CHICAGO - A divided City Council on Monday handed Mayor Lori Lightfoot the $16.4 billion 2023 budget that will serve as her reelection platform amid complaints that it shortchanges public safety, climate change and her own progressive promises.
Lightfoot cut in half a property tax increase tied to the rate of inflation, then eliminated that $42.7 million increase altogether perhaps to pave the way for the easiest budget vote of a four-year term marred by the pandemic and civil unrest.
It didn’t quite turn out that way. The vote was a closer than expected 32-18 on both the budget itself and the revenue ordinance that supports the annual spending plan. The city’s annual property tax levy passed by an even closer vote of 29-21.
After the vote, Lightfoot rose from the rostrum to deliver a lengthy, campaign-style speech about the benefits of her annual spending plan that mirrored last month’s budget address.
"Hard work pays off. … Our residents have and continue to benefit from our hard work," the mayor said.
Lightfoot bragged about reducing the city’s outstanding debt by $747 million, climbing a $1 billion ramp to actuarially based funding of city pensions and authorizing a plan to "pre-pay" $242 million in future pension obligations instead of making what she called the "minimum monthly payment" on Chicago’s "pension credit card" while paying "compounded interest."
"The rating agencies have taken notice and rewarded our hard work," she said.
As nearly two hours of debate got under way around 10:40 a.m., the opposition was clear.
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) took Lightfoot to task for spending only a fraction of the federal money appropriated for an array of social programs in last year’s budget.
"It was deeply frustrating" to learn how little money has gone "out the door" for such vital programs as domestic violence and youth outreach, La Spata said. "It’s important that, when we have the money, we spend it. Not only allocate the money, but use it."
La Spata went on to say that "a lot of the asks" by the Council’s Latino Caucus "seem to have fallen on deaf ears."
"I worked hard to get to a budget I could vote ‘yes’ on. That’s not where I’m at today. … If this is supposed to be a reflection of our values, this is not it," he said.
Even South Side Ald. David Moore (17th), who supports the mayor’s spending plan, was not happy about what he called the tens of millions of "carryover dollars."
"We must make sure that we’re spending dollars in those years that we’re telling people we’re gonna spend it," Moore said. "We can’t wait until we’re dealing with a crisis. When we have money, let’s get it out so we can care for the people."
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Lightfoot’s former City Council floor leader, was also on board. Still, Villegas said he "longs for the day" when the Council becomes more independent, proposing its own budget, and negotiating with the mayor to reach a compromise version.
Noting that such a sense of independence is brewing in a City Council in transition, Villegas told his colleagues: "Don’t be afraid to embrace it. Stand up."
It’s no real surprise the roll call was closer than last year’s 35-15 cakewalk, which included a $76.5 million increase in the city’s property tax levy.
It has at least something to do with the proximity to the mayoral election and the fact that three veteran alderpersons — Sophia King (4th), Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Ray Lopez (15th) — are giving up their seats to run for mayor.
They may soon be joined by retiring Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who declared his opposition to the budget, in part, by noting that the Town Hall police district in his ward now has 285 police officers — down from 415 when Rahm Emanuel was mayor.
"My residents don’t feel safe. [Police] morale is at an all-time low. People do not go out at night anymore. What kind of city are we living in? … I’m very worried about the direction of our city and the leadership of our police department," Tunney said Monday.
"We are definitely at a crisis. It’s not a money crisis," Tunney continued. "It’s a lack of leadership. We have to do better to keep people safe. They don’t feel it. … I’m not afraid to vote to increase taxes. But I demand accountability for residents that I serve, and they feel shortchanged, to say the least. People are disgusted about their inability to walk their dog and go out at night."
Progressive alderpersons who helped the mayor pass last year’s budget after she beefed up social programs are now lining up behind mayoral challenger Brandon Johnson, while Hispanic alderpersons are preparing to support U.S. Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-Ill).
But opposition to the mayor’s budget goes deeper than mayoral politics.
Downtown alderpersons Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Far Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) said they firmly believe that with violent crime foremost on voters’ minds, Lightfoot’s budget does not do nearly enough to hire new police officers and stop the mass exodus of veteran officers — 949 retirements through Sept. 30 this year.
In the run-up to the budget vote, Lightfoot went on the offensive against Hopkins, Reilly and O’Shea. She accused them of attempting to have it both ways — supporting law enforcement and the crackdown against violent crime but opposing a budget that includes "a lot of additional supports to strengthen the effectiveness" of law enforcement.
Reilly fired back during Monday’s debate, calling himself a "pro-police, pro-law-and-order" alderperson. For Lightfoot to claim he’s anything but is "intellectually dishonest and wrong," Reilly said.
"This budget funds the downtown police districts that, combined, are down nearly 400 police officers since 2019," Reilly said. "More police cars are great to see. Replacing our aging fleet, having better vehicles is good. But those aren’t gonna do us much good if we don’t have the cops to drive them."
Reilly noted the mayor’s budget triples — to $30 million — funding for CTA security.
"What do we have to show for this CTA investment? A system plagued by service disruptions, delay, crime and filth. Ridership scared to death to use our train system after rush hour and many more scared to use it during rush hour," he said.
"Drug use, violence, sexual assault, strong-arm robberies. They’re out of control, and they’ve become the norm. But please vote for a budget to subsidize this dumpster fire. I won’t do it."
Six months ago, O’Shea proposed that the Chicago Police Department create hiring and retention incentives — including signing bonuses, downpayment and mortgage loan assistance — to stop the officer exodus. The ordinance has gone nowhere.
CPD now has 11,623 sworn officers, down from 13,353 shortly before Lightfoot took office. To date, 693 officers have begun their six months of training — nowhere near enough to keep pace with attrition.
The $64 million increase Lightfoot has proposed for the police department — for a total budget of $1.94 billion — includes 35 civilian jobs, but no increase in rank-and-file officers. The 35 civilians will be assigned to the Office of Constitutional Policing charged with consent decree compliance and administering the training needed to get out from under federal court oversight.
"I don’t think we’re doing enough to try to hire more police officers. I don’t think we’re doing enough to try to retain the police officers that we have because twice as many are walking out the door as we are hiring," O’Shea told the Sun-Times.
Even retiring Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) expressed outrage that just $5 million of the $85 million in violence prevention funds included the mayor’s 2022 budget has been spent.
"It’s inexcusable that we did not spend more of that money. We have to put that money on the ground in communities. We have to do it with a sense of urgency," Osterman said Monday.
Black Caucus Chair Jason Ervin (28th), one of Lightfoot’s staunchest City Council supporters, countered that "COVID relief is a three-year program."
"Is all of the money out the door? No, all of the money isn’t out the door. And some of the violence prevention money we don’t want out the door ‘cause some of it is not being effective," Ervin said.
Climate debate heating up
Policing was not the only beef about the mayor’s budget. So was Lightfoot’s failure to honor her four-year-old campaign promise to resurrect the Department of Environment disbanded by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Lightfoot has inched closer to honoring that promise by beefing up her proposed Office of Climate and Environmental Equity — from six employees to 10 — and taking those staffers out of the mayor’s office and putting them under a director confirmed by the City Council.
The annual budget for the new office rises from $778,929 to $1.04 million.
But that’s not enough to satisfy alderpersons demanding more urgent action to combat climate change.
Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) noted again Monday that her North Side lakefront ward has lost "1 to 2 feet of land with every winter storm from lakefront erosion and high water levels" in Lake Michigan. A tornado touched down in Rogers Park. And three women died during a heat wave in a sweltering building in the 49th Ward where the air-conditioning was left off.
Declaring her intention to vote against the budget, Hadden said, "Yes, it does some great things. But, we could have done more. We could have done better — and we should."
Budget Director Susie Park has maintained a "lot of work" must be done to "build out a robust" Department of Environment and pull together regulatory authority dispersed to other departments in 2011.
"What you see before you is that first step. We’ve added additional positions from what we originally started with. We are commissioning a study to really look at where all of those roles went. What do we pull back in? And hopefully in 2024, we will come back with a robust department," Park said.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) has branded Park’s explanation "insulting," "disingenuous" and "disrespectful to the people who voted for change."
"We only get a 10-person office. Fewer staff than what’s budgeted for the mayor’s press team. What does that tell you about our city’s priorities while people are dying in record heat waves? While people are seeing their livelihoods destroyed in record floods, we have less people to tackle the issue of the environment than we do to send out press releases," Ramirez-Rosa said Monday.
In an op-ed published in Monday’s Sun-Times, Ramirez-Rosa, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Rosanna Rodriguez (33rd) and two of their colleagues took Lightfoot to task for failing to honor her campaign promises to reopen mental health clinics and raise the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales to create a dedicated source of funding to reduce homelessness and ease the affordable housing crisis.
"This budget continues to fail our most vulnerable," Sigcho-Lopez, another "no" vote, said Monday. "As federal funding will run out, we continue to fail to tax the rich."
Sanchez, another dissenter, added, "We’re asking for things that are basic. We’re asking for things that are done in other cities. We are not asking for too much."
Spending boosted by federal funds
With $152.4 million in federal coronavirus relief set aside to replace revenue lost to the pandemic, the mayor’s budget continues an unprecedented two-year spending spree, with, among other things:
• $242 million to "prepay" future pension obligations instead of making, what the mayor has called the "minimum monthly payment" on Chicago’s "pension credit card" while paying "compounded interest."
Finance Committee Chair Scott Waguespack (32nd) said the extraordinary action will not only save the city $2 billion over time and prevent four cash-strapped city employee pension funds, three of them hovering near bankruptcy, from having to "sell assets in a down market" to meet obligations. It will also trigger more upgrades to Chicago’s bond rating that reduce borrowing costs.
• A threefold increase — to $30 million — in annual spending for the Chicago Police CTA Detail Fund in response to a wave of violent crimes on CTA buses and trains.
• $200 million to prevent homelessness, $155 million for affordable housing and $3 million to launch a "Tiny Homes initiative."
• $5 million to support immigrants brought to Chicago from Texas and other border states and $3 million for "reproductive services" tied to the influx of women coming to Chicago for abortions outlawed in their homes states.
• $10 million to improve technology infrastructure.
• More fine and fee reforms, this time helping businesses and individuals saddled with administrative hearing debt.
• Pay raises of 20.5% — $161,016 — for the city clerk and treasurer, followed by annual increases capped at 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.
Lightfoot has also proposed a similar annual increase with an identical 5% cap in the mayor’s pay that would raise the annual salary by $10,810 to $227,020. That increase would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2024.
One-time revenue boosts some spending
Despite the embarrassment of riches, there are warning signs for Lightfoot or her successor and a newly elected City Council that will look dramatically different than this one. So far, 15 alderpersons have left or are not seeking re-election.
The budget includes a $395 million tax-increment-financing surplus, the largest in Chicago history and $124 million larger than last year’s TIF surplus. That one-time revenue includes $218.4 million for Chicago Public Schools and $98.3 million for the city’s corporate fund.
Lightfoot is also carrying over $220 million from this year’s budget surplus — compared to just $50 million a year ago — and counting it as revenue in 2023. That could spell trouble for whoever wins the mayoral election.
The City Council also signed off on:
• $1.85 billion in general obligation bonds to bankroll two more years of Lightfoot’s massive capital plan.
• A $336 million "Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation" loan from the federal government to replace lead service lines.
• Extending $250 million in existing authority to finance capital improvement projects and Midway Airport.
• A new line of credit as a mode of interim financing" and a $50 million line of credit to cover "unanticipated capital needs" at the new car rental facility at O’Hare Airport.
Monday’s earlier-than-expected budget vote clears the decks for the mayor to focus on her reelection bid after celebrating — as she has done three times after budget victories — with steak, a Scotch and a cigar.
The City Council will now turn its attention to her plan to create new transit tax increment financing to bankroll $950 million of the $3.6 billion cost of extending the CTA’s Red Line from 95th Street to 130th.
That will start Thursday, when embattled CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. appears before a City Council Transportation Committee whose invitations he has ignored for months.
Lightfoot is pushing for a final City Council vote on her financing plan by Dec. 31 to meet the requirement for federal matching funds.