Mayor begins new era of transparency, hard choices concerning budget
October 4, 2019

Photo courtesy SOS Children’s Villages
Lori Lightfoot as mayor has met with the public frequently, as shown by her willingness to hold open town hall budget meetings.

In September, Mayor Lori Lightfoot offered residents of Chicago the opportunity to come together at one of four town hall budget meetings. Gazette Chicago followed her to the Sept. 14 town hall at Roberto Clemente High School, where the auditorium was filled to capacity.

Some people came to offer a new vision for Chicago; others came to express frustration with the way previous administrations kicked the can down the road when it came to paying obligations on public pensions or selling off City assets; some offered concrete suggestions of how to help the City work its way out of the $838 million budget deficit for 2020; others came to protest vociferously.

Those of us who call Chicago home—whether we live here, work here, teach here, learn here, worship here, seek to heal others here, or whose lives are a combination of any of these—all have a lot on the line. It’s going to be a daunting task for the Mayor, the City Council, and each and every one of us to find a way to plug an $800 million-plus budget hole. Or is it? More on that in a moment.

However, let us not lose sight of the bigger picture. This watershed moment in our City’s history is not just about the fiscal year 2020 budget. It’s about Chicago’s future. It is about you, and you, and you, getting deeply involved in the process to envision, determine, shape, and ensure a brighter and more equitable future for you and your families, your neighbors, and for those who are struggling on the margins economically and socially.

Despite the scary numbers and the myriad challenges tossed about, there was a feeling of hope among those gathered at Clemente High School and at the three other town halls.

For one, there was a different tone being set by Chicago’s mayor. Not only was it refreshing that we even had town hall meetings focused on the City’s budget, but we also did not have a mayor shoving directives down our throats.

It is time to “shine a light on our budget building process” said Mayor Lightfoot, adding that the City needed to “break the cycle” of investing less in some areas than in others. “I believe residents should expect to have a mayor who listens.”

Well, that is certainly refreshing.

At the City Council meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 23, Lightfoot will have to step to a microphone and shed the light on the 2020 budget. We do not expect it to look or sound pretty; be a collective feel-good; or offer us a sigh of relief. It will be painful; disappointing to many; with a call for shared sacrifice. It will not be a means to an end, but just the beginning.

“You being here is essential,” recently elected First Ward Alderman Daniel LaSpata told the Sept. 14 crowd. “It is essential that we recognize that a budget is not just a ledger of dollars coming in and dollars coming out, but it is a reflection of our collective values.”

This was yet another refreshing statement to digest from an elected City official. It reinforces what we said earlier—the City budget is not just about balancing a ledger sheet—it is about equity and fairness, vision and livability. It is not about solving a one-year problem but finding a long-term sustainable solution.

And, in all transparency, this statement comes from an alderman who identifies himself as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Oh the humanity! A socialist? A communist? Someone who wants to take away everything I’ve ever earned and give it to some lazy miscreant? Relax, take a deep breath. It would be nice to see more members of the City Council take this approach rather than “what’s in it for me and the powerful moneyed-interests who will help me get reelected?” But, we digress; back to the budget.

We’ll wrap this up with some suggestions for Mayor Lightfoot and an appeal to some of our fellow residents.

As Gazette Chicago headed to press, the Chicago Teachers Union and members of SEIU Local 73 were getting ready to vote to strike. We hope this does not happen.

Mayor Lightfoot, at least publically, has identified the need for, and is seeking to find resources, to make the lives of our Chicago Public School students, their families, and teachers more livable and to help ensure for them a brighter future.

We agree with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Steven Ashby, who made the trek to Chicago on Sept. 14 to advocate for CPS school buildings that are not crumbling, smaller class sizes, and for social workers, nurses, case managers, and librarians at every school. We could not agree more.

We also understand the need for SEIU members, Chicago Park District employees that are seeking higher wages for both full-time and part-time workers. They are looking to jump on the coattails of the CPS employees if they walk out. Okay, we get it, but the timing here is wrong—and this comes from a newspaper that has always been, and will be, pro-union and pro-middle class families.

According to Miguel del Valle, a former alderman and current President of the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, in a recent opinion piece in the Chicago Sun-Times, Mayor Lightfoot is seeking to increase CPS teachers’ salaries by 16% over the next five years, with some seeing their pay increased by 24%.

This is a far cry from 2012, when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted to rescind the 4% pay hike that was promised to CPS teachers. That arrogance led to the 2012 CPS strike and eight years of acrimony between Emanuel and the CPS.

We agree with Mr. del Valle that this is a different day.

Chicagoans elected Mayor Lightfoot with a mandate that sought change and a progressive agenda moving forward. Let us at least give her the benefit of the doubt to address the needs of the CPS in the 2020 budget. If unionized City employees do not like what they see and get in October, then they can decide to strike—but to do so beforehand? That is both shortsighted and unfair.

As we say this, we also urge Mayor Lightfoot to do exactly what we expect of her, why Gazette Chicago endorsed her, and why more than 73% of us of us voted her into office: be progressive, act boldly, and offer relief to those who are carrying the financial burden in this City. 

How can you do this Mayor Lightfoot?

You can find the resources by: 

• Taking another look at the TIF handouts for Lincoln Yards and The 78, for one. You skirted this question at the Sept. 14 town hall. Please, don’t cave in to the moneyed interests.

• Open up the TIF coffers. According to Tom Tresser, author of Chicago is Not Broke, since Chicago started instituting TIFs they have taken $7 billion away from schools, parks, and other public entities. Lightfoot could declare a TIF surplus and redistribute the TIF dollars equitably to address our financial crisis.

• Seek and implement progressive sources of revenue. Implement the Transaction Tax on the sale of stocks and bonds. According to Nurses United and other advocacy groups, this tax could generate $10 to $12 billion annually for Chicago. And do not be afraid that those making millions on these stock transactions will take their ball and move to Podunk, Indiana. This is crying wolf—they are not going to give up living and working in Chicago to move to a farm field.

• Increase the real estate on luxury real estate/high-end homes selling for millions of dollars in Chicago. If you could afford to own or buy one of these inner city palatial mansions, then you could afford a few more dollars on the sale end.

• Don’t seek revenues by hiking local property taxes.

• Seek ways to address our climate change and environmental needs and tax and fine more heavily those that pollute our air and water systems.

Chicagoans are leaving the City in record numbers—we cannot afford to lose more residents and the revenue sources they bring in. More importantly, we cannot afford to lose what they offer to the quality of life and fabric of our society.

As we said earlier, this City budget stuff is daunting. We worry about the “golden geese” many politicians are looking for from the legal sale of cannabis (see our page one story) and a casino in Chicago, as bringing in the amounts of tax revenues we need to help us dig out of this budget hole.

Good luck, Mayor Lightfoot. We hope that you move forward progressively and equitably. We know this is going to be painful. Let’s stay together, everyone, and see this process through. There is so much at stake for all of us.