As I studied and went line-by-line through Chicago’s 2021 budget, I did so with the knowledge that it was deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic which hit Chicago hard. However, I strongly believe that a budget package that includes an annual property tax increase and a huge bond issue is unrealistic and will cause long-term harm to the residents, businesses and economy of Chicago.
People have little faith in their government right now and raising taxes isn’t a way to restore that faith. For this and reasons detailed below, I voted “No.”
Elected officials need to be realistic. Businesses are shedding jobs while others have no choice but to shut down. Because our economic engine has slowed down considerably, people working in the private sector are losing their jobs.
But yet in the last eight months, the City of Chicago has not cut back public employees hours, instituted furloughs or layoffs, nor is it doing so with any meaningful impact in the proposed budget. We have seen little to no success dealing with pushback from the city’s unions. Instead, we were faced with a 2021 budget package with more taxes, fees and overtime, and less accountability and efficiencies.
Of particular note is the lack of progress to bring efficiencies and accountability to the city departments that are charged with maintaining public safety — CPD, CFD and OEMC. Instead of efficiencies, a new department, the Office of Public Safety Administration, was formed with a 2020 budget of $18.5 million. However, no efficiencies have yet to be realized and it still has not taken over and professionalized the administrative functions of the police and fire departments, as promised. No progress, but yet another $30 million is budgeted for 2021. Meanwhile, overtime for police will top $300 million in 2020.
Previous mayors and city councils were criticized for refinancing of existing debt, yet it was done in the 2020 budget and was done again. The 2021 budget includes $1 billion in refinancing — $600 million in 2021 and $400 million to fill the 2020 budget shortfall. Unfortunately, this short-term solution to balance the budgets increases the debt load and extends it well into the future.
While being forced to refinance past debt, the City Council also was asked to support a $3.7 billion bond package dedicated to infrastructure improvements like bridges, overpasses, streets, alleys, lighting, traffic signals, etc. Our ward will see very few of these projects as we have been diligent in the past 20 years to ensure that infrastructure improvements were ongoing in the 44th Ward. Among them are the new 19th District Police Station, the newly renovated Merlo Public Library, new street and alley lighting, lakefront revetment, traffic signal upgrades, street and sidewalk repairs, new and upgraded parks and open green spaces, and sewer and water main replacements.
I fully understand the desire of my fellow aldermen to have these needed improvements made in their wards, but this is not the year to be issuing bonds and adding to an already crushing debt load for the city and its residents.
Yes, I did vote for a property tax increase in 2015 demonstrating I’m not afraid to take an unpopular vote. But, I was very public with the fact that my vote was to ensure more police resources in the 44th Ward and, in order to provide our families with a competitive, high quality, neighborhood high school, $25 million in capital investments for Lake View High School. The investments in Lake View High School were made and the police resources came, but have once again been reduced as the new police superintendent has prioritized citywide units as opposed to district policing and beat integrity.
While I voted against the 2021 budget package, know that I will continue to be a strong advocate for our ward as I push for financial stability for our residents and businesses.
I look forward to working with the Mayor and other members of the City Council as we move forward to revitalize Chicago, enhance revenue and control spending.