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Mayor Brandon Johnson

Mayor Brandon Johnson presides over a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Alderpersons are expected to approve the mayor’s proposed budget despite concerns he didn’t set enough money aside to support asylum-seekers.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s $16 billion budget sails to passage, despite questions about migrant spending

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s inaugural $16.77 billion budget sailed to passage in City Council Wednesday, despite concerns there won’t be enough money to see the city through next year to support thousands of asylum-seekers.

Alderpersons approved Johnson’s 2024 spending plan by a 41 to 8 vote.The budget faced relatively little opposition. Supporters said it provides a down payment on fulfilling Johnson’s campaign promises and they praised the mayor for setting aside funds dedicated to exploring reparations and supporting formerly incarcerated residents.

But several alderpersons warned the city is being reckless by budgeting just $150 million for next year to help shelter and support migrants. According to figures shared with reporters last month, Johnson’s administration estimated that the city could spend upwards of $361 million from August 2022 through December 2023, with a funding shortfall in the hundreds of millions.

“What are we going to start doing come April when we run out of money? What are we going to do? Hope and pray that the federal government gives us money?” said Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th Ward, who voted against the budget. “We’re spending migrant money like a madman. That’s a problem in my book.”

Johnson’s first budget as mayor relies on a surplus of tax increment financing dollars, operational efficiencies and improved revenue projects to close an estimated $538 million budget gap. Johnson is sticking to his campaign promise of not raising property taxes or decreasing the police department’s funding, while laying the groundwork for his progressive policy agenda that includes reinstituting a Department of Environment and piloting the reopening of two shuttered mental health clinics.

“It’s the promise of a lot of deferred dreams and a lot of deferred justice,” Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st Ward, said of Johnson’s first budget that takes steps toward enacting policies that progressive organizers have long called for.

Amendments to the budget since it was first unveiled last month include $500,000 for a new commission to study reparations for slavery and $5.1 million toward a new Office of Re-entry within the Mayor’s Office to support formerly incarcerated residents. The budget also includes a deal sweetener for alderpersons by granting them long sought-after funding for an additional staffer, bringing them to four budgeted staff each.

“These are more than just dollar amounts. They represent a commitment to serving our communities and addressing the socioeconomic disparities that are holding Chicagoans back – and particularly those in the Black community,” Johnson said last week. “We are making critical investments in these communities. But we’re doing it in all of our communities.”

Funding for migrants, one-time revenues

The city has budgeted just $150 million for next year to go toward “new arrival services” as part of the city’s efforts to shelter and house more than 21,000 asylum-seekers that have arrived since August of last year.

“We can all admit that the number isn’t enough,” said Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward and chair of the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, who voted in support of the budget. “It does show a commitment to finding solutions, rather than to ignoring the problem.”

Johnson’s administration has said it is banking on the state and federal government to contribute more funding next year. Johnson recently traveled to Washington, D.C. where he joined a coalition of mayors calling on the Biden administration to appropriate $5 billion to cover cities’ expenses.

But a spokesperson for the governor’s office, in a response to questions about the mayor’s plan, said the city should be working directly with the state legislature if it wants more money.

“As we have conveyed to the city, their best path forward is working with the General Assembly which will need to vote on any additional funding they are asking for,” Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for Gov. JB Pritzker said in a statement.

The state has committed $478 million in funding since August of last year, with an estimated $115 million in direct funding to the city.

And the fiscal research organization, the Civic Federation, urged the city to come up with a contingency plan in case additional state and federal funds don’t come through. The city’s budget director previously told the Sun-Times that without more money, the city may have to raid its reserves. But that could result in the city’s bond rating taking a hit, making it more expensive to borrow money in the future.

Pension payments

Johnson’s budget skips a property tax increase tied to the rate of inflation – an automatic escalator put in place by his predecessor. But doing so contributes to the half-billion budget gap by about $88 million, the city’s budget office previously said.

Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward, acknowledged mayors often avoid raising property taxes to avoid the political repercussions – former Mayor Lori Lightfoot opted out of the increase during her election-year budget – but he stressed the decision would only be kicking a property tax increase down the road.

“I’m disappointed we did not do the [consumer price index increase] because we are going to be coming back here asking for a larger tax increase,” Moore, who voted against the budget said, later adding: “Sometimes you have to do what’s fiscally responsible.”

Johnson is making advance pension payments of $307 million, a policy implemented by Lightfoot that was popular with fiscal experts. The city’s underfunded pensions are a significant driver of the city’s budget deficit that is only expected to grow. A recent bill passed by state lawmakers that still awaits Pritzker’s signature would give parity to retired Chicago police officers’ pension benefits.

That change is expected to increase costs by approximately $60 million, the city’s Office of Budget and Management said in a statement, which will be incorporated into the statutorily required contribution for 2025.

Rising pension costs and early revenue numbers slowing from the city’s first casino will likely contribute to pressure Johnson will face in future budgets to find sustainable revenue sources, rather than relying on one-time fixes.

Public safety

Johnson’s proposed budget keeps Chicago Police Department funding relatively flat, with a 2.9% increase to nearly $1.99 billion after he vowed on the campaign trail he “wouldn’t reduce the CPD budget one penny.”

A tentative contract agreement with Chicago’s police union is expected to cost the city an estimated $64 million in 2024, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. The city’s budget office said that increase was already anticipated and budgeted for in scheduled wage adjustments. The contract must still be approved by the City Council and features increased raises and $2,500 bonuses for all officers.

Staffing shortfalls are hampering the department’s efforts at meeting reform goals mandated by the federal consent decree, and CPD officials told alderpersons last month retirements and resignations are expected to be down compared to recent years when staffing was beleaguered by vacancies spurred by the pandemic.

According to Office of Inspector General data as of Nov. 13, there were 12,408 active CPD employees — nearly 12% below the 14,093 budget positions for 2023, according to the Civic Federation.

Johnson’s budget adds 398 civilian positions to the Police Department. Repurposing sworn officer positions to civilian ones which are paid at a lower rate helped contribute to cost savings, budget officials previously said.

CPD officials told alderpersons last month among the personnel additions will be 170 field training officers, 100 civilian training officers, 100 more detectives, 100 more sergeants and almost 50 positions to build out a civilian victim services team – a point of concern for some advocates that aim to prevent gender-based violence – and another 50 positions to build out a records team.

The Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability called the CPD budget set to be passed Wednesday a “definite improvement” over the 2023 budget, citing the civilianization of positions to free sworn officers to return to the street. But the commission warned more transparency over CPD’s budget and community policing efforts was still needed, in addition to more capital investments to help officers do their jobs.

Johnson’s budget also aims to make gains toward tackling the so-called “root causes” of violence. His budget doubles the number of staff on the Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement teams that provide an alternate response to mental health calls, commits more than $76 million dollars to fund an additional 4,000 youth jobs next year, with the goal of 28,000 positions in the summer of 2024, and creates offices of Community Safety and Re-entry within the mayor’s office.

Chicago budget includes money for ID program and mental health

To bolster the city’s efforts to support migrants, Johnson’s budget also adds staff to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and the Department of Family and Support Services —– with $1.2 million for an Office of New Arrivals.

While the City Clerk’s Office initially requested approximately $322,000 to support the development of an online appointment tool for a city identification card, an additional $222,250 was added to the office’s budget for the development of the online platform so people won’t have to attend an in-person event.

The municipal ID card has been an essential form of official identification for migrants, but a crushing demand has recently led to events to get the IDs being canceled as managing the program has been “unmanageable,” City Clerk Anna Valencia told alderpersons.

“We’re excited to get to work on the CityKey online platform,” Diana Martinez, a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office said. “It will allow us to get CityKeys into more hands in 2024 and beyond.”

In addition to increasing staff responding to mental health calls, Johnson’s budget also aims to take steps toward a progressive policy platform known as Treatment Not Trauma by piloting the reopening of two mental health clinics in existing city buildings.

Johnson’s budget also increases funding to replace lead service lines and allocates $1.8 million to reinstate a Department of Environment, although the department will initially lack regulatory teeth in its first year.

The budget also restructures the city’s Department of Assets, Information and Services into two departments — the return of a department of Fleet and Facility Management and a new Department of Technology and Innovation.

Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ.

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