After 5-hour battle, Lightfoot’s 2023 budget clears key hurdle
The mayor’s proposal beefs up the Office of Climate and Environmental Equity and places it under a director confirmed by the City Council, but her critics on the Budget Committee wanted a lot more.
The $16.4 billion budget that will serve as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s platform for reelection cleared a key legislative hurdle on Wednesday after the mayor inched closer to honoring her 2019 campaign promise to resurrect the Department of Environment.
The City Council’s Budget Committee voted 18-12 to approve the 2023 spending plan, including a thick package of amendments.
By the same vote, alderpersons also renewed an intergovernmental agreement to funnel $3 million in motor fuel tax revenue to the CTA.
But that vote to release the CTA’s annual appropriation came only after CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. agreed to show up before the Council’s Transportation Committee on Nov. 10 to answer questions about crime, hiring shortages and scheduling discrepancies. Carter has ignored the committee’s invitations for months.
“It is a requirement. It’s really not a choice. … We’ve had our issues with CTA over a number of years. But this is mandated,” said retiring Ald. Tom Tunney (44th).
Budget Committee Chair Pat Dowell (3rd) agreed the Council’s hands were tied.
“This is not the one we want to throw the gauntlet down on because it is required by the Regional Transportation Act.”
Carter’s about-face is aimed at appeasing a Council whose support he needs. The city wants alderpersons to authorize a new tax increment financing district to bankroll $950 million of the $3.6 billion cost of extending the CTA’s Red Line to 130th Street.
As for the Department of Environment, the mayor had campaigned on a promise to restore it, and this year’s budget hearings produced an almost universal demand to keep that promise.
But the steps Lightfoot is taking did not satisfy those demanding more urgent action to combat climate change.
A budget amendment approved Wednesday beefs up Lightfoot’s proposed Office of Climate and Environmental Equity — from six employees to 10 — and takes those staffers out of the mayor’s office and puts them under a director confirmed by the Council.
The annual budget for the new office would rise from $778,929 to $1.04 million.
“It’s nice to see some movement. But I still don’t think this really meets the urgent need in the moment that we’re in. We’ve got this ambitious Climate Action Plan. How are we gonna implement it?” said north lakefront Ald. Maria Hadden (49th).
Hadden said her ward has lost “1 to 2 feet of land with every winter storm from lakefront erosion and high water levels” in Lake Michigan. And that’s just one of the weather-related events now “out of our control,” she said.
“We had our first tornado in August of 2020. We had these early heat waves and lost three residents during the early heat wave because we weren’t prepared. Where’s the guidance on that? And then we had the citywide flood on Sept. 11. Almost every street in my ward was impacted by this,” she said.
Budget Director Susie Park maintained Wednesday that a “lot of work” needs to be done to “build out a robust” Department of Environment and pull together regulatory authority dispersed to other departments, adding that “Hopefully, in 2024, we will come back with a robust department.”
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) branded Park’s explanation “insulting” and “disrespectful to the people who voted for change.”
To drive home the point, Ramirez-Rosa read aloud mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot’s Jan. 10, 2019 tweet pledging to restore the department.
It read, “We’ve got to bring back the Department of Environment to combat climate change and ensure that Chicagoans have clean air to breathe and safe water to drink, no matter their race, economic status or zip code.”
“This was a central piece of a policy platform promised to the people of Chicago. People who wanted to undo the harm caused by eight years of Rahm Emanuel,” Ramirez-Rosa.
“After four years — the fourth budget this mayor will now propose and pass — we have failed. And the 10 positions in this office — that’s less than the 15 in the mayor’s press office.”
Retiring Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th) represents a Far Southeast Side ward used as Chicago’s dumping ground for decades.
“I don’t want this to be another, like smoke-and-mirrors office that just has meetings with people, does a lot of talking and does nothing,” said Garza, whose ward includes General Iron’s already-built car shredding operation, which had its permit denied by Lightfoot.
Even departing Health and Environmental Protection Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th), Lightfoot’s deputy floor leader, acknowledged the mayor’s concession is “not what I would have preferred.”
“I’ll take incremental change. I’m a patient man. But at some point, this has to be a pivot to that department,” Cardenas said.
“I understand budgetary issues. But environmentalism and environmental protection is key. We should be budgeting it the way our constituency demands.”
Not as easy as expected
Lightfoot decided to forego a $42.7 million property tax increase that was half of what an inflationary trigger would have allowed after it became clear she didn’t have the votes.
As a result, she said the vote on her preelection budget should be “easy.”
Wednesday’s budget committee meeting was anything but.
For five hours, alderpersons beefed about everything from the absence of hiring incentives that could stop a mass exodus of Chicago police officers to outrage over the mayor’s plan to make permanent the power granted to her during the height of the pandemic.
In certain circumstances, it would authorize her hand-picked chief procurement officer to sign emergency contracts valued at up to $1 million.
“This is a big giveaway when it comes to City Council oversight,” said downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).
Aviation Committee Chair Matt O’Shea (19th) was even more incensed by what he called a power grab.
“This body was elected. This body, as part of our duties, [is supposed] to look out for the taxpayers. To be stewards. To take that responsibility away in the form of whatever that dollar amount is — I have a problem with. And every one of us in this room should have a problem with it,” O’Shea said.
After the meeting, the Finance Committee reconvened to approve the mayor’s stalled plan to reduce the fine for bike lane incursion and driving with covered license plates or tinted windows. Those penalties are being cut in half, to $250, to comply with a court decision.
Alderpersons objecting to that reduction had delayed action on the revenue ordinance on Tuesday, citing concerns about violent crime and bike safety.
Wednesday, they went along, reluctantly, after Deputy Corporation Counsel Mark Siegel explained the city’s legal options had been exhausted.
“We were challenged on whether the fines and fees on parking compliance and standing violations can exceed a combined amount of $250. We lost at the Appellate Court. And then the Illinois Supreme Court did not grant us review. That means we’re at the end of the road for judicial review, and we’re at the time for implementing the court’s decision,” Siegel said.
“In practice, these fines are already reduced because we had to, under the court’s ruling. So we’re asking that you ... clean up the municipal code to put it into alignment with the state law and terminate this [legal] risk.”