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With the focus on the coronavirus, Lightfoot opts for bare-bones capital plan

The capital plan is on the agenda for Monday’s Finance Committee meeting.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration made the decision to proceed only with those capital projects and purchases that absolutely needed to get done.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file photo

Singularly focused on the war against the coronavirus, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has opted for a $100 million, bare bones capital plan — bankrolled by an existing line of credit — to pay for new vehicles, sidewalks and the treasured aldermanic menu program.

Normally, the city issues general obligation bonds backed by property taxes to cover a more sweeping capital program. But these are not normal times.

The Lightfoot administration is preoccupied with the city’s response to the coronavirus and the budget crisis triggered by the stay-at-home shutdown of the Chicago economy.

So the decision was made to proceed only with those capital projects and purchases that absolutely needed to get done and to finance it with a line of credit that remained, even after Lightfoot saved $22 million by eliminating a $1.4 billion line of credit negotiated by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The bare-bones capital plan is on the agenda for Monday’s Finance Committee meeting.

It includes: $83 million for the aldermanic menu program; $3 million for the shared sidewalk program; and $13.8 million to replace aging police cars and other city vehicles.

“We were taking applications for the shared sidewalks in January. So those commitments have already been made. We’ve got to get the snow plows ordered. We’ve got to get these police cars traded out. These are standard things that have to happen. And they can’t wait,” said Kristen Cabanban, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management.

And what is so urgent about the aldermanic menu program other than the fact that it’s a sacred cow politically?

“They do things like repair streets. They do a lot of infrastructure improvements too. Those things are important to residents as well,” Cabanban said.

A larger and more traditional general obligation bond issue is still a possibility later this year, Cabanban said. But, she quickly added, “We will need to go back and have that discussion at a different time. Right now, our priority is responding to COVID.”

Still unclear is what, if any, impact the shrunken capital plan will have on the $95 million police academy in West Garfield Park.

Last year, Emanuel got the go-ahead to issue $850 million in general obligation bonds to fund a laundry list of capital improvement projects. It included $65 million for the police and fire training, $30 million short of the original price tag.

Last summer, Lightfoot told reporters that the project that critics called a symbol of Emanuel’s misplaced spending priorities needed to be made bigger, better and, undoubtedly, more expensive.

After touring the old police academy and seeing recruits apprehending mock suspects in a dark hallway, Lightfoot said she was not at all certain that the two-building campus to be built at 4301 W. Chicago Ave. on 30.4 vacant acres was big enough to house a training facility that will be “best-in-class” not just when it opens, but for decades afterward.

“I don’t know that it’s big enough. I don’t know that the plans, particularly on the fire [department] side, are gonna provide them with the different kind of training scenarios that they need,” the mayor told reporters outside the current facility, 1300 W. Jackson Blvd.

“This is gonna be a significant investment on the West Side that desperately needs investment, but if we’re gonna make that kind of investment, I want to get it right. I want it to be the best-in-class training facility for first responders anywhere in the country. That’s what we ought to aspire to.”

Much like Wintrust Arena, the police academy project became a symbol of Emanuel’s misplaced priorities, critics said. For years, it has drawn fire from Chance the Rapper, Black Lives Matter and other groups who have organized under the #NoCopAcademy label.

Emanuel was even confronted by anti-academy protesters on college campus visits to other cities.

The coalition has argued that the money would be better spent on jobs, youth and education programs.