Mayor Lightfoot listens to concerns at town hall
by KEVIN GROSS
Mayor Lori Lightfoot listened to concerns from many of the approximately 150 residents who attended her first of four budget town halls Wednesday, Sept. 4, at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.
"My central mission as mayor is to fully unlock our city’s potential. And that only happens by breaking the cycle of investing here and not there, of providing advantages to some but not others, and listening to the few but ignoring the many" Lightfoot said. "And while we face significant challenges as a city, we are also standing at the forefront of tremendous opportunity."
Lightfoot said that she would like to avoid increasing property taxes, however, potential tax increases, spending cuts or other ideas are necessary to plug the city’s "historic" $838 million projected budget hole.
But for many residents at the town hall, property taxes were exactly their main concern.
David Dewar, a former aldermanic candidate in the 19th Ward who was dressed as Uncle Sam warned against further property tax increases to fund pension debt, and rallied against the public sector "cannibalizing the private sector through taxation."
One resident said in tears that rising tax expenses coupled with flat incomes are causing her to consider moving from Chicago. "I don’t know what my health insurance is going to cost us this year, and our property taxes go up. And its really emotional and really frustrating when people say, ‘Hey, you can give more because we can tax the middle class’," she said.
A majority of residents who spoke at the meeting also focused on programs that they wished were included in the budget. Many highlighted community mental health services as a priority, including longtime City Hall critic George Blakemore who called for a mental health task force.
"We’ve been stuck at zero when discussing public mental health," he said.
Affordable housing was also a key issue at the meeting.
Diane Limas of the group Communities United said that in 2016 more than 168,000 renters spent more than 50 percent of their income on rent, and she decried the city’s drop in supply of affordable housing while demand has increased. She called for the creation of a real estate transfer tax to fund existing affordable housing stock.
"I want to make it clear, there is no budget yet," Lightfoot said in a reply.
The city’s estimated $838 million deficit is primarily caused by a projected $853 million expenditure increase from the prior year driven by a $312 million increase in benefits and personnel costs, a $277 million increase in mandated pension payments, $98 million in increased debt service, and $90 million that needs to be paid out in legal settlements and judgments from police misconduct cases and other matters, according to city budget director Susie Park.
"Since 2004 to 2014, the amounts required by the state to be paid by city employees were not adjusted to account for some of the growth in expenses, resulting in some of the decrease in funding made available to pay for those retirements. This was also made worse by some of the recession we saw in the late 2000’s," Park said. "To address this crisis, between 2011 and 2017 the city worked with the state to change some of the state (pension) laws … However, this also required that the city increase its annual contributions to meet the city’s obligation," along with the requirement that city pensions are 90 percent funded by 2055.
In contrast, 2020 revenues are slated to increase by only $15 million, and Lightfoot hinted during the event at the need for new revenue sources versus cutting more services.
In 2019, Chicago’s largest expenditures included $2.5 billion for the police and public safety budget, $2 billion for infrastructure services, $1.9 billion for servicing Chicago’s debt, and $1.3 billion in pension payments. No other expenditure or department exceeded $1 billion in spending.
According to Park and Lightfoot, cost savings being examined or already underway include the creation of Chicago’s first enterprise risk management system to reduce the cost of legal settlements, a crackdown on work absenteeism and employee Medicaid fraud, and the overhaul of the city’s more than $100 million worker’s compensation system.
Some residents were vocal about using surplus money in tax increment financing districts and "canceling" two "corrupt ‘Super TIF’s’ rushed through" the City Council in the Emanuel administration.
"It’s time to shine a light on our budget making process. That means being as open and as transparent and as inclusive as possible," Lightfoot said. "Our budget forecast was designed not just to educate Chicagoans on where there tax dollars are going, but to empower and inspire all of you to help shape what the budget will look like."
"We’re asking people what you’d like to see because we actually value your opinion. It’s not a presumption," she later replied to a woman who questioned how genuinely residents’ feedback would be taken into account.
One resident spoke of the importance of Small Business Improvement Fund grants – which fund remodeling work – to independent venues and other small businesses, and a different resident proposed, among other ideas, locating "Chicago is Worth Every Penny" public collection jars for residents to deposit their loose change to help fill budget holes.
Additional resident ideas included caps on rideshare services, wheel taxes for out-of-city vehicles, the creation of transaction, luxury service or corporate head taxes, ensuring a community benefits agreement for a Chicago casino, or the city or state creating a liability insurance program for police misconduct cases.
Discussions became testy at times when discussing pension and union issues, with various speakers calling for or against the support of the Chicago Teachers Union, which could strike after rejecting the Lightfoot administration’s recent contract offer. Lightfoot said she was ready to "get a deal done today" and said some union members declined a contract.
"We are ready to get a deal done right now with (SEIU) 73," she said.
A different resident called out the CTU for only contributing 2 percent of members incomes toward their own pensions, versus other public employees such as firefighters and police that pay the "full state mandated" 9 percent to their pensions.
"We’ve heard you loud and clear on a range of issues – obviously on property taxes I think the answer is ‘No’ – to making sure that we have affordable housing solutions … and also, one of the threads that ran through a lot of comments tonight is making sure that we have mental health, community based services so we can address the trauma in our city," Lightfoot said in her closing remarks.
The additional town halls will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at Roberto Clemente High School, 1147 N. Western Ave., from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, at Southeast United Methodist Youth and Community Center, 11731 S. Avenue O, and from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, 6130 S. Wolcott Ave.