Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled her $16 billion city budget proposal this week. Now City Council deliberations are underway on the budget plan, which surprised some alderpeople with its progressive bent.
“Our ultimate goal with this recovery and resiliency budget is to recover and develop Chicago into a safer, stronger and more prosperous city in which people can take root in raising families, build a business and make better lives for themselves,” Lightfoot said.
The mayor was explicit that the budget contained no cuts to services, no layoffs and no new taxes, but $2 billion of the budget comes from a one-time federal stimulus, leading some to question how these programs will be funded in the future.
“You see a lot of social spending here less taxation, but when it comes to political spending, the problem you often get is it comes back in later years, somebody having to pay for it. So that’s something that really keep an eye on with this budget going forward,” said Brandon Pope, anchor and reporter for CW26. “If we get all these great progressive ideas, is it going to fall back on taxpayers later on down the line?”
One of those progressive programs is a basic income pilot, which sets aside $30 million to give $500 a month to 5,000 low-income families for a year. The idea has been implemented in other cities and towns across the country, but Chicago’s would be the largest such pilot in America thus far.
“I think if Chicago genuinely cares about the lowest income and most vulnerable people in that city, it will become permanent,” said Adam Rhodes, social justice reporter for the Chicago Reader.
But Block Club reporter Jamie Nesbitt Golden doesn’t think it’s likely to see the program last past its first year.
“While we do have a record number of progressive council members, we do have a lot of sort of old school folks who aren’t really all that sold on the issue. So I think it’s a sort of wait and see thing, but I don’t think it’s going to stick,” she said.
“I think it’s really interesting that they decided to make this a one year pilot because it’s really hard to make any conclusions on a program this size and with this kind of a mission in just one year,” added Carlos Ballesteros, reporter for Injustice Watch. “A lot of families, I think in previous pilots have demonstrated that for some folks it may only seem like $500 a month. But if you’re that family receiving it and in need, it is a lot.”
The budget also proposes increasing funding for affordable housing projects by $240 million, but whether the city will continue relying on private developers to add housing units, as has been recent practice, is yet to be seen.
“When I cover affordable housing stories, I really don’t hear much about the [Chicago Housing Authority.] It’s usually in relation to a private developer coming into community and offering to you know sort of build luxury homes and set aside a certain percentage towards affordable housing,” Nesbitt Golden said.
But the shortage of affordable housing in Chicago is not only an issue of funding, Nesbitt Golden points out – it’s also about whether current residents of communities targeted for affordable housing projects want them to be there at all.
“When I talked to residents, they’re worried about affordable housing bringing in certain folks that might not respect the community … a lot of conversation on this mirrors that of up north.”
How the $52 million added to support mental health initiatives will be spent is also as yet undefined. Nestor Flores of Pilsen Wellness Center says that before the city allocates more money to mental health programming, it first needs to assess how past funds have been spent.
“[Do] the actual members of the community, do they know about these programs? Are they participating in these programs? And we need to hear their voices,” said Flores. “I would also ask the community, hey, have you heard of these funds being allocated in the budget and how does it serve you? And I guarantee you you’re going to get different responses and some people … shrugging their shoulders and being like, well, that doesn’t really serve me … And that’s where the gap is.”
Video: Our “Chicago Tonight: Voices Crossover” reporter roundtable on the mayor’s 2022 city budget plan continues, hosted by Brandis Friedman. (Produced by Erica Gunderson).
Pope suggests that communities are hoping additional funding would bring back mental health services that were lost under a previous administration.
“The big ask for most of these communities is to restore the mental health clinics that were shut down years ago under Rahm Emanuel’s administration,” he said. “It’s no coincidence the neighborhoods where the most violence are, that’s where these mental health clinics were taken away from. Instead, you’ve seen dollars shifted more money funded towards policing … and that’s not at all what citizens are asking for,” Pope said.
A notable portion of the budget does in fact boost police spending, adding $189 million to Chicago Police Department coffers for a total of about $1.9 billion. While much of the new funding is to cover contractually obligated retroactive pay raises for police, Todd Belcore, executive director of Social Change, says that the budget demonstrates Mayor Lightfoot’s reliance on police as the solution to the city’s violent crime problem.
“When you show me your budget you’re also showing your priorities. And right now our priorities are saying that the police is her primary way of addressing the violence and public safety issues in our community. We would expect and hope that…in Chicago, that more money will be invested in front line efforts and strategies that actually address violence, actually address public safety, and make sure people can overcome the hurdles that often lead to crime,” Belcore said.
Asiaha Butler, president and CEO of Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.) says she would also like to see the city try different approaches in reducing violent crime beyond adding police.
“What I’m just not seeing is any innovation within the budget. It seems to be kind of the same status quo … It’s the ShotSpotter technology and probably other technology that needs to be evaluated … I just think that’s one of those budgets that you have to do a really deep dive to think about before you go to an increase,” Butler said.
Pope agrees with the sentiment that the budget bears out Mayor Lightfoot’s priorities.
“An 11% increase sends a message that Lightfoot believes that policing, lack of police resources and bolstering that is the answer to fixing public safety. But she also made the same statement that we have to learn from history and not make mistakes of the past. Well, increasing police spending is a mistake of the past. Police spending … has tripled in Chicago in 1964, according to Injustice Watch. And yet public safety hasn’t improved. In fact, we still have the issues we’ve been having for decades. So at some point you have to look at different solutions and actually learn from history,” Pope said.
Nesbitt Golden says in her discussions with residents of the areas she covers, opinion is far from monolithic on the value of police in curbing violent crime.
“You have … progressive activists who … feel that [more police funding] doesn’t really address the root causes. But then you have other folks who are longtime homeowners … who feel like this means that they’ll get more police protection if they’ll get increased foot patrols and that’s the sort of thing that they’ve been worried about. There has been sort of upticks in crime and places here and there and they want that security,” Nesbitt Golden said.
But she also points out that none of the money allocated to the police protects witnesses to crime who police urge to speak out.
“We’re asking folks to step up and say something and if they see something and they’re not getting that protection that they need to feel safe. And I think there has to be a point where CPD addresses this,” Nesbitt Golden said.
“I think there’s been so much overwhelming police violence this past year that for many people … any increase in the police budget is unacceptable,” Rhodes said. And I think there’s probably going to be a defense from the police department, from the city that these are contractual obligations.”
Ballesteros says that no matter what the budget proposes, Mayor Lightfoot seems to be trying to walk a fine political line.
“She’s trying to strike a ‘communities first’ tone, but also a policing public safety, tough on crime tone. And it’s hard to make those things work in lockstep. But I will say this budget does mirror more so what many expected out of her when she was running for mayor, a lot more progressive causes. So it’s going to be interesting to see how that exactly plays out if it gets passed,” Ballesteros said.
And, he says, regardless of how well she walks that line, Lightfoot should be prepared for a battle.
“There’s always a big fight in City Council. Everything is a big fight in City Council.”