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As Lightfoot Bargains To Pass Budget, Black Caucus Wants Cash-For-Poor Pilot Money Spent To Combat Violence Instead

Meanwhile, progressives are pushing the city to invest $10 million in mental health clinics — and they've got the support of a slim City Council majority.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot looks on during a City Council meeting on June 25, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot is bargaining to pass the 2022 budget — and many alderpeople are withholding their final blessing hoping to get last-minute wins they can sell to constituents.

Armed with $1.9 billion in federal relief cash, Lightfoot’s proposed $16.7 billion budget avoids hefty tax increases, closes a $733 million deficit and scraps a costly long-term borrowing plan approved last year. The full City Council could vote on the budget Wednesday.

The plan also spreads hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to struggling Chicagoans through social programs. But progressives are pushing the city to invest $10 million in mental health clinics — and they’ve got the support of a slim City Council majority.

The Black Caucus wants funding for a $31.5 million guaranteed basic income pilot program to provide direct cash assistance to low-income Chicagoans to be reallocated to violence prevention programs.

Lightfoot’s budget is expected to pass, but other aldermen say a property tax increase as many Chicagoans are struggling is a tough pill to swallow.

Here are the three top issues on the bargaining table.

Progressives Want $10 Million More For Mental Health Clinics

The progressive-backed budget amendments call on the city to spend an additional $155 million on social programs, including a push to use $10 million of the $151 million in federal relief dollars allocated to the health department to directly invest in the city’s mental health clinics.

The plan calls for millions to be spent on eviction counseling, violence prevention programs, lead pipe replacement and homelessness prevention, but the mental health clinic investment sponsored by Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) is the only one that picked up steamed with colleagues. As of Wednesday, 26 alderpeople have signed up to co-sponsor the ordinance, a bare majority of the Council.

“Chicagoans after the 2019 election expected to see a turnaround in the way in which the city treated our public mental health clinics, and we have not seen that turnaround yet,” Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said. 

Dr. Allison Arwardy, commissioner of the Department of Public Health, opposes the ordinance, arguing it would cut into work the administration has done to invest in mental health services through outside partners, The Daily Line reported. Lightfoot’s budget allocates $86 million towards mental health, and would put “new services in the field within six months,” she said.

Through a “centers of care” model that works with nonprofit and for-profit providers, the city has been able to expand its services, resulting in a “centers of care” model that works with nonprofit and for-profit providers to expand the scope of services to those needing mental health services. That has resulted in 26,000 Chicagoans receiving service in the first half of 2021, up from 3,600 in all of 2019, Arwady wrote in the letter.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th) speaks outside City Hall during a press conference supporting progressive budget amendments.

But Ramirez-Rosa and other progressive aldermen argue the city needs to take the lead in serving residents through its own clinics. 

“Our city needs to be in direct service, our city cannot just be, you know, a foundation working from above saying ‘you get a grant, you get a grant, you get a grant’ with very little follow through, or very little oversight after that,” he said. 

Under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city closed six of its 12 public mental health clinics in 2012. The city now has five remaining clinics, with the sixth, in Roseland, now managed by Cook County Health.

Lightfoot campaigned on reopening the clinics, but it became a point of contention from the beginning of her administration, when Arwady’s nomination was stalled after she wouldn’t commit to reopening the clinics.

Ramirez-Rosa was joined by Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th) and progressive community groups Wednesday pushing for a budget that allocates more funding to vulnerable Chicagoans.

The progressive package includes eliminating funding for 300 Chicago Police vacancies, saving $40-50 million, and ending a $10 million contract with controversial gunshot detection technology ShotSpotter.

Black Caucus Wants Money For Guaranteed Basic Income Pilot Spent On Violence Prevention Instead

On Wednesday, the Sun-Times reported the Black Caucus aims to eliminate a $31.5 million universal basic income pilot program to provide $500 a month in direct cash assistance to 5,000 low-income Chicagoans for 12 months. The money would instead be directed into violence prevention programs, the paper reported. 

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who chairs the Black Caucus, said in March “there’s no way in hell we can support direct payments to anyone else” until the city approves a reparations program. 

Ervin could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.

Frequent Lightfoot critic and Socialist Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said it’s possible he could vote yes on this year’s budget. He joined with other socialist colleagues in opposing Lightfoot’s two previous budget plans. 

“It’s no secret that the American Rescue Plan money is being spent in a way that closely aligns with the demands that [a progressive coalition] has brought forward for a very long time. So I think that those are big wins and we’re proud of those wins,” he said. ” … The question is, can we continue to move this budget in a progressive direction?”

While Ramirez-Rosa supports reparations programs, he said “taking guaranteed basic income out of the budget would move me closer to a ‘no.'”

“There are ways that we can accomplish a program that targets financial assistance towards the Black community while also maintaining the current GBI pilot in the budget,” he said. 

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), who leads the City Council’s Latino Caucus, sought to push through the basic income pilot in the spring through a standalone ordinance, said there are Chicagoans throughout the city, including in Ervin’s West Side ward, that would benefit from the pilot.

“There’s nothing saying that this would be in-lieu of reparations,” he said. “Quite frankly, reparations has been talked about for 20 years and I think that the reason it hasn’t come to fruition yet is because there hasn’t been an identified revenue stream in order to make that big investment.”

$76.5 Million Property Tax Hike

Lightfoot’s budget proposes a $76.5 million property tax hike for 2022, part of it tied to Consumer Price Index.

In 2021, City Council narrowly approved a $94 million property tax increase that included a provision annually raising taxes at a rate tied to the index. This year’s hike would be 1.4 percent.

Some alderpeople say they are weary of supporting any property tax increase as people are struggling. Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who voted against the budget last year, said this year’s proposal is “significantly better,” but the consumer price index-tied property tax increase “remains highly unpopular in my ward,” he said. 

Hopkins said he’d allow the “last-minute negotiations” to “play out” before deciding how he’ll vote.

With Downtown property assessments rising at the same time as the City Council considers a property tax increase, Hopkins said his constituents feel “it’s a perfect storm for them.”

“They don’t want their alderman to vote for anything that includes that,” he said. “So I have to take that into consideration.”

Villegas said his constituents are “a little tired of paying more, but not getting what they’re paying for.”

“You’ve got tree trimming that takes a year, you have violence that is just out of control,” he said. “You have folks that just don’t feel safe … and so they’re paying but just not getting a return on their investment.”

Instead of a property tax increase, Villegas said he’d like to tap into the city’s tax increment-financing reserves.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), chairman of the city’s Finance Committee meeting, championed the budget as “one of the most progressive I’ve seen.” He defended the property tax increase instead of kicking the can down the road.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) joined Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) last year in approving the budget, breaking from their progressive colleagues in City Council, and securing its approval with just 28 “yes” votes. She’s undecided on her vote this year.

“It will come down to what kind of [final amended ordinance] we see on Friday,” she said.

Lightfoot’s team was working in “good faith” to find common ground with City Council on the budget, but hinted at the urgency of passing a spending plan soon.

“We’ve got a lot of people across the city that have significant needs that we’ve got to meet now and in the future,” she said.

The budget will be voted on through a series of ordinances beginning as early as Thursday and continuing through next week.

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