Vallas pokes holes in Lightfoot’s claims of fiscal stability

“What has changed in four years? Nothing. She’s basically handing off what she inherited from Rahm Emanuel,” mayoral challenger Paul Vallas said.

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Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas at the Sun-Times on election night, Tuesday, February 26, 2019.

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas

Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is campaigning for reelection on a budget with a $127.9 million shortfall for 2023 that she portrays as the lowest in recent memory.

It’s allowed her to reduce to $42.7 million a preelection property tax increase that will be half of what an automatic escalator would have allowed.

Now, mayoral challenger Paul Vallas is poking holes in Lightfoot’s bold claims about having exercised fiscal discipline and made the “tough choices” needed to right the financial ship.

He noted Lightfoot’s budget forecast projects a $306.1 million shortfall in 2024 and $265.7 million in 2025 even if the Chicago economy is flying high and deficits of $951.3 million in 2024 and a staggering $1.4 billion in 2025 if there is a “negative” outlook.

“What has changed in four years? Nothing. She’s basically handing off what she inherited from Rahm Emanuel. … After $6 billion in COVID money, after over $800 million in city and school property tax increases, this is what we have to show for it,” Vallas said Wednesday.

“We have to show for it a budget deficit of anywhere between half-a-billion and a billion dollars, 2,000 fewer cops on the street, a steady exodus of people from a school system where half the schools are fewer than 50% enrolled and the same kind of tax-and-waste budgetary practices that we’ve had for the last few decades.”

At an investors conference earlier this month, Lightfoot bragged about having made the “tough decisions” necessary to lead Chicago out of its “financial morass.”

Lightfoot talked about climbing the $1 billion ramp to actuarial funding for all four city employee pension funds and reducing Chicago’s mountain of outstanding debt by $866 million.

Vallas was not impressed.

Two years ago, he was the first to sound the alarm about the pandemic’s devastating impact on the city budget.

Now, he is predicting the same fiscal time bomb awaits the next mayor of Chicago — or Lightfoot if she wins a second term.

To prepare for that day of reckoning, Vallas is outlining a plan to turn the Chicago City Council into a co-equal branch of government. It would start by creating a “truly independent” City Council budget office with power to scrutinize spending at all agencies of local government, including the Chicago Public Schools.

“The creation of an Independent City Council Budget Office should be accompanied by a new truth in budgeting ordinance requiring underlying methodology and data for city budget projections to be publicly disclosed. It should also specify a mandatory legislative budget process/schedule. This is what the law sets out at the federal level in which the powerful Congressional Budget Office independently evaluates and scores all legislative proposals. It is how our more fiscally sound peer cities operate,” Vallas said.

In 2014, the City Council voted to create the $301,216-a-year independent budget office to provide aldermen with expert advice on fiscal issues and avoid a repeat of the parking meter fiasco.

Vallas dismissed that office as a joke, even after several attempts to beef it up.

The Council Office of Financial Analysis now has just three employees and a $283,756 annual budget.

“There’s no check and balance. No accountability. You, in effect, have a City Council that does not have the capacity to challenge her. There’s no independent entity out there that has access to the numbers, that can do in-depth analysis on things like casinos or parking meter deals. It’s like the City Council is a potted plant,” Vallas said.

“There’s never any fundamental evaluation, The budget is what she says it is. The deficit is what she says it is. The closing of loopholes and hundreds of millions of dollars in savings that she always claims because of governmental efficiencies — are they real or are they imaginative? You’re gonna continue to have these crises as long as you don’t have that infrastructure in place to bring transparency and accountability.”

Vallas is not the first to call for structural change to re-awaken the City Council.

Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who was openly criticized and then forced out by Lightfoot, has launched a nonprofit he calls “Re-Imagine” Chicago to do the same thing.

As an example of Council dysfunction, Ferguson pointed to Lightfoot’s decision to appoint a special committee on a Chicago casino, then bypass the panel, and ram Bally’s $1.7 billion project through the Council.

“I go back to the phrase, ‘learned helplessness.’ The mayor runs the City Council. There is no good outcome anywhere in which a single person basically decides everything. You need that critical tension. We need a City Council that actually has the expertise and works together collectively through a structure that actually puts the mayor to the test and doesn’t let things just get rammed through,” Ferguson told the Sun-Times in June.

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