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A Chicago budget full of hard calls for hard times

The year ahead will tell if this budget addresses these financially-troubling times — or makes them worse for Chicagoans.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaking Monday, Aug. 31 at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2021 city budget “tough” and “painful,” while preserving public services.
Sun-Times file

For those expecting a hard times city budget for 2021 from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, she did not disappoint.

The mayor’s proposed $12.8 billion plan seeks to fill an expected $1.2 billion deficit with layoffs, massive city debt refinancing and a sure-to-be-contentious $94 million property tax hike that would increase annually by the rate of inflation.

There’s also a proposed three-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike that won’t make anybody happy.

And though violent crime is an obvious top concern for most Chicagoans, the budget calls for 618 vacant sworn police openings — enough officers to staff two police districts around the clock — to be left unfilled.

“This budget is tough,” Lightfoot told the Sun-Times editorial board. “It’s painful.”

Yes, but so are the times in which our city and the whole country find themselves. COVID-19 continues to imperil the economy and lives, and the likelihood — which this city budget presumes — is that Washington, D.C. won’t be riding to the rescue anytime soon. Negotiations for an additional federal stimulus bill continue to go nowhere.

If Lightfoot’s proposed budget is approved in its present form, the year ahead will tell if it sufficiently rises to the occasion.

A national crisis

Chicago often finds itself in budget troubles of its own making. We’re thinking in particular of the profligate decades of the Daley Administration, during which basic city assets such as parking meters were sold off.

But this is different. Governments across the county are being forced to make bitter financial decisions now in an effort to turn back the economic damage caused by the coronavirus. This is a national crisis, and by all rights there should be a national response. Washington is failing every big city and state.

We have written in the past that Lightfoot deserves credit for keeping essential city services fundamentally intact during the pandemic. She has refused to swing a machete at the city budget. We believe that maintaining a stable city government has done immeasurable good, particularly given the lack of competent White House leadership.

But the mayor’s job has grown only harder. Revenue streams have dried to a trickle. The need for local government services, such as for mental health and affordable housing, has grown larger. Crafting a fair and honest budget becomes all the more difficult.

A new kind of property tax

Consider Lightfoot’s proposed property tax increase, which would begin with a $94 million bump up, to be followed by yearly hikes tied to the federal consumer price index. The mayor says this would be much more fair to homeowners — predictable and modest tax increases — rather than the massive last-minute surprise hikes they’ve been hammered with over the decades. Too often in the past, she said, City Hall ducked raising property taxes for many years at a time, even as the city’s finances grew miserable, just to remain in the good graces of voters.

But the proposed increase for 2021 would come at a time when many Chicagoans already are struggling to pay their property taxes.

We’re also concerned about the mayor’s plan to refinance the city’s debt to close the billion dollar shortfall. Refinancing $1.7 billion in debt at lower interest rates would give the city nearly a $1 billion in much-needed savings across the next two years. But it also would stretch out payments on that debt for many more years, passing on the bill to future Chicagoans.

Layoffs to come?

The mayor’s budget calls for shrinking the city’s work force, but the layoff notices would not be handed out until March, with a hope of federal aid materializing before then. And the mayor would seek to eliminate nearly 2,000 vacant positions, including 618 spots in the police department.

We’d like to know more about those police positions that are to go unfilled. How many are from the command ranks, which could benefit from being put on a diet? And how many are from, say, the detective division which needs all the help it can get and then some?

We also wonder if the planned gas tax increase might cause more motorists to seek a cheaper fill-up in Indiana and the suburbs. And would that gas tax be a particular burden to South and West side residents who already pay higher gas prices because there are fewer competing gas stations?

Finally, we have to ask. How does a caring society define the very concept of “shared pain,” the spirit in which this city budget was said to be crafted?

Are the most fortunate among us truly being asked to contribute their fair share? If not, how might that better be achieved?

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.