Aldermen Approve Lightfoot’s Plan for COVID-19 Relief Funds After Delay

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to the media following a City Council meeting to vote on her budget, which passed, on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. (WTTW News)Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to the media following a City Council meeting to vote on her budget, which passed, on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. (WTTW News)

Aldermen voted 37-10 on Friday to approve Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds, after a 48-hour delay prompted by fierce criticism of her decision to use $281.5 million in COVID-19 federal relief funds to cover the cost of salaries and benefits for Chicago Police Department officers.

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Indicted Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) said he was deeply skeptical those funds were actually used to perform wellness checks on residents, to assist airport security officers charged with screening passengers for COVID-19 and to provide security at the McCormick Place field hospital and COVID-19 testing sites for the first two months of the pandemic.

Burke blasted the documentation provided to aldermen to justify the spending, saying the response from Budget Director Susie Park raised “more questions than answers,” adding that they did not “justify” those expenses because it lacked clear data.

The City Council voted 31-16 to rebuff Burke’s attempt to block Lightfoot’s plan to spend $68 million in unspent federal COVID-19 money from the relief package approved in March 2020 as well as an additional $261 million from the relief package approved in December by sending it back to the Budget Committee for additional debate.

The package includes $80 million for a new round of rental assistance grants for 5,000 residents. The city has already sent $94 million in rental assistance to Chicago residents.

After the vote, Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th Ward) — who joined forces with Burke to delay the vote — suggested that Lightfoot “fudged” the expenses to make them appear related to the response to COVID-19 and could face sanctions or have to pay back the money.

Lightfoot called that a very serious charge and said her team would not “take it lightly.”

After the vote, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) said Burke used the wrong year for his detailed comparison of the city’s expenses for reimbursement and the police department budget. He should have used the 2020 budget — the year in which the expenses were incurred — instead of the 2021 budget, Dowell said.

Before the unusual City Council meeting, Lightfoot dismissed the delay as “political theater and drama.”

“Nobody has any patience or time for that,” Lightfoot said.

Burke attempted to respond after the vote — but the mayor declined to allow her political nemesis to speak.

The City Council approved Lightfoot’s plan to spend $1.2 billion in federal funds designed to help the city cover the cost of responding to the coronavirus pandemic in June. But nine aldermen voted no because the mayor declined to block the funds from being used to reimburse the Chicago Police Department for responding to the pandemic.

Rules imposed by the federal government allowed $470 million from those funds that flowed to Chicago as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to be used to reimburse the city for personnel costs incurred fighting the pandemic, according to city budget officials.

While those funds could have been used for direct assistance to residents and businesses, that would have blown open a hole in the city’s operating fund because of the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Park said.

Officials also used $300 million from the first relief package to fund the city’s public health response, $100 million to help businesses and $377 million to help businesses operating out of Chicago’s airports.

In other action, the City Council approved a plan to transform the city’s set-to-be-landmarked Morton Salt building on Goose Island into a 4,000-seat performance venue and offices that will be visible from the Kennedy Expressway.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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