Mayor Lori Lightfoot has an early warning for Chicago taxpayers: Brace for tax hikes when she unveils her first budget plan this fall.
Lightfoot made that point and a few others following Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
1. A tax increase is imminent, where it will hit is unknown
“I meant what I said in the course of the campaign,” Lightfoot said. “We have a lot of hard choices that we are going to have to make regarding city finances. And there’s no question that we are going to have to come to the taxpayers and ask for additional revenue.”
Under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the City Council approved a four-year property tax hike to cover ballooning pension payments to the police and fire retirement funds. Aldermen also increased the monthly water bill, tacked on a monthly $9 garbage fee and boosted the 911 surcharge on phone bills. All of those tax hikes were applied to help free up money to cover payments to the city’s four pension funds.
Lightfoot stressed again the need to find budget cuts before hitting up taxpayers. That includes a new risk management division at the city’s Law Department to cut back on the hundreds of millions of dollars the city pays out for legal settlements.
Where exactly the city would look to raise taxes “remains an open question,” Lightfoot said. “We are still trying to get our arms around how big the deficit is for next year.”
2. Council reforms are on the horizon
On another front, the city’s inspector general could soon have the authority to audit aldermen and City Council committees. That office already has that authority over city departments. At Wednesday’s meeting, Lightfoot introduced a package of ethics reforms that would increase the city watchdog’s power.
“I recognize that we are pushing people out of their comfort zones, which we will continue to do, but we can’t continue to do business as usual,” she said.
The reforms build on her executive order to end aldermanic prerogative — an unwritten rule that has allowed aldermen control over development in their ward.
But Menu Money — the $1.3 million in discretionary funds each alderman gets a year for ward-specific pet projects — will stay. (What’s Menu Money? WBEZ’s Curious City has an episode for that: What Would You Do With A Million Dollars? )
Lightfoot said she isn’t going to support the inspector general’s recommendation to do away with the practice of dishing out discretionary money for aldermen. Numerous audits by his office, including one released Tuesday, cited a glaring lack of uniform planning in how the money is spent. It’s also a program the city in recent years has had to borrow to fund.
3. Mayor to aldermen: Explain your abstention
In what appears to be a new practice at the monthly City Council meeting, Lightfoot is asking aldermen to explain their reason when they abstain from a vote. No one has abstained more than Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward.
He’s recorded nearly 500 abstensions in the last eight years. On Wednesday, two freshmen aldermen explained that their past ties to community organizing prevented them from voting on a legal settlement with a police reform coalition that had sued the city to ensure a seat at the table in consent decree negotiations.
4. No sign of impasse in war of words with police union
Another unique happening at the Wednesday meeting: Lightfoot responded verbally to a Chicago police union leader who testified during the public comment portion of the meeting. It’s not common practice for the mayor — or even aldermen — to engage in conversation with people who sign up to testify at the meeting. Each person gets only three minutes to air their grievances.
When it was Chicago Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 First Vice President Patrick Murray’s turn, he asked the mayor why she didn’t include the union on any of her transition teams. The city’s contract with all rank-and-file FOP members expired in 2017. “You will have difficulty achieving your goals if you do not consult us,” he said.
“Anytime the FOP wants to do anything other than obstruct and object to reform, I’d be more than willing to meet with you,” Lightfoot shot back to cheers from the gallery.
After the meeting, she added, “The FOP has set itself up – not only in this administration – but the previous one, of being opposed to every step of reform.”
Last summer, the union picketed outside City Hall in the middle of a City Council meeting, asking for then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to “back the blue” or leave.