CHICAGO — The City Key program that helps recently incarcerated people and others get a free government ID could be among the city services impacted by cuts in Chicago’s 2021 budget.
The mayor’s budget was put under the microscope Tuesday, the second of 11 days of budget hearings in City Council. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and City Council have to close a $1.2 billion deficit in the city’s 2021 budget.
Lighftoot’s “pandemic budget” is banking on collecting $94 million more in property taxes. Even though the mayor pledged to reduce the city’s reliance on ticketing to even out finances, Lightfoot earlier this week defended a plan to start issuing $35 fines to drivers going past city speed cameras at just 6 mph over the limit.
The budget proposes refinancing and restructuring $500 million in city debt, and eliminating vacancies to plug the massive shortfall, which was partially exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
But the budget also relies on cuts to city services to avoid further layoffs or a larger tax increase, including reductions to the already “bare-bones” budget of the City Clerk’s Office. The office keeps track of city records and sells vehicle stickers, among other services.
City Clerk Anna Valencia, who described herself as a “team player” in reducing the budget, said her office made the cuts to prevent laying off employees during a pandemic. She hopes the cut funding could be restored if federal stimulus funds materialize in 2021, but aldermen told her they would advocate for the department’s budget and offered their own revenue ideas.
“There’s not an alderman on this City Council, there’s not a resident of Chicago that benefits from a bare=bones City Clerk’s Office,” said Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st). “So I want you to know we’re here to advocate for you.”
Valencia said budget cuts in 2021 could affect the City Key program, which was created to reduce barriers for those who have difficulty obtaining a government-issued identification card, known as a city card, including those who were recently incarcerated.
Under the plan, the budget for the City Key program would be slashed from $925,000 in 2020 to $688,000 in 2021, including a reduction of $150,000 to contract with delegate agencies who partner with the office to reach more residents. Valencia said working with community groups frees up her office to work on other initiatives.
“There are dire straits in this budget, but I just want to be honest with everyone, next year … we will probably have more requests than we can handle,” she said of the city card program.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), who spent two years in prison as a teenager before embarking on a career in politics, said the program is essential for those who are reentering society and he hopes the city can expand the program to reach those leaving state prison. It currently works with those leaving Cook County Jail.
“They always have a hard time getting their IDs with a couple of dollars when they get out, but they’ve got to try to figure out how to eat, transportation and get IDs,” he said.
The Clerk’s Office was on track to give out 50,000 cards in 2020 and a total of 100,000 by the end of 2021, but the effort was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, and just over 3,000 cards have been issued so far, Valencia said.
“Every city key that we’re able to give out is a success at this point,” Valencia said.
Valencia said she’s “happy to think outside the box” to restore the program’s funding, including finding a corporate sponsor. She rejected a suggestion from Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) to charge a $5 fee for the card, which is currently free, saying it helps those least able to afford additional costs.
Alds. Anthony Napolitano (41st) and Nick Sposato (38th) suggested bringing on corporate sponsors or selling commemorative city stickers to boost city revenues. Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) suggested the city sell city stickers at kiosks to boost revenue.
Valencia made no commitment, but she said her office is willing to explore the ideas.
Modernizing City Council
The Clerk’s Office will also take on the task of modernizing City Council’s functions and record-keeping in 2021, but the effort is staged in three phases and will take three years to complete, Valencia told aldermen. The city will sign a contract with a third-party vendor in a “few weeks” for the project.
Currently, the City’s Clerk’s office must receive paper ordinances and supporting documents from aldermanic offices and then upload them into the city’s Legistar system in a painstaking effort.
Phase one of the effort was meant to begin in 2020, but it was interrupted by the pandemic.
Now, phase one will launch in 2021 with help from a $2 million grant. During the phase, the Clerk’s Office will aim to create a portal where aldermanic offices can upload ordinances and gather support signatures. They’ll also move to electronic voting, allowing residents to know how elected officials voted in real time.
Expanding language access for the actions of city government isn’t expected to begin until phase three in 2023.
Aldermen Press Treasurer On Investing With Chase Bank
Aldermen also pressed City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin on how the city invests and deposits its money.
Conyears-Ervin responded to a report from WBEZ and City Bureau that found large disparities in where banks lend money, including JP Morgan Chase lending 41 times more dollars to white neighborhoods than Black neighborhoods in Chicago.
“Those numbers are inexcusable and they need to be corrected,” Conyears-Ervin said, but it will be difficult to exclude a bank as large as Chase that is “embedded within the city of Chicago’s municipal depository system.”
“You’re saying we’re between a rock and a hard place. They can slap us and we still have to pay them to slap us,” said Ald. David Moore (17th).
Conyears-Ervin said City Council has a role to play because they vote on a list of approved institutions provided by the Comptroller’s Office on where the city can deposit funds.
She said she would work with City Council to press institutions to provide more detail on their lending practices, including how much money is lent within each ZIP code.
“To truly address systemic racism in the banking industry is a huge undertaking, and so I welcome the partnership of the City Council on that,” she said.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.