A historic budget season came to a close last week, as Chicago City Council passed its $12.8 billion “pandemic budget” for 2021. Though Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not secure a unanimous council vote, she only needed a majority, with 29 of the 50 aldermen ultimately voting yes. The spending plan includes a $94 million property tax raise, a 3-cent per gallon gas tax hike, a wave of furloughs for many non-union city workers and an expected $38 million in revenue from fines and fees.
The 29-to-21 vote is unusual, considering the city’s history of nearly unanimous votes on annual budgets. The last time the council saw this much opposition in the past 30 years was in 1991 when 18 aldermen rejected former mayor Richard M. Daley’s 1992 budget proposal.
During a nearly four-hour long virtual meeting on Nov. 24, the 21 aldermen who rejected the 2021 budget criticized Lightfoot for using “regressive taxes” to rescue the city from its projected $1.2 billion deficit. A dozen residents kicked off public comment, some of whom requested less funding for police and more investment into mental health services and communities.
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Lightfoot pieced together her 2021 budget amid historic challenges: The city faced massive revenue loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, a nationwide movement to defund police departments spurred local organizers to demand that Chicago’s elected officials divest from the Chicago Police Department’s $1.76 billion budget and reinvest in community services.
While 29 aldermen voted “yes” and praised Lightfoot for responding to the city’s fiscal needs during a pandemic and subsequent financial crisis, the opposition the mayor faced was significant.
“We’re in a global pandemic, and there’s no way in the world that we should be balancing this budget on the backs of taxpayers,” said Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), one of the 21 aldermen who cast a dissenting vote.
In an emotional speech, Taylor spoke out about how the property tax increase, which would go into effect next year, would burden West and South Side residents. The city estimates that residents with homes valued at $250,000 would likely see a $56 increase on their annual property taxes.
“Fifty-six dollars to an elder in my ward, that’s her medicine for a month. Fifty-six dollars is food for a family in my ward for a month,” she said.
Last month, Taylor called out Lightfoot after the mayor threatened the Black Caucus to vote for her budget or “Don’t ask me for s–t for the next three years,” according to a Chicago Sun-Times report. Lightfoot eventually won the majority of the Black Caucus, including Ald. David Moore (17th) who said the $36 million for violence prevention programs cemented his “yes” vote.
For Niketa Brar, executive director at the Chicago United for Equity, the near split vote in City Council was a testament to the work of organizers across the city who fought for a more transparent and democratic budget process. “This was a closer vote than we imagined,” Brar said.
While the city has sought to put $11 million toward returning residents and workforce development, and $65 million into affordable housing and homeless prevention programs, Brar said it’s not enough.
“The thing that matters the most is that people are going to lose their housing because of this vote, and there’s no way to justify a regressive tax during a pandemic,” Brar said, referring to the property tax hike. “Whether you call yourself a progressive or not, what it boils down to is: Are you fighting for the people of the city of Chicago?”
Mental health funding has been another flashpoint in the budget battle. Lightfoot initially looked to launch a program to pair officers with mental health professionals to answer certain 911 calls. She aims to move forward with that plan and also invest in a “solo-responder model” that does not include law enforcement, according to the city of Chicago press release. Lightfoot plans to spend $1 million to fund both programs as a part of the $20 million budgeted to support mental health services in 2021. Critics of Lightfoot’s co-responder model fear that funding won’t be enough.
Arturo Carrillo is a licensed social worker and director of neighborhood health initiatives and violence prevention at the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. Leading up to last week’s City Council meeting, Carrillo held several roundtable discussions with other mental health professionals, advocating for a crisis response team instead of Lightfoot’s co-responder model.
“Given the immediacy of the crises we encounter in communities, we are going to continue to push for it to be a meaningful planning and pilot phase, but … $1 million falls way short,” he said.
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd), who also voted against the budget, agreed in a series of tweets last week. “The mayor committed to put in [$1 million] more if federal money became available. [$1 million] is not enough for even a planning phase for one model,” she tweeted. Earlier this year she proposed a $150 million plan to reopen public mental health clinics and to have trained health care workers respond to crisis calls.
Similar to Taylor, Rodriguez-Sanchez said she feared the significant climb in property taxes and the burden it would place on working-class families.
Echoing Brar, Rodriguez-Sanchez called the 21 “no” votes a victory in the fight to change City Council and the future of Chicago, but that fight, they both said, is far from over.
“We have an opening to reform City Council,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “We have an opening to shift the dynamics of the body.”