Aldermen demand to know Lightfoot’s Plan B

On opening day of City Council budget hearings, aldermen demand to know what the mayor will do if her rosy assumptions turn out to be too rosy.

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(From left) Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Budget Director Susie Park sit down for an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, hours after Lightfoot delivered her first budget address.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has averted a City Council rebellion — for now — by steering clear of a massive property tax increase and raising the library portion of the city’s levy by a modest $18 million to open Chicago Public Libraries on Sundays.

But, that doesn’t mean her $11.65 billion 2020 budget faces smooth sailing from Chicago aldermen. Far from it. Opening day of City Council budget hearings made that clear.

Aldermen from across the city demanded to know how a budget that makes a series of rosy assumptions will be balanced in the event that Lightfoot doesn’t get what she wants?

What if the Illinois General Assembly fails to authorize a graduated real estate transfer tax and a casino gambling fix during its abbreviated fall veto session?

What if the federal government refuses to sign off on the $163 million windfall that the mayor assumes she’ll get by increasing ambulance fees paid by private insurers and from reimbursements administered by the state for ambulance transports for low-income patients on Medicaid?

What if $200 million in savings claimed in the first year alone from refinancing $1.3 billion in city debt turns out to be overly optimistic?

“We’re trying to use gimmicks and stealing from Peter to pay Paul to get through this year,” said Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), the mayor’s most outspoken City Council critic.

“This is a budget that, at the very least, is $50 million under and possibly even greater — up to $400 million under — because of the if’s, and’s and maybe’s …. Fifty million for the real estate transfer tax, which doesn’t even take into account the fact that home sales are down 18 percent this year and will continue to decline.”

Budget Director Susie Park, Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett and City Comptroller Reshma Soni would only say — again and again — that they are “hopeful” that all of their assumptions will turn out to be accurate.

They noted that Lightfoot is counting on no revenue at all from casino gambling in 2020 and only $50 million in revenue from the transfer tax.

That’s because she’s conservatively assuming that she will only manage to win the simple-majority vote in the General Assembly that’s needed for a July 1 effective date — not the supermajority needed to begin collecting the graduated tax on Jan. 1.

Park further noted that the veto session will be over next week. That’s long before Nov. 26, when the City Council is scheduled to approve the mayor’s first budget.

“If we find that something has changed, we’ll bring forward a different revenue package,” Park said, refusing to say how massive a property tax increase would be.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) was one of several progressive aldermen who demanded that Lightfoot at least consider reinstating the widely despised employee head tax abolished by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“I share frustration with some of my colleagues here in talk of no revenue option being off the table, but some revenue options being off the table .... It is completely irresponsible of us to leave revenue options on the table when we don’t have certainty,” Hadden said.

Hadden acknowledged that it is a “huge accomplishment” to erase an $838 million shortfall. But, she said, “Zero is not the goal. The goal is to have the revenue that we need to invest in the positive things that we want to see. I want to see more money in homelessness prevention. I want to see more money in mental health services. I want to see more money in affordable housing.”

Aldermen Leslie Hairston (5th), Michele Smith (43rd) and Tom Tunney (44th) homed in on the 40 percent increase in the budget for the mayor’s office — from $9.3 million a year and 75 employees in 2019 to nearly $13.1 million and 109 employees in 2020.

“I’m really concerned about increases in the mayor’s office when so many other departments are struggling,” said Smith, Lightfoot’s handpicked chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight.

Hairston agreed that $3.8 million is “a lot of money being spent ... when we’re trying not to make the people be the piggy bank of government.”

Bennett attributed 12 of the new positions to being more honest about it and bringing employees “carried by other funds and other departments” into the mayor’s office.

Lightfoot is also “building out” new offices of risk management, violation prevention and community engagement and equity, she said.

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