Lightfoot sweetens budget pot even more in quest for 26 votes

The mayor emphasized that the $94 million property tax increase will not impact Chicago taxpayers until 2022, when coronavirus vaccines are expected to be widely-distributed. The idea is to give Chicago’s pandemic-ravaged economy time to fully re-open and recover.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot at City Hall press conference in May.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is making some key concessions to win support for her 2021 budget.

Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot sweetened the pot Monday in her continued search for the 26 City Council votes she needs to raise property taxes by $94 million — followed by annual increases tied to the inflation rate — and approve her pandemic budget.

After canceling plans over the weekend to lay off 350 city employees in favor of borrowing against future marijuana revenues, Lightfoot offered still more concessions:

• Eliminating carve-outs in Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance without tying it to the budget.

• Reallocating “an additional $10 million” for “street intervention” and other “community-led violence prevention initiatives.” That brings the total 2021 investment for that critical purpose to $36 million. Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, called the additional funding a “step in the right direction,” though it remains $14 million short of the minimum $50 million investment demanded by anti-violence advocates.

• Increasing funding for, and building greater capacity in, a new “mental health co-responder pilot program.” That would be done in part by having “enough mental health professionals” on staff at the city’s 911 emergency center around the clock. The program seeks to “build out the infrastructure for an alternative means of emergency response when people suffering from mental health issues” call 911 for help.

• Emphasizing that the $94 million property tax increase will not impact Chicago taxpayers until 2022, when coronavirus vaccines are expected to be widely-distributed. The idea is to give Chicago’s pandemic-ravaged economy time to fully re-open and recover.

Some aldermen initially thought Lightfoot was offering to delay the property tax increase.

“In our many discussions with aldermen, we have noted that the 2021 levy will not impact taxpayers until 2022. There is no plan to delay the property tax levy until January 2022,” the mayor’s office said in a statement.

“The mayor continues to urge aldermen to do the responsible thing and vote for this modest increase, which will help shore up public services and avert economic disaster.”

The decision to avoid using the Welcoming City ordinance as a budget sweetener was communicated to Hispanic aldermen Sunday night by a top mayoral aide.

Currently, Chicago police officers are permitted to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement if targeted individuals: are in the city’s gang database; have pending felony prosecutions or prior felony convictions; or are the subject of an outstanding criminal warrant.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said it was wrong for Lightfoot take the worthy goal of improving the Welcoming City Ordinance and allow it to be “twisted” to round up votes “for a budget that will harm working-class Chicagoans.”

Sun-Times file

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to remove those exemptions, but so far has not delivered.

Instead of tying elimination of the carve-outs to the budget vote — just as she linked her first budget to a minimum wage increase — Lightfoot now plans to introduce a separate ordinance in December, aldermen were told.

“Undocumented immigrants … and their allies worked on this issue for five years because it’s the right thing to do. We didn’t work on it so that it could become a budget sweetener. We didn’t work on this issue so that it could be used, twisted to try and gain votes for a budget that will harm working-class Chicagoans,” Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said Monday.

“The immigration groups … also felt like they were being used. … They felt that it deserved a stand-alone bill.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) questioned Lightfoot’s decision to cancel 350 layoffs by borrowing against future marijuana revenues.

The budget already includes a $1.7 billion debt restructuring and refinancing.

“That’s a bad habit to form...You’re spending paychecks you hope to earn next year on groceries that you need today. That’s a terrible way to run a household and it’s a terrible way to run a government,” Hopkins said.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) opposes Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s planned $94 million property tax increase.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) opposes Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s planned $94 million property tax increase.

Sun-Times file

Hopkins said he represents “one of the highest property-tax-paying wards in the city” and remains dead-set against the $94 million property tax increase under any circumstances.

“My residents are taxed to the max,” he said.

Ramirez-Rosa, who chairs the City Council’s Socialist Caucus, said he, too, remains opposed to the property tax increase.

“To turn to folks that are devastated during this pandemic and ask them to pay more property taxes when they have been paying more and more every single year, to me is totally unacceptable. It’s going to cause more harm in our communities,” he said.

During Monday’s only public hearing on the budget, Civic Federation President Laurence Msall raised the red flag about Lightfoot’s massive debt refinancing and her continued reliance on “one-time revenues.”

The mayor made no apologies.

“There are zero easy choices here. None. Everything was difficult. … Yes, there are risks. Yes, there are some concerns,” Lightfoot said.

With North Side aldermen virtually united in their opposition to the property tax increase, Lightfoot desperately needs support from Black and Latino aldermen to avoid an embarrassing Council defeat.

On Monday, Lightfoot pointed to the city’s $30 billion pension crisis when asked to choose which was more important: the $94 million property tax increase or the cost-of-living escalator.

“Our four pension funds are woefully underfunded. And some are literally selling off assets to meet their monthly obligations,” she said.

“We don’t skip making the hard decisions and then create a crisis and force a worse set of propositions, as has been done before.”

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