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No property tax increase? Aldermen aren’t buying Lightfoot’s argument

The mayor contends the capital plan responsible for $25 million of the levy increase was approved last year and so was tying property taxes to the consumer price index. The remaining $28.6 million was captured from “new property.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers the city’s 2022 budget proposal during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Monday morning, Sept. 20, 2021.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers the city’s 2022 budget proposal during a Chicago City Council meeting Sept. 20, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago’s property tax levy will rise by $76.5 million in 2022, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot has focused on the fact that the City Council will not be required to take a “new vote” to raise property taxes.

Try telling that to Chicago aldermen.

On opening day of hearings on Lightfoot’s $16.7 billion budget, several aldermen weren’t buying the mayor’s argument that the capital plan responsible for $25 million of the increase was approved last year, as was the automatic escalator tying property taxes to the consumer price index. The remaining $28.6 million was captured from “new property.”

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) said property owners are either already reeling from skyrocketing reassessments or bracing for that double-whammy.

There’s also the $94 million property tax increase approved by the Council last year and the $114 million increase for the Chicago Public Schools.

“There is a property tax increase. And many of our colleagues’ communities have received significant property tax increases in recent months. My community is about to get one,” said O’Shea.

“With all that’s going on, with what the rest of the city is gonna be facing and the issues we’re having with these upcoming bills, we should be exploring other ways to get this increase out of this budget because, obviously, people are struggling right now.”

Housing Committee Chairman Harry Osterman (48th) noted salary increases are not keeping pace with rising inflation.

“On top of that, we’re being reassessed. That’s always, in every corner of the city, a challenging issue. Regardless of where they’re at financially, it’s a tricky thing. People get priced out of their homes and they have to move.”

Last year Lightfoot balanced her budget by, in part, eliminating 614 Chicago Police Department vacancies and shrinking CPD by attrition.

This year, she’s proposing a $189 million increase in police spending — to just under $1.9 billion — but Budget Director Susie Park said the “full driver” of that increase is the new police contract, with its 20% pay raise over eight years.

Meanwhile, the tidal wave of police retirements continues with 703 retirements already this year and 987 sworn vacancies.

Far Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) and O’Shea have demanded Lightfoot restore some positions.

But Park said CPD will have enough trouble just filling vacancies. Declining interest in the policing profession is a “national trend,” she said.

“They have put a deputy chief in charge of just the recruitment of new officers. We’ve added … civilian staff to help with that recruitment. Added funds for marketing and other things they might need to help with that,” Park said.

“That’s really where the focus is gonna be for the next year. To get those vacancies filled. That all starts with recruitment and getting people tested. ... They will be able to test all year, both online and in person.”

By combining $567.6 million federal relief funds with $660 million in her capital plan, Lightfoot is literally playing Santa Claus, spending $1.2 billion on new investments.

But Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) , chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, wanted to know what will happen if the pandemic lingers, new variants abound and the $153 million in federal relief reserved for revenue replacement in 2023 isn’t enough.

“If stuff starts to look funky, what do we cut?” Ervin asked.

Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett said she believes the budget strikes the “right balance between financial stability” and sorely needed investments. But she acknowledged “things can change going forward.”

Some opening day questions were more narrowly focused.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) zeroed in on the 11% increase in the mayor’s office budget —to just over $11 million — with six new positions, 5% pay raises for existing staffers and increases in travel, lobbying, dues and memberships.

“Why is there a need for this?” Hairston said.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) noted only one mayor’s office employee oversees international relations, a drop in the bucket for a “world-class city.”

Ald. Sophia King (4th) said the absence of any money for child care in the avalanche of new programs was a “huge oversight.”

Lightfoot is giving aldermen $100,000 each for “microgrants” to groups of their choosing.

But even that caused consternation, as aldermen demanded clear guidelines to help avoid accusations of political favoritism.

“We like playing Santa Claus,” said Ald. Walter Burnett (27th). “But I never give away anything unless I can give it to everybody.”