Public safety fears and concerns over rising taxes top the agenda for business leaders across the city from downtown to the neighborhoods.
Jack Lavin, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed Paul Vallas for mayor, said that public safety is the No. 1 concern of the business owners he talks to, followed by “skyrocketing property taxes, economic development and jobs.”
“We need to address the public safety issues, and we need to hold the line on taxes,” said Lavin, who expressed concerns over Brandon Johnson’s proposals to raise taxes to pay for social programs and his views on police reform.
“The bottom line is if you defund the police and you raise almost a billion dollars in taxes, that’s not good for jobs and families,” said Lavin. “Especially coming out of historic inflation, supply-chain shortages, talent shortages and the lingering impact of the pandemic.”
Lavin said that before the next mayor looks to raise taxes, he should look at the city’s $28 billion budget and “reprioritize” to address some of the issues. Lavin believes the city should and could fund a “robust youth and summer jobs program,” which would help address youth crime and safety issues without raising taxes.
“We need to address safety on the CTA and get people back to the office,” said Lavin. “We need to do community policing. These are things that we need to do right away. I don’t think it requires new taxes. We’ve had skyrocketing property taxes. It has impacted small businesses, and it has impacted middle-class families.”
One issue that business leaders across the city would appear to agree on is a desire to see less red tape at City Hall.
Elliot Richardson, president of the Small Business Advocacy Council (SBAC), said that is a big issue for the entrepreneurs that his organization works with.
“Right now, we’re working to tackle an array of red tape issues in the city — zoning and things of that nature — to try to revitalize neighborhood business districts and help small businesses.”
SBAC is also pushing for small businesses and neighborhood chambers of commerce to have a seat at the table when new policies and ordinances are being developed in order to “reduce red tape and unleash entrepreneurs throughout the city and in disinvested communities,” said Richardson.
The organization is also trying to tackle the issue of vacant commercial properties that can become a blight on communities and discourage new investment.
“There’s a lot of places throughout the city, regardless of the community that are really being hampered by commercial vacancies,” said Richardson.
He said that what he repeatedly hears from small business owners is that “doing business in the city of Chicago needs to be affordable” and that city resources need to be allocated equitably.
“A lot of money goes to very large projects,” said Richardson. “What money is also going into the revitalization of neighborhood business districts?”
Felicia Slaton-Young, executive director of the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce, also places public safety at the top of her concerns. But she also wants to see the next mayor prioritize the concerns of small business owners in historically marginalized communities that have been starved of investment.
“Small and medium-sized businesses are still trying to figure out how, how to do business in this post-COVID economy, including how they engage and retain employees,” said Slaton-Young. “That’s an issue no matter what the business is and no matter what the industry is.”
Red tape and bureaucracy are also a concern.
“There’s a lot of policies at the city level that makes doing business in Chicago very prohibitive,” said Slaton-Young.
For example, Slaton-Young said that business owners trying to get a reduction on a city fee or permit are required to hire legal representation and cannot be present at hearings.
“Many small business owners don’t have legal representation and the cost to do so is very prohibitive, especially in this post-COVID economy,” said Slaton-Young.
Aside from being concerned about vacant properties that blight the neighborhood, Slaton-Young said that starting new businesses in Englewood can be challenging because of a lack of commercial properties.
“Access to move-in ready commercial space is almost non-existent here,” said Slaton-Young. “Business owners have to look for space in other communities. And so that’s revenue, opportunity, jobs that leave this community and go somewhere else like South Shore or Beverly or any of those places in between.”
The possibility of tax hikes if Johnson prevails on Tuesday is a worry for all business owners, but for Slaton-Young ultimately it comes down to how those tax dollars are collected and spent.
“I think we’re all a little hesitant when anyone is talking about raising taxes,” said Slaton-Young. “We know the way tax policy has been executed has not always been equitable. If small business owners in Englewood are paying more into the tax rolls, as well as community members are paying more in the tax rolls than those in the Loop, then there’s a problem.”
Nilda Esparza, executive director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, also raised the issue of safety as a concern for business owners in her neighborhood.
“We want corridors where people feel safe coming to shop,” said Esparza.
But she’s not convinced by Vallas’ plans to put more police officers on the beat by hiring back retired cops and is looking for a mayor that will “concentrate on the real root of the problem.”
“When you say you’re going to put more officers on the street, what is recruitment looking like?” asked Esparza. “Are people applying for these jobs? Is it realistic that you can bring people out of retirement and back into the force when things are so delicate right now? I don’t know how realistic that is.”
Esparza said she is concerned by Johnson’s proposals to raise taxes, but also wants to see larger businesses pay the taxes they owe.
“Raising taxes rings alarm for many different levels,” said Esparza. “But big entities have to have a commitment to community, and they should be paying their fair share. … “When you see the disinvestment and we know that the social services are not being funded, you have to look at somebody like Brandon (Johnson) and say he’s actually going to look to tackle the problem.”
The bottom line for Lavin is that the next mayor needs to foster an environment in which businesses across the city can thrive.
“It will be a close race,” said Lavin. “Whoever wins, they need to work with the business community because the bottom line is businesses create jobs. And if there aren’t jobs, you can’t address families owning homes, educating our children and public services. If you don’t have jobs, you can’t do all that.”