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Lightfoot needs to compromise to get pandemic budget passed, powerful ally says

One day after gaveling two weeks of virtual budget hearings to a close by telling her colleagues, “Let’s go make sausage,” Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd) essentially said: “Let the negotiations begin.”

Chicago City Council, meeting on May 29, 2019.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot needs 26 votes to pass her budget through the City Council.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is following through on her promise to improve her strained relationship with the City Council, but she still needs to compromise to get her “pandemic” budget passed, a powerful ally said Wednesday.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), chairman of the Council’s Budget Committee, said it’s too soon to say what changes the mayor must make to round up the 26 votes needed to pass a budget that nobody likes, given the tough choices it requires.

But one day after gaveling two weeks of virtual budget hearings to a close by telling her colleagues, “Let’s go make sausage,” Dowell essentially said: “Let the negotiations begin.”

“We have various aldermen coming up with … suggestions about how the budget should be changed. … Working with the Office of Budget and Management is like making sausage. We have to figure out a way to get 26 votes to pass a budget that reflects not just the vision of the mayor, but the vision of the aldermen as well,” Dowell told the Sun-Times.

To help wipe out a $1.2 billion shortfall caused primarily by the coronavirus, Chicago taxpayers are being asked to absorb a $94 million property tax increase followed by annual increases tied to inflation.

Lightfoot’s budget also raises taxes on gasoline, computer leases and cloud services. It includes furlough days for non-union employees, 350 layoffs for unionized employees and a $1.7 billion debt restructuring and refinancing with nearly $949 million of the savings claimed in the first two years.

The mayor has delayed the layoffs until March 1 to give Congress and, now, the incoming Biden administration more time to ride to the rescue.

On Wednesday, Dowell was asked whether the 26 votes are there to approve the property tax increase, the focal point for negotiations.

“I don’t know today. And today really isn’t the day when it matters. The day that it matters is on Nov. 24, when we take that vote. And between now and the 24th, I definitely anticipate there will be movement on items within that budget. But what those items are today I can’t tell you,” she said.

Over the years, the City Council’s final budget vote has been a test of the mayor’s political muscle.

Former mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel won many unanimous votes, thanks to the relationships of trust they worked hard to build with individual aldermen.

Lightfoot has a strained relationship with the Council, stemming in part from her Day One executive order stripping aldermen of control over licensing and permitting in their wards.

In late August, the mayor returned from an end-of-summer vacation with a promise to “change the tone of our discourse” and said there was “no better place to start” than with the budget process.

“I need to push myself harder to work with people with whom I do not agree and who do not agree with me,” she said on that day, in a rare moment of self-criticism and reflection.

“If you are focused on creating a better tomorrow for all of our residents, then I will be even more intentional in finding common ground with you. Reach out to me and I will do the same.”

Dowell said the mayor’s words that day were more than just an empty political promise.

“She has met with and continues to meet with various caucuses within the City Council. The Progressive Caucus. The Black Caucus. I’m sure she’s met with the Latino Caucus and other caucuses as well. I know that she has individual meetings and individual discussions with aldermen,” Dowell said. “I think she’s improving her relationship with the Council. Yes, I do.”

Does Lightfoot need to abandon her threat to eliminate aldermanic prerogative over zoning to avoid a Council vote she could lose?

“I don’t know that that’s being pursued. We continue to function in the Zoning Committee, as we have functioned for all the years that that committee has been around,” Dowell said.

During a gut-wrenching conference call between the mayor and aldermen that followed the first round of looting, Dowell was overcome with emotion while describing the damage to her Near South Side ward, which includes Bronzeville. The looting, she said, had set the area back five years.

On Wednesday, Dowell described the progress made since then — and the lingering damage, such as a fire that struck a series of stores on 47th Street.

“Those buildings had to be torn down. Now, we have a vacant lot on the corner of 47th and Prairie,” she said. “But some of the stores are beginning to come back. It is slow. Mariano’s is up running and doing very well. The mall at 55th and Dan Ryan is coming back, although slowly. … So it’s a work in progress.”

But she understands the frustrations with the pandemic, the “lack of economic opportunity” and decades of police abuse brought to a boil by the “killing” of George Floyd.

“The stars aligned and, unfortunately, we had that unrest. It’s not a good thing. But you have to understand how people might have gotten to that position to do that,” Dowell said.

“Unfortunately, it happened in our community. But we’ll bounce back.”