Lightfoot’s $16.4B budget clears one hurdle, but hits snag over reduced fines

The Finance Committee approved the property tax levy, but must reconvene Wednesday to reconsider the revenue ordinance. As proposed, it would cut some vehicular fines in half to comply with a court decision, but if Ald. Brendan Reilly has his way, those fines will remain at $500.

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Chicago City Hall

Chicago City Hall.

Sun-Times file

A plan to cut in half the maximum fine for bike lane incursions and driving with covered license plates or tinted windows hit a roadblock Tuesday in a City Council concerned about violent crime and bike safety.

The buzz-saw of complaints about changes triggered by a recent court decision forced the Finance Committee to put off a final vote on the revenue ordinance tied to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $16.4 billion budget. The committee will reconvene at noon Wednesday to reconsider the revenue ordinance.

If downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) has his way, the $500 fines will remain.

“I understand there’s a court decision. But we’re being asked to cut in half fines that protect peoples’ lives. Not the least of which are police officers,” Reilly said.

“Covering license plates puts a lot of people at risk. Tinted windows sure do. And now, straight-pipe, altered mufflers that blow up our neighborhoods every weekend. … We’re trying to correct these issues. And now, we’ve got one hand tied behind our back.”

Reilly was equally concerned about the dangerous message sent by reducing fines for bike lane incursions “that cause collisions between a motor vehicle and bicycle” at a time when ward offices like his own are being “bombarded” with complaints from the biking community.

“People are parking and loading in dedicated bike lanes,” Reilly said.

“This is a chronic and consistent problem. We’ve been asking for increased enforcement. It has not shown up,” he added. “This body was wise enough to raise these fines. … What is the wisdom in reducing the fine for something that, potentially, could kill people?”

Deputy Corporation Counsel Mark Siegel argued the city’s hands are tied.

The Illinois Appellate Court ruled in August that, when it comes to standing and parking violations and offenses tied to covering license plates, the fine, including late fees, can’t exceed $250.

The Illinois Supreme Court slammed the door on the city, refusing to consider its appeal.

The argument that continuing to collect the $500 fine would expose the city to liability did not fly with retiring Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).

“We have carjackings left and right. Those that are doing the carjackings now are guarding the license plates, which makes it more difficult for police to make arrests after the fact,” Osterman said, adding that state lawmakers will meet soon and could take action.

“We have a veto session in a few weeks. We have a full new session that will run from Jan. 15 until May 31. Given the seriousness of this — given the amount of people that have been killed this year on bikes and given the epidemic of carjackings that we’re having — why cannot the city of Chicago ask the courts to give us a window of time?”

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) agreed: “Put me on that bus to Springfield. ... The biggest issue we have in the city right now is the safety of our citizens. And the best tool the Chicago Police Department has is license plate readers. And we’re cutting the fines in half for people that hide their license plates, which actually happened in the commission of a very serious crime in my neighborhood 24 hours ago.”

Despite that heated debate on the revenue ordinance, the Finance Committee signed off on the city’s $1.734 billion property tax levy with six dissenting votes.

“This is an increase of $25 million to adjust for new property only. Each year, as new properties come onto the city’s tax base, the increase in the levy keeps the overall property tax burden stable,” Budget Director Susie Park told alderpersons.

“Last year, new property, I believe, was around $28.1 million. So, it is consistent with what we’ve collected before.”

Park also made passing reference to Lightfoot’s decision to cut in half a property tax increase tied to the rate of inflation, then forego it entirely after it became clear she didn’t have the votes.

“As the city continues work to address the financial challenges resulting from the pandemic as well as long-term structural challenges, we have been mindful of the impact of the increased tax burden on our city residents and have made every effort to minimize that impact,” Park said.

The Finance Committee also gave the mayor the go-ahead to:

• Issue $1.85 billion in general obligation bonds to bankroll two more years of her capital plan.

• Use a $336 million “Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation” loan from the federal government to fund lead service line replacement.

• Extend $250 million in existing authority to finance capital improvement projects at Midway Airport through a “commercial paper program” along with new authorization to open a “line of credit as a mode of interim financing.”

• Open a $50 million line of credit to cover what Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett called “unanticipated capital needs” at the new car rental facility at O’Hare Airport.

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