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Lightfoot vows to show ‘path forward’ in Thursday’s ‘state of the city’ address

As she looked back on the past 100 days on Wednesday, the mayor was cryptic about the days ahead. “We’re not going to be laying out in specific detail: here’s what our costs are, here’s what our finances are, here’s what the resources are going to be for different departments,” Lightfoot said Wednesday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a news conference Monday. File Photo.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Though Mayor Lori Lightfoot has dismissed the first-100-days tradition as a “Hallmark holiday created by the media, not us,” the first-term mayor spent Wednesday touting her record of accomplishments — in her first 100 days.

But no matter who is responsible for pushing the custom actually created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, the holiday will likely end Thursday.

That’s when Lightfoot plans to deliver what she said will be more of a “State of the City” address —“not a budget address.”

The words most often popping up in discussions of Chicago’s future on Wednesday included “dire,” “daunting” and “sacrifices.”

As she looked back on the past 100 days on Wednesday, the mayor was cryptic about the days ahead.

Lightfoot did say that she plans to reveal the dollar amount of the budget deficit in her speech — a hole expected to be in the $1 billion range. But she also said not to expect a whole lot of number crunching.

”We’re not going to be laying out in specific detail: here’s what our costs are, here’s what our finances are, here’s what the resources are going to be for different departments,” Lightfoot said Wednesday. “That’s not what tomorrow night is about. It’s about the start of a transparent process to let people know where we are, where we’ve come, and what we see as a path forward and asking people for their help.”

Many want that path to be clearly illuminated.

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, said Lightfoot has limited options to close the budget gap, but she needs to present a path forward in her Thursday speech.

“What the Civic Federation and all of us are looking for is her vision and her path for how the city stabilizes — how the city stabilizes its finances, how we end the violence, how we reverse the out-migration of residents in the city of Chicago,” Msall said. “It’s a big task not made easier by the financial situation that the city faces. The big risk the city faces is if you don’t balance the need to maintain the level of services then you may have many unintended consequences.”

Those consequences may include a downgrade by credit agencies, cuts to services in core areas that could effect business growth and how Chicago is viewed, Msall said.

Former Ald. Dick Simpson, who was on Lightfoot’s transition team, said the new mayor’s speech will likely focus on a need to cut city expenses, the hiring freeze she announced earlier this month, cuts and transfers from tax-increment-financing funds and new taxes. Simpson couldn’t say exactly how that plan might come together, but “it will require sacrifice on the part of Chicago’s citizens to get us out of this hole.”

“She’ll be able to mitigate the problems, but she can’t wave a magic wand and make them go away,” Simpson said. “We’re going to have to work our way out of it.”

A Las Vegas consultant’s report has described the tax structure facing a proposed Chicago casino as too “onerous” to work. So whether Lightfoot and state lawmakers will be able to rework that during the fall veto session is creating a question mark on whether casino revenue will be an option.

Since taking office, Lightfoot has painted the city’s fiscal situation as “more dire” than she previously thought. The $700 million budget shortfall figure has ballooned to a potentially $1 billion gap — a figure expected to be a combination of the structural deficit together with debt service, pension payments, yet-to-be-negotiated pay raises for police officers, firefighters and teachers, and a long list of wrongful conviction lawsuits already filed or coming up.

Lightfoot has opted to not give a final deficit figure ahead of her Thursday speech but has previously said the figure is “north” of the $740 million figure former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s chief financial officer stated.

She has said there is “no question” she’ll be forced to raise taxes. And she’s ruling no potential revenue sources out — except for selling city assets.

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) said he doesn’t know what to expect from the Thursday speech, though the budget forecasts have presented a “daunting” deficit.

“I’m interested to see what type of revenue sources have been identified,” O’Shea said at Lightfoot’s first 100 days celebration Wednesday. “I’m anxious to hear [her] plans. We had a meeting yesterday with different department heads, and I don’t have an idea from that. People focus on the negative and, as we just heard, there’s been a lot of positives in the first 100 days.”

O’Shea said “people need to be more patient, more collaborative,” talking about his colleagues on the City Council.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) said he’s also hoping to hear a plan for how to bridge the budget gap without putting a burden on “neighborhoods and the men and women of Chicago.”

He doesn’t see that happening without stable revenue sources, though he urged caution with relying too much on taxes so as not to drive more people out of the city.

“I’m looking for a robust plan — some cannabis [revenue], some real estate transfer tax, maybe taxes on services if the state allows us to get there,” Scott said. “We have to figure out other options as opposed to property taxes — it’s not as equitable as I think this administration would like it to be.”

Lightfoot laughed off a question about whether or not the Thursday speech marks the end of a honeymoon period, saying “that, I think, is up to all of you and the residents of the city.”