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$94 Million Property Tax Hike Is Coming After Divided Council Votes Yes

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2021 pandemic budget and tax hike were approved Tuesday in the closest budget vote since the 1980s.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at City Hall in February 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2021 pandemic budget and property tax hike were approved Tuesday in the closest budget vote since the 1980s.

The $1.6 billion dollar property tax levy, a $93.9 million increase over 2020, was approved by a 28-22 vote.

The budget was the result of a tense month of negotiations in which Lightfoot used carrots and sticks to convince enough aldermen to support the plan, overcoming a coalition consisting of those opposed to the property tax increase and progressive members upset the mayor rejected the calls to reallocate resources away from the Police Department.

The mayor was also accused of hardball tactics, including telling members of Black Caucus “don’t come to me sh*t for the next three years” if they voted against the plan.

Aldermen voting yes on the tax levy: Pat Dowell (3rd), Sophia King (4th) Leslie Hairston (5th), Roderick Sawyer (6th), Gregory Mitchell (7th), Michelle Harris (8th), Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), George Cardenas (12th), David Moore (17th), Derrick Curtis (18th), Howard Brookins (21st), Michael Rodriguez (22nd), Michael Scott Jr. (24th), Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), Jason Ervin (28th), Chris Taliaferro (29th), Ariel Reboyras (30th), Felix Cardona (31st) Scott Waguespack (32nd), Carrie Austin (34th), Gilbert Villegas (36th), Emma Mitts (37th), Nick Sposato (38th), Samantha Nugent (39th), Andre Vasquez (40th), Michele Smith (43rd), James Cappleman (46th), and Maria Hadden (49th).

Those voting no were: Daniel La Spata (1st), Brian Hopkins (2nd), Anthony Beale (9th), Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), Marty Quinn (13th), Ed Burke (14th), Raymond Lopez (15th), Stephanie Coleman (16th), Matt O’Shea (19th), Jeanette Taylor (20th), Silvana Tabares (23rd), Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th), Roberto Maldonado (26th), Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd), Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th), Anthony Napolitano (41st), Brendan Reilly (42nd), Tom Tunney (44th), James Gardiner (45th), Matt Martin (47th), Harry Osterman (48th) and Debra Silverstein (50th).

The Mayor’s budget passed 29-21 in a separate roll-call vote, with Coleman joining those voting yes.

Lightfoot’s revenue plan relies on an unpopular $94 million property tax increase, a .03 cent gas tax hike, doling out $35 tickets to those caught zooming past speed cameras at just 6-10 miles per hour over the limit for the second time and refinancing and restructuring $1.7 billion worth of city debt — increasing and extending some debt — to save $501 million in 2021 to plug an unprecedented $1.2 billion budget shortfall.

But the mayor was able to convince a narrow majority of aldermen that the financial pain was necessary after the coronavirus pandemic wrecked the city’s revenue streams. Lightfoot also offered concessions that avoided laying off 350 workers and committed additional dollars to programs favored by various caucuses in the council.

In a statement, Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter praised the mayor for avoiding laying off city workers who “risked their own health and safety to ensure this city kept running” throughout this pandemic.

“Unfortunately, some City Council members decided to vote against protecting workers and protecting services,” Reiter said of the aldermen who rejected Lightfoot’s budget. “We look forward to engaging these aldermen to help them better understand the issues important to the working class of this city.”

The tax increase accounts for $34 million linked to a rise in the consumer price index, $42.5 million allotted for expected missed payments and $16 million resulting from new properties coming online in 2020.

The ordinance also calls on annual property tax increases of 5 percent or equal to rises in the consumer price index, whichever is lesser. However, the administration has assured aldermen the yearly increases must be approved by the City Council every year.

Lightfoot has argued the increase is necessary and “modest,” representing a 1.3 percent increase to homeowners. A property valued at $250,000 will see an increase of $56 dollars. But more expensive homes will see an increase of hundreds of dollars, and aldermen representing wealthy neighborhoods largely voted against the measure.

Burnett commended Lightfoot for working with the City Council in an impassioned speech Lightfoot said moved her to tears.

“At the end of the day, we have to have a balanced budget,” the veteran alderman said. “ … It’s ironic that folks ask for so many things, but don’t want to vote on the things that will help bring the money.”

Those who voted no represented both wealthy neighborhoods who pay the highest property taxes, as well as wards where residents will be most burdened by the increase. 

Maldonado, chair of the Latino Caucus, said the tax increase could lead to further gentrification in his 26th Ward that includes Humboldt Park, and that previous increases have displaced “thousand of families,” including Maldonado’s own mother, over the last 10 years.

Hopkins, whose lobster-like ward stretches across the Near North and Northwest Sides, including the affluent Gold Coast, said he couldn’t increase taxes on residents during the pandemic.

“They want us to fight against property taxes,” he said. “They want to know that if we’re going to ask them to pay more every year that we’ve exhausted all other possible options, and ladies and gentlemen, we have not done that.”

The budget package consists of several revenue and spending ordinances and not all aldermen voted the same on each measure.

Ahead of the meeting, the council’s Progressive Caucus announced its members were split on the vote, but highlighted the changes it fought for over the last month.

“Working together with our colleagues from the Black and Latino caucus, helped us not only pass a more progressive, equitable budget, but also gives us a framework for effective, collaborative governance,” Progressive Caucus chairwoman King said.

To avoid laying off more than 350 city workers, the city will borrow $15 million against the tax revenues of future cannabis sales, although the borrowing could be averted if a new round of federal stimulus funds materialize.

Sadlowski Garza, who voted yes, said the deal worked out between Lightfoot and the Chicago Federation of Labor, “avoided putting hundreds of our workers on the street during the worst economic crisis of our lives.” 

The amended budget also includes a $10 million increase in spending on violence prevention programs for a total of $36 million. And $1 million is being proposed to fund two approaches to responding to some mental health emergencies.

Multiple aldermen who voted yes credited Rodriguez Sanchez for forcing that concession by putting forward her own ordinance that called for $5 million to be reallocated from the police budget to the Department of Public Health. That measure would have sent social workers and other crisis experts to mental health calls coming through 911 — with no police involvement.

Rodriguez Sanchez, who voted no to the budget, thanked those who pushed the mayor to include mental health response resources, but said it wasn’t enough “by any stretch of the imagination.”

“This is a budget that relies on regressive revenue measures like parking meters and ticketing instead of looking at alternatives directed at making the wealthy pay [more],” she said. 

The Collaborative for Community Wellness, a group made up of social workers and violence prevention advocates, also slammed the budget, saying the mayor ignored public pleas to cut the police budget and invest in more community-based solutions to violence and police brutality.

“The fight for a publicly funded and operated mental health crisis response system, without police, will continue and only grow stronger beyond this budget cycle,” said social worker and Director of Violence Prevention and Neighborhood Health Initiatives at Brighton Park Neighborhood Council Dr. Arturo Carrillo in a statement. “We will continue to push for a compassionate, trauma-informed mental health crisis response system that operates out of the city’s existing CDPH public mental health infrastructure because this is what Chicagoans need and deserve.”

Lightfoot also announced plans to introduce the Welcoming City Ordinance next month, after taking heat from the Latino Caucus for tying it to the budget vote.

“The Welcoming City Ordinance amendment was clearly not a budget issue and to add it to the budget was at best careless at worst cynical. To try to ram it through a budget process devoid of public discourse is disrespectful to the alders who negotiated in good faith, the grassroots advocates and the community,” said Ramirez-Rosa, who voted “no” on the budget.

Although Lightfoot secured three “yes” votes from progressive aldermen that voted against her plan in 2019, they criticized the budget process and called on Lightfoot to work better with aldermen going forward. 

“The Mayor’s team…is a fully equipped organization with budget analysts, lawyers, policy makers and department commissioners that work all year long to try to solve the same problem that we do, except alders start in September and work with at best a staff of six,” Vasquez said. 

Vasquez, who was the only official member of the Democratic Socialists to vote “yes,” said that was in part because he secured a promise from Lightfoot to create a working group of aldermen to work on budget issues throughout the year.

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