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Lightfoot’s $16.7B budget sails through committee, heads to full City Council

The stage is set for final approval on Wednesday, culminating one of the earliest and smoothest budget processes Chicago has ever seen.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting last week.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting last week.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $16.7 billion budget — and the management and debt retirement plans that come with it — sailed through a City Council committee on Friday, setting the stage for final approval next Wednesday.

Before the final vote, Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd) ticked off a list of increased investments made in response to requests from City Council members.

They include more funding for mental health, homeless outreach, single-room-occupancy buildings, food equity, forestry, marketing at the Commission on Animal Care and Control, and additional city planners to oversee land sales.

In response to aldermanic concerns, a subcommittee is also being created to oversee how the city spends the avalanche of federal stimulus funds.

With those changes — and more — the progressive agenda was satisfied. Approval of the mayor’s budget was never in doubt.

“There’s so much more investment that our communities need. There’s no one budget that’s gonna deliver the justice — both socially and economically — that our communities need. But there’s been a lot of progress in this budget,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), chairman of the Democratic Socialist Caucus.

Although Lightfoot did not agree to reopen the mental health clinics shuttered by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ramirez-Rosa noted the “citywide Progressive Budget Coalition” worked together with organized labor and progressive Council members to win a “72% increase in staffing” at the city’s five remaining mental health clinics. That includes 18 additional staffers and an expansion of evening hours.

“That is unprecedented. It’s significant. And it’s something we haven’t seen happen in decades,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Ald. Sophia King (4th), chairwoman of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, added, “This is a progressive budget. I have to be the first to say it. There is more work to do yet to come—lots of work for us to do in getting this money out the door. But I appreciate the collaboration we had on this budget and how my colleagues pushed to make sure that there are resources for the most neediest in our community.”

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said it’s the first time in her 22 years on the City Council that a budget has been approved so smoothly and expeditiously.

“We have gone somewhere we’ve never gone before as a Council. And that’s through your leadership,” Hairston told Dowell.

“I’d like to thank the Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus and all of my colleagues that worked tirelessly to push the limits. ... We can really begin to have meaningful direction in moving towards a city that is fairer for all.”

In addition to the 2022 budget itself, aldermen also approved the mayor’s plan to amend the 2021 budget.

The changes repay a $450 million line of credit used to eliminate a pandemic-related shortfall, cancel $500 million in scoop-and-toss borrowing that would have been necessary without the second round of stimulus funds and fully fund retroactive pay raises for Chicago police officers.

The police contract includes a 20% pay raise over eight years, more than half of it retroactive.

Retroactive paychecks ranged from $18,000 to $36,000, depending on seniority and retroactive overtime pay that will add as much as 20% to that amount; and back duty availability pay of up to $7,600 per officer.

If the discussion that preceded Friday’s vote could even be considered a debate, some of it centered around the public narrative that repaying the debt amounted to rewarding Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.

That’s what Ald. George Cardenas (12th), the mayor’s assistant floor leader, is hearing from his constituents.

“I had folks walk into my office yesterday asking that I explain why we’re taking a position from a budget standpoint to … give money to the banks. I’m still kind of confused as to why it’s not getting through that we borrowed money. It has a maturity date, it has interest expense attached to it as a cost, and we’ve got to pay it back,” he said.

“Can you kind of explain it again so it gets across that this is something that we owe?”

Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett likened scoop-and-toss borrowing and short-term notes to “taking out money on your credit card.”

“There’s an interest that accrues. If you don’t pay the monthly bill at the end of the month, interest continues to accrue and, ultimately, it creates a mountain of debt,” she said.

“For us to repay with money we’ve received intended solely for this purpose to help support revenue replacement loss and free up funds for other purposes, we are, in essence, paying down our debt and reducing the amount of money that we’re paying Wall Street.”