Power Fees, Politics and Pinhead: What You Missed During City Hall Budget Hearings
Chicago city budget hearings resume Monday with what’s expected to be a marathon session with top brass from the Chicago Police Department.
Aldermen will get to grill the CPD’s leaders on everything from crime numbers to police misconduct cases to diversity in the ranks. It’s the second week of hearings on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2020 spending plan, which aims to close an $838 million budget gap with myriad taxes and fees.
Last week’s hearings raised plenty of big questions - and provided some new answers. Oh, and at least one alderman earned some major Halloween points. Here’s some of what you missed.
The Springfield wildcard
Lightfoot wants to increase the one-time tax the city imposes on the sales of high-priced homes. But if the city fails to get the authority from state lawmakers to increase the so-called real estate transfer tax, the administration could be forced to issue a revised budget, the city’s Budget Director Susie Park told aldermen last week.
The mayor balanced her budget on the assumption that City Hall will receive an additional $50 million from that tax next year. It’s still unclear what will happen if Lightfoot doesn’t get that approval from state lawmakers, among other changes she’s seeking in Springfield. But in her budget speech, she did raise the specter of a property tax hike.
Progressive aldermen are already offering solutions for where the city could find that money, like reinstating the city’s head tax. That’s a per-employee tax on companies that do business in Chicago that was eliminated under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Big ComEd deal amid a growing corruption probe
City Hall has a massive agreement with electric utility giant ComEd. It determines how much in so-called “franchise fees” (basically, city taxes) Chicagoans must fork over to the city based on their monthly ComEd bill.
The city’s 30-year agreement with ComEd expires next year and it will be up to the new Department of Asset Management to hammer out a new one. And Commissioner David Reynolds revealed that the city is seeking shorter-term agreement this time around.
Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, suggested Reynolds leverage the ongoing federal probe into the state’s largest utility to push for a better deal. WBEZ has reported that the feds are investigating whether ComEd and parent company Exelon hired multiple politically connected employees and consultants in exchange for favorable government actions, including electricity rate increases.
During a hearing last week, Reilly added that he thinks the city has done a “pathetic job” of negotiating these agreements.
“Big utilities are used to getting what they want from taxpayers and ratepayers in Chicago,” Reily said.
“Given the federal scrutiny both these companies are under, the city of Chicago should consider taking this opportunity to hold their feet to the fire and demand better from our franchise agreement with ComEd for better distribution and our energy contracts with Constellation Energy, which is owned by Exelon,” he added.
Reynolds says he’s already got “eight or nine sub-teams” working on the agreement with an eye toward strengthening minority contracting requirements and renewable energy.
“The agreement that we have now probably was outdated 18 years ago, “ Reynolds said.
Water Department vague on shut-offs, but details plans for lead abatement
The city’s water department has a lot on its plate.
Earlier this year it announced it would stop installing meters after it realized there was a correlation between metered accounts and high lead levels. WBEZ reporting has detailed how Chicago was one of the last cities to continue installing lead-based pipes even after the federal government warned of safety hazards.
This week Water Commissioner Randy Connor detailed two pilot programs that will help his department figure out how to best replace the city’s lead pipes without disrupting the system. The studies are being conducted by independent consultants.
Connor was less forthcoming last week about another issue: how to address the tens of thousands of residents who’ve had their water shut off for not paying their bills. When asked how his department is handling those cases, he pointed the inquiring alderman to the agency that handles billing and city owned debt. Then on Friday, Lightfoot announced some more details on her plan.
Huh? Aldermen confused over new asset management department
Ahead of her budget rollout, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced she’d combine the department that handles technology with the department that operates city vehicles and city-owned land.
The new Department of Asset Management is expected to streamline the city’s efforts to modernize and integrate software and data among departments. But several aldermen couldn't get past some redundancies: In addition to the Chief Information Officer, there’s also a Chief Data Officer. The former is a position in the new department; the latter in the mayor’s office.
This newly combined department is part of the Lightfoot administration’s efforts to find more efficient ways of structuring city government in order to avoid future tax hikes. The consolidation is projected to save about $351,000.
It’s not budget season without a little Halloween fun
Budget hearings always coincide with Halloween — and every year there’s a handful of aldermen that add some levity to the otherwise tedious discussion of the city budget.
This year, Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, went all out. (Here’s a hilarious video of him explaining his Pinhead Hellraiser costume to City Hall veteran reporter Fran Spielman.) Lopez and Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, who dressed up as Little Bo-Peep, were the only two aldermen to show up in full costume.