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Lightfoot pleads for patience in weaning city off ‘addiction’ to punishing those who can least afford it

Lightfoot promised to bring equity to punitive ticketing, towing and booting policy that has unfairly targeted minorities and forced thousands into bankruptcy but says it will take time.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters earlier this week outside Navy Pier.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago has become “addicted” to balancing its budget on the backs of people who can least afford it and it’ll take years to wean the city from that habit, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to bring equity to an overly punitive ticketing, towing and booting policy that has unfairly targeted minorities and forced thousands into bankruptcy.

She promised to stop booting for non-moving violations, “sunset” red light cameras being used for “revenue — not safety” — and abolish city stickers that are the source of many tickets.

Her plan is to replace them with dramatically higher fees on the ride-hailing services whose vehicles have exacerbated congestion.

Lightfoot also pledged to end water shut-offs and avoid raising the property taxes that more than doubled under Rahm Emanuel — at least until the much-maligned assessment system is reformed.

But during a roundtable discussion in Pilsen Thursday that wrapped up her six-part listening tour of Chicago neighborhoods, the mayor tried mightily to tamp down expectations.

“What I’m learning over the course of, what six, seven weeks is that the city of Chicago has become addicted to balancing its budget on the backs of people who are least able to shoulder that burden,” she said.

“We will be announcing some things in the coming days that start to unwind some of the most significant damage. But this is a long-term problem. ... I’m gonna ask for your patience because we’re not gonna be able to unwind this mess in one budget cycle. ... It is significant. It is deep. But we are gonna be doing very concrete things to give people some very specific relief, so we can keep people working and not drive them into bankruptcy.”

Lightfoot has promised to tackle Chicago’s “mounting, looming, all-consuming” pension debt once and for all, even if it dooms her to becoming a one-termer.

But her road to climbing that mountain was narrowed considerably when Gov. J.B. Pritzker slammed the door on a state takeover of four city employee pension funds with $28 billion in unfunded liabilities.

The new mayor has yet to pinpoint the size of the shortfall she inherited.

She has revealed only that it’s “north of” the revised $740 million figured acknowledged by Emanuel’s team; there is “no question” she’ll be forced to raise taxes; and she is seriously considering seeking state authorization to impose a Chicago-only sales tax on professional services.

On Thursday, the mayor shed a bit more light on the city’s finances, but not too much.

She characterized the 2020 deficit as “very significant” and said her financial team has been “working diligently” for months to “get their arms around” the problem and “work on ways that we can bring the number down.”

“It’s still gonna be high, despite our efforts. There’s no question that we’re gonna be coming to you with the problem, but also some concrete solutions and some ask,” the mayor said, using the term bureaucrats favor for raising taxes.