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Mayor Lightfoot proposes a budget for people living through hard times

The mayor’s spending plan recognizes Chicago’s tough times by providing some relief for those who are struggling most without a big tax hike.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers the city’s 2022 budget proposal on Monday during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers the city’s 2022 budget proposal on Monday during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A new city budget is unveiled every year, many of them taking a little more out of our pockets to deliver the same city services or less.

We’ve seen the consequences of this, from Mayor Rahm Emanuel shuttering mental health clinics to Mayor Richard M. Daley dramatically raising the cost of vehicle stickers.

Running a big city is an expensive proposition, we know. Hiking taxes and tightening services are often prudent and unavoidable. But we wouldn’t blame taxpayers if getting less for more makes them feel as if they’re being fleeced.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed new $16.7 billion budget will require us all to open our wallets a bit more, mostly through a yearly escalator, tied to the consumer price index, that automatically raises property taxes. But we appreciate that the mayor’s budget at least recognizes these tough times by proposing creative new initiatives such as a direct cash assistance pilot program to help 5,000 low income families hit hard by COVID-19, and setting aside more money for mental health treatment.

“There are a lot of people who are really hurting right now,” Lightfoot told the Sun-Times editorial board Monday, adding that the direct cash assistance program — and other measures — “addresses that real and urgent pain point.”

‘No one can be left behind’

Dubbed the Recovery and Resiliency Budget, the mayor’s plan would raise the city’s property tax levy by $76.5 million and also lean on a mix of one-time revenues, debt refinancing and $1.9 billion in federal relief funds to pay for a raft of new investments aimed at helping citizens.

One proposed program is the creation of a $31.5 million pool to provide $500 a month to 5,000 COVID-affected low-income families for one year.

The plan is similar to one proposed six months ago by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (31st), who is chairman of the City Council Hispanic Caucus and Lightfoot’s former floor leader. The program would be the largest municipally-funded guaranteed minimum income initiative in the nation, according to city officials.

Most importantly, the program would provide at least a modicum of relief for Chicago’s poorest families. That monthly $500 could make a real difference in lives of people trying to make the rent, put a little more food on the table and clothes on their kids’ backs.

Other new investments include $202 million to reduce homelessness, $150 million for youth programming, $85 million for violence intervention programs and $52 million — “a huge amount,” in Lightfoot’s view — for mental health services.

The mayor’s budget even calls for the planting of 75,000 trees to help fight global warming.

“We must commit ourselves to being intentional but in a very different way than in our past,” Lightfoot said in announcing the proposed budget. “As leaders, we must commit to a new set of truths starting with the truth that equity and inclusion must be at the center of all of our work and that, in our post-pandemic recovery, no one — not anyone — can be left behind.’

The mayor is right.

Looking to achieve balance

The budget does not include layoffs or reductions in city services, which, if the mayor and City Council can hold that line, would be a noteworthy feat.

But the plan does call for the city to refinance $1.2 billion in debt and use $232 million of the $254 million savings to make good on a new contract that gives Chicago police a 20% pay raise over eight years, more than half of it retroactive. The police department is already a $1.7 billion agency.

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall frowns on the borrowing called for in the budget.

“The city is very highly leveraged,” Msall told the Sun-Times. “It has a very low credit rating. And to undergo that type of additional borrowing without a new revenue source would be very expensive. And it might not be feasible.”

All of these contentious issues — and more — will be hashed out in the coming weeks during the usual budget hearings and public forums. And we’ll be asking hard questions, too, as more details about the budget emerge. We have particular doubts about how Lightfoot plans to fund these initiatives and programs next year when the federal stimulus money dries up.

But so far, we appreciate and respect the balance Lightfoot is looking to achieve.

“Our ultimate goal with this Recovery and Resiliency Budget is to recover and develop Chicago into a safer, strong and more prosperous city in which people can take root, raise a family, build a business and make a better life for themselves,” Lightfoot said.

Get past the numbers games, the jargon and the political horse-trading, and this is what a city budget should be all about.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.