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Smoke detector ordinance stalls in City Council

The proposal would give Chicago’s oldest residential buildings until Jan. 1, 2023 to install smoke detectors with 10-year batteries ran into a buzz-saw of opposition Friday.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) agreed to send the smoke detector ordinance back to the Zoning Committee for further changes.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A move by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader to give Chicago’s oldest residential buildings until Jan. 1, 2023 to install smoke detectors with 10-year batteries ran into a buzzsaw of opposition Friday from aldermen concerned about the added cost to homeowners squeezed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Opposition was so strong, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) agreed to send the ordinance back to the Zoning Committee for further changes.

Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II and Public Safety Committee chairman Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) are dead-set against the idea and have sounded the alarm during closed-door meetings with Lightfoot’s Office of Legislative and Governmental Affairs.

They were concerned about the added cost to homeowners already absorbing a punishing parade of property tax increases even before the coronavirus pandemic brought everyday life and the Chicago economy to a screeching halt.

All of those concerns and more were aired at Friday’s virtual City Council meeting.

“This ordinance is gonna add an undue burden on our taxpayers and our senior citizens, who are already struggling to make ends meet. Now, we’re gonna require them to purchase smoke detectors that are much more expensive,” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th).

“We’re doing ourselves a disservice by putting those extra burdens on senior citizens —especially during this crisis.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) called the mandate an “unacceptable burden on many of the black and brown communities” that he represents.

“It’s a mistake. We must re-think this. We should hit the pause on this when our own Fire Department was not supporting on this,” Lopez said.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) joined the opposition after talking to Ford.

“I see this being an additional burden on the city as well as the taxpayers because when they attempt to purchase it, it will cost more than those that are in place now,” Austin said.

Villegas at first tried to argue it’s time for Chicago to “follow suit” with a state law from which the city was exempt. He said he had agreed to delay the effective date to give homeowners until 2023 to absorb the added cost.

“The fact is that you have these fires that have killed people. It’s not because of the fire, but more because of smoke inhalation. It’s based on the fact that there’s not a working smoke detector,” Villegas said.

“We’re supposed to make sure that we change the batteries twice a year, but a lot of times people forget. This is a life- saving smoke detector that will last for ten years. It has the technology and capability of reminding you when it’s time to change it.”

But when Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, voted to delay the vote and send the ordinance back to committee, Villegas agreed.

Also during Friday’s action-packed meeting, aldermen:

• Voted to close a legal loophole that has allowed Chicago consumers who purchase their bottled water online to dodge the city’s five-cents a bottle tax along with the one that has allowed online liquor buyers to dodge the city’s sliding scale of liquor taxes.

• Agreed to impose the city’s 9% amusement tax on tour boats, require inter-track betting houses to pay a $1-per-person fee and get tougher on drivers who park or stand in, or otherwise encroach on, bus and bike lanes.

Currently, those tickets can be issued only if the vehicle is parked in a bus lane or bike lane. If someone drives off to avoid the ticket even as a citation is being written, the police officer or parking enforcement aide is out of luck.

• Authorized a $6.44 million tax-increment-financing subsidy to pave the way for the long-vacant Ramova Theater, 3518 S. Halsted, to be converted into a live music venue in a boon to the Bridgeport neighborhood that is the ancestral home of the Daley family.

• Approved a series of appointments to jump-start the moribund Catalyst Fund.

• Signed off on a $500,00 settlement to compensate the family of a 21-year-old man who died of a drug overdose in police custody after being denied prompt emergency medical care while being questioned about a 2017 robbery.

• Voted to require all new commercial buildings with 30 or more parking spaces and new residential buildings with five or more units to have at least 20% of their parking spaces be “Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment-Ready.”