Your NPR news source
Mayor Brandon Johnson

Mayor Brandon Johnson presides over a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago alderpeople scrutinize mayor’s plans to quickly spend COVID relief money

Mayor Brandon Johnson was questioned on his long term plans for a guaranteed income program that relies on expiring federal funds.

The Chicago City Council scrutinized Monday Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to quickly budget hundreds of millions of federal COVID-19 relief dollars before a looming end-of-year deadline.

During a day-long hearing before the City Council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations, Johnson’s top deputies and department commissioners gave a detailed look at how the city plans to spend roughly $345 million in unspent American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that are slated for community initiatives.

The city has been slow to spend the nearly $1.9 billion in pandemic relief funds it first received under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The majority of the funds – $1.3 billion – went to cover the city’s operating expenses, with the remaining $576 million slated to go back to communities through programming. The city faces an end-of-year deadline to still earmark $206 million for community programs, and all relief dollars must be spent by the end of 2026 — or risk being returned to the federal government.

Overall, the city has budgeted 89% of the federal funds, and has spent 82% of it, as of late May.

But some alderpersons questioned the areas where the administration has chosen to invest. Ald. Bill Conway, who has called for greater City Council oversight of the federal relief funds, said the city’s long-term fiscal health should have more priority.

“We could have done a better job instead of simply having our goals be not send the money back and send it to community groups for a few years before we — I fear — pull the rug out from under them in three years. And perhaps been a bit more aspirational in terms of broadly improving the city long-term…” said Conway, 34th Ward. “I also think we could have cleaned the CTA thoroughly and I think over time that would have paid for itself through increased ridership.”

In an effort to more quickly get dollars out the door, Johnson’s administration is shifting more than $80 million as it reevaluates which programs will continue to receive funding — and which will be sunset or shifted to other funding sources in turn.

“The funding is going to come to an end. That’s a fact. The obligation analysis that we have done is really to take a look at each and every single program in a very methodical way to understand how they were going to be able to obligate and how they were going to be able to spend it,” Johnson’s Chief Operating Officer John Roberson said.

Overall, 53 programs will be funded, including an additional $31.5 million to launch another round of a popular guaranteed income pilot that gives $500 monthly payments to low-income residents and expanding the so-called CARE Alternate Response teams, where paramedics and mental health workers respond to mental health emergencies — rather than police. The city plans to publish a website and dashboard detailing spending and monthly reports to the City Council.

Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th Ward and chair of Budget and Government Operations Committee, said he’s “challenged” by the guaranteed income pilot that he described as “more like an expense” rather than a long-term investment through tools like job training that could “pay off dividends down the road.”

“If I had to make a choice between giving an individual an additional amount of money versus helping an individual through a period where they’re doing something that’s going to, at the end, create a better alternative or a better life or training… that to me is an investment,” Ervin said.

“What do we do in month 13, as we have helped people and then we reach the end of that.”

Budget Director Annette Guzman stressed the city has targeted workforce development programs in place, and that providing the guaranteed income program is a “‘both and’ and not an ‘either or.’”

The Johnson administration has formed an advisory group to give recommendations on eligibility and outreach for the pilot’s new round of payments, which has been renamed the Chicago Empowerment Fund.

Several participants of the no-strings attached income program told WBEZ and the Sun-Times it helped them cover unforeseen emergencies or pulled them above water financially. But several noted they wished it had lasted longer than one year. Demand drastically outweighed supply in the first round, with more than 176,000 people applying for just 5,000 slots.

Rosazlia Grillier, a longtime organizer with Community Organizing and Family Issues, said Monday the guaranteed income pilot helped her “to feel human again.”

“I was able to pay my bills without robbing Peter to pay Paul and jack up John. I was able to rebuild my credit,” Grillier said. “...It allowed me to live outside of the extreme poverty that I was experiencing before the pilot.”

The infusion of federal relief dollars has helped the city’s public health department expand its workforce amid hundreds of vacancies. Of 89 additional positions, about half are for expanding the city’s CARE Alternate Response teams to mental health emergencies. The teams currently operate in six police districts and have served nearly 1,400 people with zero arrests and force used in less than 5% of responses, according to CDPH figures.

Johnson announced last week the city will phase out police and Chicago Fire Department emergency medical services from the teams. The public health department will pilot teams that are staffed entirely from within the health department, and free up officers and CFD staff in turn.

But despite the backing of federal funds to expand programs like CARE, the department has still struggled to hire enough personnel, leading to a reduction in its allocation of federal relief funds, public health commissioner Dr. Simbo Ige told alderpersons.

“There’s a national shortage of healthcare workforce so it’s taken us some time to be able to attract the people. We’re right sizing based on what we anticipate will be our ability to hire up to 55 EMTs going forward,” Ige said. “So this is work in progress.”

Two programs previously slated to receive ARPA funding — a proposed 20-bed sobering center to support people recovering from alcohol intoxication and a low-barrier shelter program to connect people experiencing homelessness with housing — will be canceled because of an inability to find program administrators by the end of this year, budget officials previously said.

Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ.

The Latest
A greater share of Chicago area Republicans cast their ballots by mail in March compared to the 2022 primary, but they were still vastly outpaced by Democrats in using a voting system that has become increasingly popular.
As the 2024 presidential election approaches, officials, advocates and experts have expressed concern over misinformation and disinformation about candidates and elections in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois.
In interviews with WBEZ, several decried the length of sentence the 80-year-old could face, while a handful of others said he deserves significant time in prison.

From 1968 to today, volunteers in Chicago aim to connect visitors to their city, and to see some of the convention action themselves
Chicago’s longest-serving alderman Ed Burke will face up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced later this month. WBEZ’s Mariah Woelfel shares what prosecutors and Burke’s defense team are requesting from the judge overseeing the case.