Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed on Monday to pad her proposed 2021 budget with an extra $10 million in funding toward violence prevention efforts and expand a plan to send mental health professionals to respond to emergencies. Yet even with the added measures, the mayor faces an uphill battle to get at least 26 “yes” votes.
Many aldermen remain skeptical of Lightfoot’s plan to close the city’s $1.2 billion budget chasm by hiking the city’s property tax levy by $94 million and restructuring or refinancing $1.7 billion in debt. Lightfoot on Monday formally introduced her proposed $1.63 billion tax levy (O2020-5747), plus a revenue ordinance (O2020-5749) spelling out plans to issue more than $2 billion in borrowing.
During a press conference following a City Council meeting on Monday, the mayor said her budget plan is also being amended to allocate an “additional $10 million toward violence prevention” for a total of $36 million in the 2021 budget.
The additional funding would allow the city to expand its investments in “violence intervention, victim services, trauma supports and mental health resources as well as create a better, safer future for our residents,” Lightfoot said.
She also promised an unspecified amount of additional funding for the city’s planned “co-responder” model for emergency response, which would send mental health professionals to accompany police when responding to some 911 calls.
“One of my biggest responsibilities and obligations to the residents of the city is to make sure that every neighborhood is safe,” Lightfoot said. “This is an effort that will only be successful if it is holistic and done in partnership with others.”
A spokesperson for the mayor said the added funding will be codified in the form of amendments to the budget, whose details will be specified later this week.
The mayor on Monday also touted her proposal to create a new City Council Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which would be chaired by Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30). Some aldermen have criticized the new committee, calling it redundant, but Lightfoot said the new committee would “elevate the voices of immigrant and refugee communities,” which have been “under siege during the last few years.”
Lightfoot’s moves on Monday follow an agreement the city reached with the Chicago Federation of Labor over the weekend to stave off layoffs of more than 300 city employees. The city will instead rely on borrowing an additional $15 million against higher-than-expected tax revenues from cannabis sales.
‘Major’ Black Caucus demands met
The cancelation of layoffs and additional funding for anti-violence programs both met key proposals by the City Council Aldermanic Black Caucus, but Lightfoot still has work to do to get members of the caucus on board, according to Ald. Jason Ervin (28), who chairs the group.
Ervin said Monday that increased funding for violence prevention, “working with different models” for responses to mental health emergency calls and preventing city layoffs were all priorities the Black Caucus was pushing for in its review of the budget.
“All of the items for us are major,” Ervin said. “There’s still work to do but we’re moving in a positive direction.”
The Black Caucus will continue pursuing additional demands, including items related to the city’s capital plan and the “monitoring of compliance” with the city’s diversity in hiring standards, Ervin said.
“We’ll continue talking until we reach a point where we can’t,” the alderman said.
When it comes to borrowing and given the nature of effects from the coronavirus pandemic, Ervin said he thinks it is “warranted given the fact these are not every year occurrences.”
“Half a billion dollars additional in additional cuts to our corporate budget would just be drastic” and would impact services residents rely on on a daily basis, Ervin said. “It’s not like we intend to be in this space forever,” he said.
Watchdog pleads caution on ‘scoop-and-toss’
Still, Lightfoot’s budget proposal relies on refinancing and restructuring city debt, which has drawn criticism not only from Civic Federation President Laurence Msall for its non-recurring nature, but from aldermen as well.
During Monday’s public hearing on the proposed budget, Msall said the Civic Federation offers its “qualified support” for the 2021 budget proposal. He cited concerns with the “impact and so much reliance on large upfront savings from another round of debt transactions and other non-recurring revenue.”
The Civic Federation also does not support “the decision to go with a recurring or automatic [property tax] increase tied to [the Consumer Price Index],” Msall said.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9) agreed.
“Right now, we are mortgaging our kids’ and our grandkids’ future,” Beal said. “We vowed to stop scoop-and-toss, and this is the largest scoop-and-toss in our city’s history.”
Relying on restructuring and refinancing debt is “the easy thing to do,” Beale said. “It’s the easy thing to do to get past it today and let someone else worry about it tomorrow.”
Beale does not support the proposal to tie future property tax increases to the consumer price index (CPI), saying it would take away aldermen’s ability to vote on the increases each year.
“My constituents are going to blame me” for the increases, Beale said. He charged the administration with not working with elected officials.
Lightfoot ‘not even close’ to 26 votes
Opposition to the proposed budget has extended far beyond frequent critics of the mayor like Beale.
Even aldermen who are typically aligned with Lightfoot, like Ald. Matt O’Shea (19), have signaled they will not support her proposed property tax hike.
“I’ve got very strong reservations about this current proposal,” O’Shea said. “My community has made clear to me they do not want to see a property tax increase.”
The Southwest Side aldermen added that he is “very concerned” about the mayor’s proposal to cut more than 500 vacant positions in the Chicago Police Department.
“We can’t keep up with attrition based on what’s being proposed,” O’Shea said.
As for Lightfoot’s campaign to win over aldermen, O’Shea said he “would imagine they’re not even close to 26 votes, and I am not one of those 26 votes.”
Lightfoot also faces pressure from the other end of the council’s ideological spectrum, which has been pushing for sweeping moves to reallocate funding away from the police department.
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33) said she needs to see a “vision” and “meaningful investment” in a mental health crisis response pilot program in the budget, like the ordinance (O2020-5704) she proposed Monday to create a network of “public sector mental health professionals” who would respond to emergencies instead of police.
The freshman alderman has rejected Lightfoot’s proposed “co-responder” model, which would see mental health professionals accompanying police on emergency calls instead of replacing them.
“This is where every city and smaller cities are moving toward. There is an urgency to take law enforcement out of a mental health response,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “I need to see a commitment and vision to take this seriously.”
A final vote on the budget was originally planned for next Tuesday, Nov. 24, but aldermen and some city officials have expressed skepticism that Lightfoot will have enough votes to pass a budget by then.
The City Council had also been scheduled to meet this Friday, but the meeting was canceled and pushed to next Monday. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35) said he took the delay as a sign that the mayor’s administration is “still looking for votes.”
“Based on conversations I’m having, it doesn’t seem like she’s secured 26 firm votes yet,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “That means that for Chicagoans who want a just and equitable budget, we have an opportunity to keep fighting, because our city can do better.”
He added that he and other like-minded aldermen “have tried to work in earnest with this mayor to provide progressive alternatives” to her proposed budget, “and she has rejected them every single time.”
However, some aldermen, like Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29), are already lining up behind the mayor’s budget — including the proposed property tax hike, which Taliaferro called “necessary to balance the budget.”
“If there’s any silver lining, it’s that the property tax being recommended is not very high,” Taliaferro said, noting that the levy would amount to about an extra $54 on the annual bill of a homeowner whose property is valued at $250,000.
The West Side alderman added that he is “encouraged” by ongoing negotiations the mayor has held with various City Council caucuses, including the Black Caucus.
“No one has walked away from the table and declared an impasse,” Taliaferro said.
The City Council on Monday also approved all measures included in The Daily Line’s preview of the meeting, including an ordinance (O2020-4830) sponsored by Ald. Tom Tunney (44) to extend an amnesty period for expired business licenses through January.
“The most important thing we can do now is to give every sense of relief we can to try to keep businesses with their doors partially open, and hopefully reinvigorate them for the spring,” Tunney said during the meeting on Monday.