Lori Lightfoot may have campaigned on ending business as usual to become Chicago’s 56th mayor, but her first budget season is set to end Tuesday in the same way city budgets have ended for decades: with a quick and decisive rubber stamp.
Even without help from state lawmakers, aldermen are set to approve Lightfoot’s plan to close an $838 million budget by finding savings and efficiencies, while raising some taxes and fees to avoid a large property tax increase.
But there are likely to be fireworks when aldermen gather at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Lightfoot brushed off calls from two of her loudest critics — Alds. Anthony Beale (9) and Raymond Lopez (15) — to delay the budget vote. In a letter Monday, Lightfoot suggested that Beale did not understand the budget because he skipped several days of budget hearings to go hunting.
The debate over the $11.65 billion spending plan also served to highlight the schism between the mayor and several progressive groups, who accused her of breaking campaign promises to raise taxes and fees on Chicago’s wealthiest residents and firms to fund services for homeless people, reopen the public mental health clinics closed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and make a significant debt in the city’s shortfall of affordable housing shortfall.
But faced with what she called the largest deficit in modern Chicago history, Lightfoot put those plans on the backburner and focused on staunching the flow of red ink threatening to overwhelm the city’s finances.
Despite praise from the Civic Federation, a business-oriented government watchdog, the spending plan is precariously balanced.
The budget relies on $163 million in reimbursements from the federal government for ambulance rides through the Illinois’ Department of Healthcare and Family Services.. However, state officials have said the federal government has offered no deadline for a decision on those reimbursements.
Budget Director Susie Park assured aldermen that those reimbursements will be approved by the end of the month, but Lightfoot said she is prepared to offer a “Plan C” if those funds fall through — or are blocked by President Donald Trump.
In addition, Lightfoot’s budget counts on $210 million in savings generated by refinancing $1.3 billion in city debt.
The plan relies on projections that interest rates won’t rise sharply — and that the economy will stay robust. While most economists say that is likely, it is not a sure bet.
Here’s what the 2020 budget will mean for Chicagoans:
Uber, Lyft to get much more expensive
Hopping into an Uber or Lyft by yourself Downtown is about to get much more expensive.
Taxes on single rides that start or end in an area that includes the Central Business District, the Near North Side and West Loop will triple in an effort to kill two birds with one stone: raising $40 million to help plug the city’s budget gap, as well as reducing congestion Downtown.
Lightfoot has been steadfast in support of her plan under a relentless assault from the ride-hailing giants who offered several counter proposals — and loudly called the mayor mistaken when she accused them of “buying off black ministers” without offering any proof.
The budget also generates $7.8 million by raising hourly parking meter rates. It will cost 50 cents more to park in the Loop and in the Central Business District. Plans also call for more meters to be installed in the Loop and the West Loop.
Minimum wage to rise — but not for tipped workers
Chicago’s minimum wage will rise to $15 an hour by 2021 as part of what Lightfoot calls the first part of her effort to fight poverty and fulfill a campaign promise. Workers in the rest of the state will have to wait until 2025 for their minimum wage to hit $15.
But her plan would not end the tipped minimum wage in Chicago, which now allows employers to count tips on top of an hourly wage of $6.40 to ensure their workers are paid a minimum of $13 an hour, like all other workers in the city. Under Lightfoot’s proposal, the minimum wage for tipped workers would rise to $8.40 in 2021.
Libraries to open on Sundays
Lightfoot’s spending plan includes an $18 million property tax hike to allow Chicago Public Library branches to reopen Sunday afternoons after Emanuel cut back their hours in 2011.
First lady Amy Eshleman worked for the Chicago Public Library for nearly 20 years.
Library Comm. Andrea Telli told aldermen branch libraries will be open from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays starting in 2020, based on staffing considerations.
Public mental health clinics won’t reopen
Lightfoot’s spending plan calls for city officials to coordinate “a citywide network of care” and add $9.3 million to the Chicago Department of Health’s budget for mental health services to expand care at 15 existing federally funded clinics, as well as the five remaining city-run clinics.
But Lightfoot has steadfastly refused to reopen six clinics closed by Emanuel in 2011, angering several rookie aldermen who promised to reopen the clinics if elected.
In the face of criticism, the mayor added $50,000 to the budget for a feasibility study designed to determine how best to serve Chicagoans suffering from mental illness, as well as funds to hire three more community outreach workers and two more nurse practitioners at the department.