Lightfoot savors hard-fought budget victory despite narrowest winning margin in decades

The closest vote — 29 to 21 — was on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to raise property taxes by $94 million, followed by annual increases tied to the consumer price index.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers the 2021 budget address during a virtual Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday morning, Oct. 21, 2020.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday won approval for her 2021 city budget during a virtual City Council meeting.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday savored her hard-fought budget victory, even though her winning margin was the narrowest in decades and could spell trouble when it comes to making the tough decisions ahead.

The mayor’s plan to raise property taxes by $94 million, followed by annual increases tied to the consumer price index, passed with only two votes to spare. The roll call was 28 to 22.

The “No” votes were cast by 11 white aldermen, including some of the mayor’s closest allies, along with seven Hispanic and four Black aldermen. They were concentrated in wards that comprised Lightfoot’s political base.

The vote on the $12.8 billion “pandemic budget” itself was 29 to 21, a roll call made famous decades ago during the Council Wars power struggle that saw 29 mostly-white aldermen thwart then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.

Still, Lightfoot said she is “not at all” concerned about the close shave. She plans to celebrate with a steak, a Scotch and a cigar, just as she did last year.

“I govern to 26 [votes]. A rubber stamp City Council does a disservice, not only to the members, but also to the people,” she said.

“What we demonstrated is that, in a really, really difficult time, a coalition that is diverse . . . racially [and] in political views, from some of the most conservative members to people who identify as Socialists, came together to vote for this budget — because, in this time, this is the best path forward.”

Instead of focusing on the close votes, Lightfoot chose to highlight the 41 to 8 vote on the five-year, $3.7 billion capital plan.

She used it to rally the Black Caucus to her side and threaten those who refuse to back a budget that includes higher taxes on gasoline and computer leases, as well as a controversial decision to start issuing $35 speed camera tickets to motorists caught driving between 6 and 9 mph over the speed limit.

“People want to make sure that they’re getting services that they can show their residents why they’ve done what they’ve done,” she said.

“This was . . . transparent, collaborative historic and we have momentum . . . to keep moving forward . . . I’m actually very enthusiastic about what the future holds for continued work with members of the City Council . . . What I appreciate is the number of City Council members who were willing to listen, who came to the table in good faith with a number of different proposals, many of which made its way into the budget.”

For a mayor who condemned “transactional politics,” Lightfoot sure did a lot of wheeling and dealing to line up the 26 votes needed to approve the budget.

She canceled 350 layoffs in favor of borrowing against future revenues from the sale of recreational and medical marijuana and ordered five unpaid furlough days, but only for those non-union employees with six-figure salaries.

She sweetened the pot for violence prevention by $10 million and set aside $2 million to test two alternate response pilot programs for emergency calls related to mental health emergencies.

She nixed plans to link eliminating carve-outs in the city’s Welcoming City Ordinance to the budget and pledged to honor that campaign promise by introducing a separate ordinance next month.

And she increased the value of the treasured aldermanic menu program from $1.32 million for each of the 50 wards to $1.8 million.

At a City Hall news conference late Tuesday, Lightfoot was asked to reconcile her previous proclamation with the actions she took to get the budget passed.

“I don’t buy votes — and I never will. But the democratic process is about compromise. It’s about listening to each other. Having people come forward with ideas. Pulling those ideas apart to see if they make sense in the context of a larger frame. And that’s precisely what we did with this budget. It was a lot of back and forth. A lot of listening,” she said. 

Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd) launched Tuesday’s two-hour debate by defending a budget that was a bitter pill for aldermen and their constituents to swallow.

“No one wakes up in the morning wanting to raise taxes . . . But unprecedented times call for tough decisions to be made,” Dowell told her colleagues.

“Faced with cutting essential workers or essential services versus a modest tax increase, the choice is clear.”

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) praised Lightfoot for her concessions and flexibility.

“I even recall speaking to you when you were at the hospital with your mother . . . Each time someone pushed you hard, you went back to the drawing board and came up with something,” Burnett said.

Lightfoot responded to the compliment in a voice breaking with emotion.

“Thank you, Walter. You made me cry. You touched my heart,” the mayor said.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) argued against a budget he called, “rooted in regressive taxation” that would “hurt Black and Brown families.”

“I’ve seen what happens when our elected leaders use intimidation against the vulnerable instead of using their office to uplift the people they represent. But this continues to be the approach we see from the mayor,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

“I don’t cast my vote against this budget to spite you, mayor. I cast my vote against this budget in spite of your threats and in support of the people we were elected to serve.”

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) called Lightfoot’s decision to eliminate 614 police vacancies an inadequate response to a “summer of historic protests for justice and against police brutality and disinvestment in our communities.”

“We’re voting on a budget that continues to prioritize policing with a $1.7 billion budget over all other services to support our communities. A budget that continues throwing money at an institution that has demonstrated itself to be resistant to reform and that has cost us more than $1 billion in the last decade in misconduct lawsuits and servicing debt to pay those lawsuits,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said.

With the “pandemic raging” and the “economic situation worsening,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said more mental health issues and emergencies will surely follow.

“We got $2 million to split between two crisis response pilots. That’s not enough by any stretch of the imagination to even complete a planning phase for either pilot,” she said.

The most impassioned speech was delivered by Ald. Jeanette Taylor, (20th), who told Lightfoot, “Don’t give me crumbs and tell me it’s cake.”

Taylor said she is “baffled by how we are OK” with a budget that raises fines, fees, gasoline and property taxes at a time of unprecedented economic hardship.

“Fifty-six dollars [in higher property taxes] to an elder in my ward? That’s her medicine for the month. Fifty-six dollars is food for a family in my ward per month. We’re talking about where the median income is $25,000. And this is what we do to folks in a global pandemic?” Taylor said.

“Progressive is not taking away 600 already vacant positions in the police when 87% of the city said defund the police. Why can’t we tax the rich? We continue . . . taxing everybody else but the people who can actually afford it . . . Our constituents — especially on the South and West sides — are looking at us like we’re crazy.”

Lopez, one of Lightfoot’s most outspoken City Council critics, warned his colleagues they were about tp cast a “moral vote,” not just a fiscal one.

“Where is our empathy? . . . 2020 has kicked our residents in the teeth, robbed and spat on them. Why is this City Council trying to justify harming them further for the next four decades?” Lopez said.

It will be interesting to watch whether Lightfoot creates a website, as she did last year, to shame those who dared to vote against the budget.

It will be equally worth watching whether she follows through on her threat to use the capital plan to punish those aldermen who dared to vote against her.

On Tuesday, Lightfoot sounded like a mayor more interested in collaboration than retribution.

“We will continue to have open ears, open hearts and open dialogue as we move forward,” she said.

Lightfoot avoided a property tax increase by balancing her first budget with one-time revenues.

This year’s version is no different.

The mayor plans to refinance $1.7 billion in general obligation and sales tax securitization bonds and claim $949 million in savings in the first two years.

That will extend the debt for eight years and return Chicago to the days of “scoop-and-toss” borrowing that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel ended, although not nearly fast enough for Wall Street rating agencies.

A $304 million tax increment financing surplus will create a $76 million windfall for the city. The budget also includes $59 million by “sweeping aging accounts,” a $30 million raid on the city’s $900 million in reserves, and $54 million in savings by transferring the cost of pensions and crossing guards from the city to Chicago Public Schools.

Next year, the city is facing a $430.6 million spike in pension payments.

The $12.8 billion budget approved Tuesday also includes only $100 million to cover retroactive pay raises for Chicago Police officers even though the price tag for that back pay is certain to be three or even four times that amount.

“Are we gonna borrow for that and kick that down the road? Ladies and gentlemen, we are becoming the next Detroit,” Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) told his colleagues during Tuesday’s debate.

Lightfoot agreed Chicago has “many challenges and many roads ahead” that she and aldermen “need to walk down the path together . . . This is not the end. This is the start of a series of things that we must get done on behalf of the people in 2021 and beyond.”

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