Brandon Johnson’s first budget sails through City Council

The $16.77 billion plan, approved 41-8, holds the line on taxes and increases spending for an array of popular programs. But it also relies on one-time revenues and budgets far too little for the migrant crisis.

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Mayor Brandon Johnson with Ald. Jason Ervin at a Chicago City Council meeting Nov. 15, 2023.

Mayor Brandon Johnson with Ald. Jason Ervin at Wednesday’s Chicago City Council meeting.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s $16.77 billion budget breezed through the City Council on Wednesday amid concerns about police staffing and where Chicago will turn without an infusion of state and federal help for the migrant crisis.

The final vote was 41-8. It was somewhat surprising that it wasn’t unanimous, considering the budget holds the line on taxes and increases spending for an array of popular programs.

A triumphant Johnson said it was a “great day for the city of Chicago as we truly begin the work of investing in our people.”

“Every single campaign promise that I made, I’ve kept,” the mayor said. “The Central Business District, the vacancies that exist, the poverty that exists, the migrant crisis that exists — all of the things that I’ve inherited, we have put forth a budget to address.

“Every single component that the people of Chicago have been calling for. And I’m looking forward to the next 23 budgets that I’m gonna pass.”

Several Council members who voted “no” argued the spending plan earmarks only $150 million for a migrant crisis now costing the city more than twice that.

At his celebratory new conference, Johnson teased a new phase of his migrant plan that includes a “tiered, 60-day shelter limit,” with more details to be released Friday.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) cited three reasons for not supporting the budget: “No. 1, the budget is not balanced. No. 2, the budget is not balanced. No. 3, the budget is not balanced.”

The city spends $40 million per month on the migrant crisis, Beale said, so the $150 million “gets you through four months. What are we going to start doing come April when we run out of money? Hope and pray that the state and federal government gives us money? ... We have a president who is fighting for his [political] life. We have a Republican-controlled [U.S.] House. The chances are slim to none.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (center) at a Chicago City Council meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Ald. Anthony Beale (center) was one of those criticizing Mayor Brandon’s first budget as “not balanced” because it doesn’t set aside enough money for dealing with the migrant crisis.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Beale also complained the 400 civilians Johnson plans to hire to free police officers for street duty would do nothing to fill 2,300 police vacancies, counting the 614 open positions eliminated by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The budget shows “no urgency about hiring more police to put on the street that all of us need in our communities. We’re all dealing with carjackings, car break-ins, murders, you name it,” Beale said.

Others voting against the budget were Marty Quinn (13th), Ray Lopez (15th), David Moore (17th), Silvana Tabares (23rd), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Brendan Reilly (42nd) and James Gardiner (45th). Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th) did not attend the meeting or vote remotely.

The vote to approve the city’s annual property tax levy was 40-9. Companion ordinances tied to the budget — including the management and corrections ordinances, budget amendments and the annual motor fuel tax — all passed by voice vote.

Ald. Jessie Fuentes (26th), one of Johnson’s staunchest Council supporters, shared Beale’s concerns about migrant funding running short.

“But I don’t expect that any of us are going to sit back and hope and pray. We’re going to ... get to work ... to demand for our federal delegation to invest in our migrant mission, to hold our governor accountable and our state legislators to also have skin in the game,” Fuentes said.

“Migrants, immigrants, families alike have built this city. They have become a part of the very fabric. This budget, in saying yes to leading on the migrant mission, shows not just Chicago, but the rest of the world, that we are going to continue to show up for individuals that come to Chicago to seek refuge, to seek safety, and that also want to contribute to what it means to live in the greatest city in the world.”

A surprise ‘no’ vote from Moore

Moore’s “no” vote was a surprise. Hesaid Johnson’s decision not to take advantage of an automatic escalator tying future property tax increases to the rate of inflation would set the stage for an even bigger tax hike down the road.

Ald. David Moore voted against Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first budget.

Ald. David Moore voted against Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first budget, complaining that the city didn’t fund renovations to a dilapidated Park District field house in his ward.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The 17th Ward alderperson also tied his vote to a more parochial issue: Johnson’s failure to improve a field house in his ward — a facility so dilapidated, it’s “like a prison.”

“I didn’t ask for the whole $35 million this year. I asked for $10 million. ... This is coming from my constituents: ‘Bring us something back home. Don’t vote on nothin’ unless there’s something in there for the community.’ That’s what they told me,” Moore said.

Ald. Bill Conway (34th) backed the budget after mayoral aides assured him the $100 million being siphoned from the La Salle Street tax increment financing district to create a record TIF surplus would not jeopardize efforts to transform La Salle Street office buildings into residential and retail uses.

Ald. Bill Conway ( 34th) at a Chicago City Council meeting on Nov. 15, 2023.

Ald. Bill Conway (34th) voted for Mayor Brandon Johnson’s budget.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Senior mayoral adviser Jason Lee refused to say where Johnson would turn first if Chicago gets no state or federal help, or if what it does receive falls short.

“My guess is that, in relatively short order, there’ll be a different dynamic in terms of understanding what the federal and state contributions are,” Lee said. “We should ask that question after we see what these other jurisdictions are doing.”

Past time to pass ‘Peacebook ordinance,’ Taylor says

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) used her speech backing the budget to lecture colleagues who have repeatedly thwarted the “Peacebook Ordinance” championed by the youth group Good Kids Mad City.

That ordinance would divert 2% of the Chicago Police Department’s $1.99 billion budget to bankroll programs led by young people in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence.

“The reason why our city is in chaos is because we’re in chaos. We don’t work with each other. We don’t talk to each other. We pick and choose who we’re going to talk to and who we’re going to work with. We don’t hold each other accountable. Y’all expect for our city not to be acting a fool? We’re all down here acting a fool,” Taylor said.

“We all sit here and get up and give these elaborate, beautiful speeches about working together. That ain’t what I see. That’s not how our city sees it,” she said.

Taylor said young people in her impoverished South Side community have been “fighting for the Peacebook” since before she took office.

“It is wrong for us to not do what we should’ve done a long time ago. ... Let’s have a conversation with Black Chicago about what it really needs and what it really wants,” she said.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley loved to pitch a shutout on the budget, the most important Council vote of the year. He managed to deliver unanimous votes seven times in 22 years, including five straight: 2000-2004.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first budget passed 50-0 despite being balanced with $220 million in taxes, fines and fees, 517 layoffs, two police station closings and consolidation of 12 mental health clinics into six.

By that standard, Johnson also should have expected a unanimous vote on his $16.77 billion budget.

Johnson’s budget freezes the city’s property tax levy while capturing growth from new property. And it includes none of the $800 million in tax increases Johnson advocated during his mayoral campaign.

It increases the police budget; opens two mental health clinics (in existing buildings, to save money); doubles staff for a program that frees police officers from responding to mental health emergencies; and creates new departments of Environment and Innovation and Technology. Another 4,000 summer jobs for young people also will be created.

Johnson even sweetened the pot with amendments: a fourth full-time staffer for each Council member; a $5 million Office of Re-Entry for ex-offenders; and $500,000 to start trying to find a way to pay reparations to Chicago residents descended from slaves.

Unanimity unlikely — ‘the Council has changed,’ top Johnson aide says

The Johnson administration knew the vote wouldn’t be unanimous.

“It’s almost like partisan politics, even though it’s not a partisan institution. There’s certain people who kind of cast themselves as the loyal opposition and kind of stay in that posture, regardless of the merits of a particular thing,” Lee told the Sun-Times shortly before Wednesday’s vote.

“What we’re talking about is a commitment to the principles that the mayor laid out in the campaign. ... The mayor wants people to validate things that are good for their constituencies. ... But the Council has changed. There’s a different dynamic around how certain individuals operate under any mayoral regime. We accept those realities,” Lee said.

The Chicago City Council’s meeting on Nov. 15, 2023, where it voted to approve Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first budget.

The City Council voted Wednesday to approve Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first budget.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

With the budget passed, Johnson can turn his attention to the binding “Bring Chicago Home” referendum on the March primary ballot. It would ask voters to authorize the Council to alter the city’s real estate transfer tax. The rate would drop on sales below $1 million, quadruple the rate on transactions over $1.5 million, and more than double the tax on sales in between.

The business community — particularly real estate interests — is expected to spend millions to try to defeat the question at the polls, or if necessary, in the Council.

That upcoming political battle helps explain why Johnson punted the search for new revenue to a Council subcommittee and did not follow his predecessors’ lead by socking it to taxpayers in the first budget after his election and holding the line after that.

“One of our biggest initiatives was ‘Bring Chicago Home,’ which does include new revenue. ... It has to be done through a ballot referendum. But we encouraged and leveraged political capital to pursue a revenue concept that was one of the biggest ideas from the campaign and had to do that now to reap the benefits in the near future,” Lee said.

“There’ll be more conversations to come,” said Lee. “It’s a combination ... finding revenue, but also growing the pie. We’ll continue to flesh out ideas further that have enough support to get through, which is the key with revenue. It’s not just about having an idea on paper.”

Johnson was asked whether the search for new revenue would begin with the $800 million worth of tax-the-rich ideas he championed during the campaign.

“Everything is on the table. Everything,” he said.

Protections for city workers OK’d

Also Wednesday, the Council approved an ordinance that imposes stiff fines against anyone who attempts to assault a city employee engaged in enforcement activity.

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