Chicago alderpersons face preelection dilemma: Whether to accept a 9.62% pay raise

City Council members have until Sept. 2 to decide whether to accept the raise, which will boost pay to $142,772 for the 30 alderpersons who have accepted all annual pay raises.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday morning, July 20, 2022.

The pay for Chicago City Council members is set to increase 9.62% on Jan. 1. The raise will boost the top pay for alderpersons to $142,772 a year.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

City Council members are facing a political dilemma that could impact their reelection chances: a Sept. 2 deadline to decide whether to accept a 9.62% pay raise that will boost their annual salaries to $142,772.

In 2006, the City Council approved a pay raise tied to the inflation rate and members gave themselves political cover by passing the big-box minimum wage ordinance on the same day.

Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley subsequently used his first and only veto to kill the big-box ordinance.

Since then, Chicago alderpersons have been forced to make a yearly decision: accept the annual increase or decline it to curry favor with their constituents.

This year, the political predicament for the 30 alderpersons now earning $130,238 — if they have accepted all of the annual pay raises — is magnified by the economic struggles that everyday Chicagoans are facing at the grocery store and the gas pump. 

“In 2022, the consumer price index increased by 9.62%. As a result, the adjusted annual salary for aldermen will increase to $142,772 on Jan. 1, 2023,” Budget Director Susie Park wrote in an Aug. 15 memorandum to City Council members.

If mayoral challenger Ray Lopez (15th) has his way, City Council members will soon be relieved of having to struggle with the annual decision of whether to accept or reject inflation-triggered pay hikes.

At the September City Council meeting, Lopez plans to introduce an ordinance that would reduce the annual salary for newly elected alderpersons and veteran alderpersons who have accepted all of the inflationary pay raises to $120,000. That’s where it would remain for the next four years.

Future annual pay raises tied to the inflation rate would then be capped at 3%. And alderpersons would be required to serve their constituents full time. They would be prohibited from holding outside jobs. 

Lopez acknowledged that some of his colleagues might say, “Easy for him to say. He’s not going to be here.”

But he argued that his history of having rejected the last two aldermanic pay raises gives him the credibility to make the popular, preelection argument.

“A 10% pay raise during the onset of a recession is outrageous. … It’s obscene. Nobody’s getting 10%. Our constituents aren’t getting a 10% raise. The only thing that’s gotten a 10% raise is the cost of everything that they need to buy because of the inflation,” Lopez said Wednesday.

“To say that aldermen are somehow deserving of a 10% raise … is a slap in the face to every working family in the city of Chicago struggling to make ends meet. Struggling to take care of their children. We should know better. And if my colleagues can’t be trusted to reject it outright, then it’s time to reevaluate this law that’s been in existence for nearly two decades.”

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to prohibit alderpersons from holding second jobs.

Those efforts have failed, allowing roughly a dozen alderpersons to continue working as attorneys, real estate agents, professors or consultants. Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who is mulling a race for mayor or retirement from the City Council, owns Ann Sather Restaurants.

What’s different this time? Lopez said it’s six months before an election.

And even more important is the fact that former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) was recently convicted on federal corruption charges and two sitting alderpersons — City Council dean Edward M. Burke (14th) and retiring Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) — remain under indictment and awaiting trial.

“Being full-time — restricting outside income — would go a long way toward reducing the appearance of impropriety that has long plagued the institution. It’s always the side jobs that apparently get people in trouble,” Lopez said.

“One-hundred-twenty-thousand dollars is more than enough to walk in as a legislator when you consider the fact that the county commissioners made $85,000 and just barely got a raise. Your state reps made $86,000 and barely get cost of living in their next terms.”

Last year, Lopez was one of five alderpersons to reject a 5.5% cost-of-living raise. The others were Silvana Tabares (23rd), Felix Cardona (31st), Gilbert Villegas (36th) and Matt Martin (47th).

There are now 15 salary levels for alderpersons. Thirty Council members are paid $130,238 a year.

Rose Tibayan, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, had no immediate comment when asked to identify alderpersons who have already made their decision on this year’s pay raise. 

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