Some Chicago aldermen and activists are blasting Mayor Lori Lightfoot for using federal coronavirus relief dollars to cover overtime hours for police officers instead of spending that money on needed housing relief, business support and vaccine outreach for residents impacted by the pandemic.
On Thursday, a group of freshmen aldermen joined United Working Families, an advocacy group with ties to SEIU and the Chicago Teachers Union, on a Zoom call to express their frustration with what they describe as a unilateral decision by the mayor and her administration to prioritize the police department over working families.
According to a budget briefing the administration provided aldermen earlier this week, the city allocated more than $281 million of its CARES Act dollars toward the Chicago Police Department. Most of it will cover overtime.
“And just as egregious, we learned that $68 million of that funding was never spent at all,” Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st Ward, said. “So we have every right to be angry, because every neighbor you have who was denied housing assistance, we were prepared. We could have offered them that assistance. Every vacant storefront you see is a small business we could have supported with these dollars.”
These complaints from activists and aldermen come a day before a committee of the City Council is scheduled to vote on how to spend another round of COVID-19-related federal aid.
La Spata said the administration was supposed to provide the City Council with quarterly updates detailing where the federal money was being spent. A city web page dedicated to hosting those briefing documents was last updated in July.
A spokesperson for the budget office explained that they didn’t leave $68 million “on the table.” Half of that money was set aside for a second surge; the other half is money the city received after President Joe Biden canceled a FEMA Match Reimbursement cities had to pay under the original CARES Act terms.
“Keep in mind no one spoke to the council over the last seven months about what roles for police they believed could be eligible,” La Spata said, asking why police officers were doing wellness checks when that could have been handed by the city’s social service department. “How is this work not being done through the Department of Family and support services, who received only $188,000 of this funding.”
Earlier this week, City Budget Director Susie Park announced the city blew past its overtime budget for 2020 because of a confluence of unforeseen events: the pandemic, civil unrest, and a tense presidential election.
The city wouldn’t have been able to balance its 2020 budget without that federal money, she explained, saying police overtime is considered an eligible expense because police officers were impacted by staff shortages due to self-quarantining and added security at vaccination sites.
On Thursday, the city’s Budget Department took to Twitter to clear up “misinformation circulating over the last 24 hours on our CARES Act spending.”
“Of the $1.2B in CARES Act funds, the federal govt allows $470M to be used for personnel costs, including public health and public safety depts,” the office wrote on Twitter. “Had the City not used this reimbursement, we would have been forced to pass the burden onto our taxpayers.”
The office also noted in its tweets that Chicago appropriated $94 million of the CARES funds on homeless and housing assistance, $300 million on public health and $100 million for small businesses, among other relief to other groups.
But Emma Tai with United Working Families said the group isn’t trying to make a “technical argument” about what expenses are eligible.
“What we are making is a moral argument about what is the responsibility of the city to its people in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “We all know somebody who has died from COVID. That is a political choice.”
Many on the call who expressed outrage about the city’s “misplaced priorities” are also supporters of the growing “defund the police” movement.
Damon Williams was among them, saying a Chicago police officer slammed him to the ground at a protest outside Trump Tower downtown.
“And so this is infuriating, because the policing in our city, in our country acts like a political cartel that extracts power and resources and does not actually keep us safe,” Williams said, adding that he’s still recovering from a concussion. “So this investment did not come with increased services from our Police Department. This investment did not come with a decrease in violence.”
According to a PowerPoint brief the administration gave to aldermen earlier this month, Chicago is receiving additional federal dollars as part of a response and relief bill passed by congress in December. An ordinance appropriating that money will go before the City Council’s Budget Committee Friday.
The latest round of stimulus is divided into five grants. This includes about $80 million for emergency rental assistance, $24 million for vaccine distribution, nearly $157 million for building “Epidemiology and Health IT Capacity” and an unknown amount of dollars for the city’s two airports, which the briefing indicated would be shared with City Council at a later date.
Claudia Morell covers City Hall for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.