Vallas: What you should be asking about Chicago mayor’s budget

Vallas: What you should be asking about Chicago mayor’s budget

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson delivered a budget that does little to improve the city or advance his many progressive initiatives. Here’s what it does, and what Chicagoans should be asking city leaders about what it could be.

Here’s what Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s proposed budget is: a one-year patchwork relying on former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s surpluses, tax increment financing excesses and dwindling COVID funds to keep it “balanced.”

Here’s what it isn’t: It’s not an investment in a safer, stronger and better Chicago. It doesn’t rescue the city’s plummeting finances, make neighborhoods safer or invest in long-neglected communities.

Johnson’s City Council leader, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, stated, “There’s no question that this is a great budget that really reflects our city’s progressive and liberal values.”

But it’s not “great” for the city’s poor. For those expecting change, this budget doesn’t deliver.

Consider the following budget highlights, and then ask city leaders these questions:

  • Johnson’s budget plans to add almost 400 police civilian jobs, while refusing to address if they’ll ever fill the vacant 1,000 police positions. This comes at a time when police shortages result in over half of high-priority 911 calls going unanswered.

You should ask: Does the city plan on filling the existing police officer vacancies? Are these civilians going to fill existing police officer vacancies? Is this a better, stronger, safer Chicago?

  • New investments total $26 million of the $16.6 billion budget, while there’s $150 million allocated for migrants, despite Johnson estimating the cost could be far higher, and $226 million for Chicago Teachers Union-dominated schools. The city is also picking up an additional $45 million in pension costs for the school district’s non-teacher employees.

You should ask: How will the city finance the other half of migrant funding? How can the city justify providing the schools with such a record windfall while spending so little on new investments?

  • Instead of $226 million to CTU and $150 million for migrants, imagine instead what that money could have meant for long-neglected neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

You should ask: What would it take to see mental health centers reopened, drug addiction centers established, and job training and reentry programs funded? Is the Mayor going to keep his promise to open all the community mental health centers?  Given the tax increment financing windfall to the Chicago Public Schools, why would the city pick up another $45 million for the schools’ pension employee contribution and not use part of that money to finance the reopening of all the closed mental health centers?

  • Johnson claims he’s holding the line on taxes. Yet the mayor-controlled school board raised property taxes by $131 million. None of the $434 million in TIF proceeds is used to mitigate TIF-related property tax increases. Johnson’s City Council leader refused to rule out property tax increases to cover rising migrant costs. In reality, Johnson has not held the line on property taxes.

You should ask: Why didn’t the city use the TIF windfall to offset another school district property tax increase? Will the city rule out a property tax increase to cover the migrant program funding shortfall as Ramirez-Rosa has suggested might be required? 

  • Johnson’s restoration of the city Department of Environment consists of adding four new positions to an existing 10 positions currently dedicated to environmental issues without any mention of a defined regulatory authority.

You should ask:  Is the reestablished Department of Environment just a shell? Are there any plans to provide the department real regulatory authority and responsibilities?

  • Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s mental health initiative increased the number served from 3,651 to over 70,000 and served all 77 communities. Yet she was criticized by Johnson and his progressive allies for not reopening all closed centers.

You should ask: Is it fair they’re now praising Johnson for opening only two centers in his budget? What are the plans for Lightfoot’s mental health initiative?

  • Ramirez-Rosa said while the City Council Office of Financial Analysis and the Legislative Reference Bureau would benefit from more resources and staffing, it’s not a priority for the upcoming budget. He has made it clear little will change in the city’s budgeting process and the budget will be passed within a few weeks.

You should ask: Why the opposition to providing the COFA and LRB with more resources and staffing so there can be an authoritative, independent analysis of the city budget and program spending? Why the unwillingness to provide for a longer and more transparent budget process with more opportunities for more public input?

Here’s the reality: The mayor’s budget is not structurally balanced. It does not begin to address the city’s worsening financial situation. There will be little real transparency in the budget process and little opportunity for public input. Johnson’s City Council leadership will ensure its members are denied access to the resources needed for an independent budget analysis and healthy budget debate.

The mayor’s budget will not make Chicago “safer, stronger or better.” It should be all those things.

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