Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday she needs help from Springfield to erase a $1 billion-plus shortfall, but she shed no new light on the kind of help she’ll seek, except to promise a heavy dose of budget cuts to make the tax increases go down easier.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported last week that Lightfoot will lower the boom on beleaguered Chicago taxpayers on Aug. 29 — by disclosing the shortfall she inherited from Rahm Emanuel — during a prime time speech she hopes will be carried live by local television stations.
On Thursday, the mayor was asked for a sneak peek of that speech. What exactly should beleaguered Chicago taxpayers be bracing themselves to handle?
“My team has been working very, very diligently over these last few months to find ways that we can make city government run more efficiently. I said it over and over again during the course of the campaign and I meant it,” the mayor said.
“We have to make sure that we’re demonstrating to taxpayers that we’re doing everything that we can to use their money wisely, efficiently and be good fiscal stewards. There are things that we found that we know that we can do better. We’ve already implemented some of those changes and we’ll be detailing them on the 29th. And then, we’ll give a forecast for what the path forward looks like.”
Last month, Lightfoot floated a long-shot plan to have the state take over the city’s $28 billion pension liability. Gov. J.B. Pritzker shot it down, saying it would drag the state’s already shaky bond rating into junk territory.
Plan B is likely to include asking the state to empower Chicago to help itself during a fall veto session that also will be dominated by the need to fix a casino gambling tax structure so “onerous” it makes a Chicago casino, even at a lucrative downtown site, a non-starter.
The mayor already has raised the possibility of seeking state authorization to raise a real estate transfer tax she once earmarked to combat homelessness and solve the affordable housing crisis.
She has also talked about asking the Democratic-controlled state legislature to empower Chicago to tax professional services, including attorneys and accountants.
“What we want to do ideally, but we need partnership with this from Springfield, is to not just be transactional and do one-time fixes for this budget year,” Lightfoot said Thursday.
“We’re looking at three, four, five years out. We want to put things in place this year and next that are gonna make structural changes to the way that we manage our finances. That’s our obligation and responsibility to taxpayers here in the city. It’s what the rating agencies are clearly gonna be looking towards. … But, we need some support and help from Springfield and I’m confident that we will be able to work cooperatively with the governor and the legislative leaders to get there.”
The mayor was asked if she also would ask the legislature to extend time that the city has to reach the 90% funding level on city pension obligations.
“I’m not gonna talk about specifics, but we’re gonna live within the structure that we have,” she said.
During the cost-cutting section of her speech, Lightfoot is expected to highlight her decision to hire a professional outside claims administrator to ride herd over a $100 million-a-year workers compensation program so loosely run, it was “ripe for corruption.”
She is also expected to showcase her decision to hold city department heads personally responsible for employee absenteeism and abuse of the Family and Medical Leave Act that one influential alderman has said costs Chicago taxpayers “tens of millions of dollars.”
“There are reports that go out to the departments on a regular basis ... with specific recommendations on actions that they should take in terms of progressive discipline. What was concerning to me, which is why I weighed in as heavily as I did, is that in some instances, where there was chronic absenteeism, commissioners were doing absolutely nothing. That’s not acceptable,” the mayor said earlier this week.
“I expect that, if people want the privilege of being an employee with city government, they’re actually gonna show up and do their job. And if they’re not gonna do that, then we will show them the door and we will bring [in] the thousands of other job seekers who are interested in good jobs with good benefits and a good pension.”