Aldermen pressure Lightfoot to find alternative to $94 million property tax increase

On opening day of City Council budget hearings, Ald. Harry Osterman noted the city’s increase will be “on top of” a citywide reassessment certain to wallop homeowners and business owners with increases up to 70%.

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Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.

Chicago City Hall.

Sun-Times file

Chicago aldermen on Monday delivered a message loud and clear to Mayor Lori Lightfoot: Their constituents can’t afford a property tax increase of any size, let alone $94 million followed by annual cost-of-living increases.

Lightfoot has called the $94 million increase “modest” because it will cost the owner of a home valued at $250,000 only $56 more each year.

But during opening day of City Council budget hearings, Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett acknowledged the actual annual increase would be $112 when property taxes for Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges and Cook County are factored in.

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North Side Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) noted the city’s increase would be “on top of” an upcoming citywide re-assessment certain to wallop Chicago homeowners and business owners with increases up to 70%.

“When homeowners get the assessments and their property tax bills, what all of us are struggling with in this incredible downturn economy that we’re going through with COVID is the ability for homeowners to be able to absorb that and their ability to choose to stay in Chicago and help us grow post-recovery,” Osterman said.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) took issue with Bennett’s argument that Chicago’s property tax rate remains “comparatively low” in relation to surrounding suburbs.

Hairston noted Chicago’s population is nearly 63% Black and Hispanic, and only 38.4% of city residents have a bachelor’s degree or more.

“People in the suburbs — most of them have jobs. We don’t have the jobs here in the city of Chicago,” Hairston said.

“People just can’t afford it. Even though you say it’s only $56 — each year it goes up. That’s $56 that they don’t have. I just think there are other ways to do it.”

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) is the nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose aversion to raising property taxes forced his successor, Rahm Emanuel, to push through a $588 million property tax increase — the largest in Chicago history.

Daley Thompson nevertheless upheld the Daley family tradition.

“It wasn’t unintentional that we haven’t gone to property taxes. … We want to keep our property taxes as low as possible and look to other sources of income,” he said.

Bennett stood her ground, calling the $94 million increase a “structural solution” that would not be canceled even if there is a federal bail-out. She also acknowledged the budget includes “around $100 million” to bankroll retroactive pay raises for Chicago police officers. That’s at least $200 million short, maybe more.

Several aldermen homed in on Lightfoot’s plan to refinance and restructure $1.7 billion in general obligation and sales tax securitization bonds to save $448 million this year and $501 million next year.

Even with that, Bennett said she is “not sure we’ll get through the budget season without a downgrade” in Chicago’s already shaky bond rating.

For Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), the mayor’s hand-picked chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development, the pressure point is the “350-ish” layoffs.

“These people have kept the city running during a pandemic. This is gonna be the hard vote for me — laying people off during this time when I think we can pinch and pull every penny and look at new forms of revenue to make sure that people don’t have to lose their jobs” Sadlowski Garza said.

Lightfoot has delayed the layoffs until March 1 to give Congress more time to ride to the rescue.

That gives Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter time to fine-tune budget cuts that, he reiterated Monday, will “far exceed” the $106 million needed to cancel layoffs and furlough days and preserve 1,921 vacancies targeted for elimination, 618 of them in the Chicago Police Department. The labor federation has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

“The vacancies that are slated to be swept — these are vacancies that should be filled. We are to the bone in terms of services right now,” Reiter said.

But Reiter pushed back hard against Lightfoot’s vow to tackle what she called one of the “sacred cows” of city government: Three employees on a garbage truck.

“If you were to go down any Chicago alley before those garbage trucks come through, it’s surprising in a lot of these places that they can get it done with three guys and not more. ... It’s a constant process of moving the truck forward and two laborers grabbing garbage from either side of the alleys just to be able to keep up with the pace of garbage collection,” Reiter said.

“This whole thought about the one-man truck with a mechanical arm — the mechanical arm doesn’t work in Chicago alleys. It’s completely unrealistic. … It’s curious to me why would we be comparing garbage collection in a dense Chicago alley to some place where the mayor goes on vacation for two weeks.”

Reiter made a similar argument about the number of firehouses and about the requirement that every piece of fire apparatus be staffed by five employees.

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