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Property tax levy clears first hurdle, but Council members balk at giving Lightfoot ‘blank check’ for capital projects

The City Council’s Finance Committee was forced to take a break after mayoral allies and critics alike demanded a list of capital projects that would benefit their wards and constituents.

Chicago City Hall, with the Board of Trade building in the background.
Chicago City Hall, with the Board of Trade building in the background.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to raise Chicago’s property tax levy by $76.5 million cleared its first legislative hurdle on Thursday, but aldermen balked at signing a “blank check” for the mayor’s $660 million capital plan.

The City Council’s Finance Committee was forced to take a break after mayoral allies and critics alike demanded a list of capital projects that would benefit their wards and constituents.

But after a 20-minute recess, the massive borrowing plan was approved, 27 to 3, with only a mere promise of more details to come.

Indicted Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) abstained “out of an abundance of caution” because his uncle, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, is “of counsel” to Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, a law firm that’s benefiting from the pinstripe patronage. Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) did the same because his cousin is “on one or more of the financing teams.”

The $660 million installment of Lightfoot’s five-year, $3.7 billion capital plan will be bankrolled by general obligation bonds backed by a $25 million property tax increase.

In addition to the capital bonds, the Finance Committee signed off on $1.55 billion in O’Hare Airport bonds, including an $850 million refinancing and $700 million to bankroll the “O’Hare 21” terminal modernization plan, largely construction of Terminal 5, the international terminal.

The committee also authorized $1.2 billion in water and sewer financing, $600 million of it refinancing for savings and $600 million to bankroll water main replacement, water plant improvements and sewer lining.

Before Council members could even ask, Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett proudly reported minority participation on the gravy train of pinstripe patronage tied to the bond issues was 52%, which she called “double historical targets”

Last year, Lightfoot famously told members of the Black Caucus who dared to vote against her 2021 budget, “Don’t ask me for s--t for the next three years” when it comes to choosing projects for her capital plan.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) has said there is no evidence Lightfoot acted on those threats.

Even so, Council members are demanding specifics before next week’s final budget vote.

“What we have here is an issue of trust, to be perfectly honest. Trust that most of us don’t have in this administration to do right by our neighborhoods and the people that we represent,” said Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), one of the mayor’s most outspoken Council critics.

Even Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), Lightfoot’s hand-picked Zoning Committee Chairman, demanded to know “by community area or ward where this work is gonna happen so I can let my constituents know that, by voting for this, we’re gonna see improvements in my ward.”

He added: “If it’s not in the pipeline, it’ ain’t gonna happen next year. I’m in the dark, so to speak, about what I can present to my community, even for 2023.”

Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), the mayoral ally who chairs the Committee on Workforce Development, chimed in: “We need to know what the projects are. It’s really hard to justify things to our constituents if we don’t have the projects that are being funded. “

The $76.5 million increase in the city property tax levy was approved without debate by a vote of 27 to 12.

As the Sun-Times was first to report last month, the increase includes: $22.9 million for the automatic escalator tied to the consumer price index; $25 million for the capital plan and $28.6 million captured from new property.

That will bring Chicago’s total property tax levy to $1.71 billion. All but $300 million of that money will support four underfunded city employee pension funds, two of which are near insolvency.

During a stormy meeting last week, Lightfoot rejected a demand from the Hispanic Caucus that she declare an additional $100 million surplus in tax increment financing funds —enough to cancel the portion of this year’s property tax increase that’s supposed to increase automatically, based on the cost of living.

Lightfoot claimed that automatic escalator would cost the owner of a home valued at $250,000 just $1.53-a-month.

Budget Director Susie Park said Thursday it’s only $37 more a year for that same homeowner when both the $25 million property tax increase for capital as well as the cost-of-living adjustment is factored in.

Also on Thursday, the Finance Committee signed off on a revenue ordinance that includes:

• Increased fines for environmental violations.

• $2 million worth of higher fees for building permits, along with annual increases tied to the cost of living.

• Lower fees for registering vacant buildings, to improve compliance.

• A host of new or enhanced programs to relieve the burden on low-income Chicagoans driven into debt and bankruptcy by the city’s over-reliance on ticket revenues.

The plan includes so-called “fix-it tickets” for certain compliance violations, such as an invalid or missing city sticker, and a 50% reduction in tickets for low-income drivers.