimulus funds that paved the way for an unprecedented 30% increase in city spending.

“There is something for everyone,” Licensing Committee chairwoman Emma Mitts (37th) told colleagues after the debate began shortly before 10:30 am.

Education committee chair Michael Scott Jr. (24th) cited $ 50 million for “street interventions” to quell violence and increased spending on mental health.

Scott praised the mayor for skillfully navigating the “tightrope walk between doing what is fiscally prudent and investing in” the city’s most needy residents.

Chicago’s property tax will increase by $ 76.5 million, following a $ 94 million property tax hike last year.

The increase includes: $ 22.9 million for an automatic escalator linked to the Consumer Price Index; $ 25 million to fund the 2022 tranche of Lightfoot’s $ 3.7 billion investment plan and $ 28.6 million from “new ownership.”

The increase – minus the new property – is expected to cost the owner of a home worth $ 250,000 an additional $ 38 per year.

At least a dozen “no” are expected against the increase in property tax. But Lightfoot easily knocked out a request from downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and the Hispanic Caucus to repeal the automatic escalator at a time when owners and business owners are already reeling from skyrocketing revaluations.

Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce president Jack Lavin has launched a similar plea on behalf of businesses bracing for a fundamental change in the way commercial property is valued.

What the mayor called a “once in a lifetime opportunity to transform” Chicago literally allowed Lightfoot to play Santa Claus, instead of Grinch.

That’s even after using about two-thirds of federal relief funds to replace revenue lost to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. She returned $ 537.4 million to be used in 2022 and 2023.

To reduce poverty exacerbated by the pandemic, Chicago will set aside $ 31.5 million to launch a year-long test of a concept known as universal basic income.

As part of the plan, the city will send unconditional $ 500 checks to 5,000 of Chicago’s most needy families. Lightfoot called it the largest cash assistance program of its kind in the country.

The president of the Civic Federation, Laurence Msall, called this program, championed by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Chairman of the Council’s Hispanic Caucus, a “worthy experience”. But Msall also said he was concerned about creating permanent addiction.

“It’s only for a year. Or, at most, two years. City finance officials assured us that there was no ongoing commitment once this money was distributed. But will those recipients expect more people to get this money, or will they continue to get it, even after the federal stimulus money is no longer available? ” he said.

“It’s a reasonable question that many are asking. How can the city afford to do this in the future once the federal money is no longer available? “

Lightfoot moved the budget process forward by a month to coincide with the unveiling of its plan to spend federal relief funds.

She ended up using 68% of the federal money for income replacement. This freed up the city’s business fund to pay off a $ 450 million line of credit used to eliminate a pandemic-induced deficit and cancel a $ 500 million refinancing that would have been necessary without the second round of funds. stimulus.

Yet it has managed to allocate $ 1.2 billion in new investments by pooling $ 563 million in federal funds with the $ 660 million that is the 2022 portion of its capital plan.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot chairing Wednesday’s Chicago City Council meeting.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Christmas in Chicago will come that early with: $ 202 million to reduce homelessness; $ 52 million in new investments for mental health initiatives, including $ 15 million to expand an alternative intervention pilot program for mental health emergencies; $ 150 million for youth programming; and $ 85 million for violence intervention.

To combat global warming, the mayor’s budget provides for the planting of 75,000 new trees over the next five years while reducing the one-year wait for a tree to be cut by almost doubling the number of teams dedicated to this vital service.

There is a $ 20 million relief and works fund for artists, including $ 10 million in relief funds and a corresponding “dedicated income stream” of $ 10 million from the corporate budget that ” will no longer be subject to the vagaries of hotel tax “.

The budget also includes several new or improved programs to ease the burden on low-income Chicagoans driven into debt and bankruptcy by the city’s over-reliance on ticket income.

This includes so-called “repair tickets” for certain compliance violations, such as an invalid or missing city sticker, and a 50% reduction in tickets for low-income drivers.

In the haggling leading up to the final vote, Lightfoot also increased its investments to meet the demands of Council members.

“When it was time to fold, you did. When it was time to [stand] unwavering, you did it, ”Ald accused. Carrie Austin (34th) told budget manager Susie Park.

“I wanted to get you some more money. But you weren’t moving.

Austin then went directly to the mayor who dumped her as chair of the Budget Committee and forced her to step down as chair of the Consolation Committee on Market Watch and Fairness after her indictment.

“These are difficult times for all of us. They have times for you. But, I know you did 100 percent for the people who elected you, ”Austin told Lightfoot.

Lightfoot has firmly resisted demands to reopen mental health clinics closed by former mayor Rahm Emanuel. But she agreed to increase the staff of the five clinics in the city that remain open by 72%. This includes 18 additional staff and an extension of evening hours.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), chairman of the Democratic Socialist Caucus, hailed this level of investment in mental health personnel as “something we haven’t seen happen in decades”.

Other 11eHourly concessions include more money for homeless awareness, single-occupancy buildings, food equity, forestry, marketing to the Commission on Animal Care and Control, and additional town planners for supervise land sales.

In response to Aldermane concerns, an oversight subcommittee chaired by Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd) is also being created to monitor how the city is spending the avalanche of federal stimulus funds. .

With these changes – and more – the progressive agenda that can never be fully satisfied is, at the very least, appeased.

“It’s a progressive budget,” Ald. Sophia King (4th), chair of the Progressive Caucus, said last week.

“I appreciate the collaboration we had on this budget and the way my colleagues lobbied to ensure that there are resources for those most in need in our community. “

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) praised her fellow progressive and black caucuses for “pushing the boundaries” and going “somewhere we’ve never been before as a Council.”

With this pressure, “we can really start to have a meaningful direction towards a more just city for all,” Hairston said.

Last year, Lightfoot balanced its budget by partially eliminating 614 vacancies in the Chicago Police Department and reducing CPD through attrition.

This year, it is increasing police spending by $ 189 million to just under $ 1.9 billion. But, Park said the “full driver” of the increase is the new police contract, with its 20% pay rise over eight years.

Meanwhile, the tidal wave of police retirements continues with 703 retirements already this year and 987 sworn vacancies.

Far North-West Ald side. Anthony Napolitano (41st), downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) and O’Shea wanted Lightfoot to regain some positions.

But the mayor argued that the CPD would have enough difficulty filling the 1,000 vacant positions amid waning interest in the police profession.

“Our challenge is not the vacancies. The challenge is, to be frank, we get butt in seats to pass the test. And then, once we get them into the academy, make sure they stay as police officers here in Chicago and don’t go to the suburbs or other jobs in the city. town like the firefighters, ”Lightfoot told the Sun-Times editorial board that day. she presented her budget.

Despite the political euphoria that will surely come from getting the budget to bed in record time, Msall warned that Chicago was barely out of the woods.

Although the city has “climbed the ramp” towards actuarial funding for the four pension funds, there is still no source of long-term funding for Springfield, such as a retirement income tax or sales tax. on professional services. The He didn’t either. The General Assembly responded to the Civic Federation’s call for a constitutional amendment eliminating the retirement protection clause in the future.

Msall also remains concerned about the mayor’s continued reliance on one-off income, the city’s mountain of debt and his plan to refinance an additional $ 1.2 billion and use $ 232 million of savings to fund. four years of back pay for Chicago police officers.

He’s also concerned about what will happen “when the federal ARP money disappears” – particularly if the $ 153 million federal income replacement relief set aside in 2023 is not enough.

“What is Plan B if the city does not recover from the aggressive and robust growth it is hoping for?” We must have a plan B? Will we try to raise taxes if the economic disruption caused by the pandemic continues? Are we going to make structural changes? Are we going to cut? he said.

“In all likelihood, it will have to be a combination of all of these. But if we don’t see a return to where business travel is coming back, where convention attendance [comes] in return, the city will struggle to honor its debts for many of the key investments these industries support. “

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