Budget Committee OKs Lightfoot plan on how to spend $1.1 billion windfall from federal stimulus

During the marathon meeting, aldermen questioned whether enough was set aside for housing and violence prevention and if $40 million was enough to hold back in case of a spike in coronavirus cases later this year.

SHARE Budget Committee OKs Lightfoot plan on how to spend $1.1 billion windfall from federal stimulus
With air travel curtailed, the security lines for outbound passengers were short Sunday at O’Hare Airport.

With fewer people traveling during the pandemic, some O’Hare and Midway concessionaires need help from the federal stimulus dollars being divvied up by the Chicago City Council.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan for how to spend a $1.1 billion infusion of federal stimulus funds cleared a City Council committee Wednesday amid concern that not enough money was being set aside for housing, violence prevention or another spike in COVID-19 cases.

The plan advanced by the City Council’s Budget Committee after a marathon meeting would distribute the federal windfall to a string of pressing needs.

It includes: $376.7 million for O’Hare and Midway airports for operations and concession relief; $189.3 million for a “public health response” that includes contact tracing, lab testing and testing personnel; $39.6 million for homeless services; and $16.5 million for rental, mortgage and legal assistance for homeowners facing foreclosure.

Smaller amounts would go toward: violence prevention; workforce assistance; mental health and senior assistance ($10 million apiece); community health care infrastructure ($11 million); food assistance ($4.5 million); and broadband for students without internet access ($5 million).

Another $410.5 million would defray the cost of the city’s “direct response” to the pandemic. Within that bucket, the city has reserved $40 million for a “summer/fall resurgence” of COVID-19 cases.

During a nearly three-hour debate, Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) raised serious questions about whether $40 million was enough financial insurance against another spike.

That’s particularly true after large crowds drawn to the continuing demonstrations triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“You may be lowballing it. What if the need is greater? To me, that’s gonna be a huge problem because we should have foreseen that coming,” Cardenas said.

Budget Director Susie Park said she was “trying to be conservative” with the $40 million for a summer and fall resurgence.

But, she told Cardenas, “You are right. It may not be enough. ... If we see a sudden spike in the next couple of weeks as we’re reopening, then we will have to re-prioritize as you say.”

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) was among a parade of aldermen demanding more rental assistance.

“This COVID-19 has crushed us. The looting has crushed us. People need help. And we need to help them. And we still keep approaching it with, `Oh, well, this is all we can do now,’” Hairston said.

“If we don’t help people stay here, we won’t have anybody paying taxes. We won’t have anybody buying goods and services. We won’t have anybody going to the restaurants. What if we upped it to $30 million?”

Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara countered: “We do anticipate significant support coming very soon from the state as well.”

Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler said her department also has rental assistance programs. That adds up to “a little over $10 million” for a total of $30 million, she said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Council’s Black Caucus, wanted more money for violence prevention, with some earmarked for smaller groups that “may not write the best proposals, but can solve the problems that we’re facing.”

“If we’re talking about violence prevention, it’s got to be greater than just outreach. You’ve got to look at this thing holistically and get down to some of these root causes,” Ervin said.

“Just paying folks to go talk to Tommy when they think Tommy is gonna shoot Johnny — we’ve got to get beyond that and get down to some real stuff that these kids can use. We can’t ask `em to put the guns down if we don’t have anything else to occupy their time or give them a meaningful path to a positive lifestyle.”

Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd) kicked off the meeting by informing aldermen she had 670 letters on file from everyday Chicagoans who want to reduce the Chicago Police Department’s $1.8 billion budget.

That prompted several aldermen to ask if any of the federal windfall would be used for police overtime.

“The Police Department may have incurred allowable overtime. That is one of the things we’re working through,” Park said.

“Departments have to code if it was COVID-related and we’re gonna audit those. But they may have had actual overtime that’s COVID-related that will be eligible.”

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