Three months into office, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot got on prime-time television to tell residents the city was facing a $838 million shortfall.
In the months that followed, the conversation centered on how to close that gap. By the time Lightfoot released her first spending plan, few focused on a basic fact: The city budget grew by $1 billion.
A WBEZ analysis shows that it was the single largest year-over-year jump in more than a decade. Lightfoot’s bigger budget — which was balanced — banked on increases to most local revenues and assumed a stable economy. But instead, COVID-19 happened.
Now, as Lightfoot prepares to unveil her plan on Wednesday for closing a $1.2 billion projected deficit, a look back at the growth in last year’s budget shows just how complicated it could be for her to shrink the city’s expenses.
That’s partly because Chicago’s jump from a $10.6 billion budget in 2019 to an $11.6 billion budget in 2020 does not have a single, satisfying explanation. Ballooning pension payments only tell a fraction of the story.
The remaining $629 million worth of increases were spread out across city government. With revenues now down drastically, Lightfoot and the city’s aldermen will have to find a way to reduce spending.
“You shouldn’t have a bigger government than you can afford,” said Laurence Msall, president of the nonpartisan budget watchdog Civic Federation.
But Msall said the city has never, in his recollection, put forward a smaller budget than the previous year. In fact, there hasn’t been a decrease year-over-year since 1985, according to Chicago’s budget ordinances posted on the city clerk’s website This year, that could change.
“I would hope it will be smaller,” Msall said. “If they don’t have the revenue, they’d be borrowing.”
Here’s a look at what else besides pensions grew in 2020.
The cost of city workers and empty positions
The cost of the city workforce increased at least $200 million between 2020 and 2019. This was not due to new hires, but rather contractually required raises and other benefits.
These are mostly determined by collective bargaining agreements, and cuts would require negotiations with labor groups. For example, Lightfoot’s administration budgeted an additional $32 million in 2020 to cover retroactive pay raises for police sergeants, captains and lieutenants dating back to 2016.
Lightfoot has been reluctant to lay off city workers. But the Chicago Tribune recently reported that her administration asked labor leaders to consider about $200 million in cuts to the city workforce.
The city budgeted for a workforce of around 36,000 workers in 2020. But an analysis of city payroll from the end of July showed there were about 3,000 unfilled jobs.
Closing vacant positions is one way to cut personnel costs without laying off actual people. This was a key issue for one of the mayor’s top critics, Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward. He voted against the 2020 budget.
“They passed the budget with over 3,000 vacancies in it,” Lopez said. The average salary of a city worker is about $90,000, so closing vacant positions could mean more than $270 million in salary savings.
“Vacancy reductions are likely options that will be presented to close a portion of the 2021 budget gap,” said city budget spokeswoman Kristen Cabanban.
Delivering campaign promises and growing the mayor’s office
There are 35 departments in the city’s budget that together cost $6.6 billion in 2020, an increase of about $400 million over 2019.
One of the offices with the largest percentage growth between 2019 and 2020 was the mayor’s office, which grew from $9.3 million to $11.8 million. She added new cabinet positions, like the chief equity officer and the chief risk officer, and realigned leadership from other departments into her office. Lightfoot also promised to create an Office of Environment and Sustainability within her department.
Aldermen gave themselves a boost too, increasing the budget for “aldermanic expenses” by $1.25 million, from $4.85 to $6.1 million. With 50 aldermen, that gave each one $122,000 to spend on “ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the performance” of their official duties.
Sizable increases also happened within city departments that oversee several of Lightfoot’s key initiatives.
The Department of Planning and Development grew by $27.5 million, and the Department of Housing grew by $48 million. These increases included additional allocations for affordable housing and homelessness, more city planners and large windfalls of money into the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund and the Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund. Both funds collect fees from downtown developers when they increase density or opt out of affordable housing.
Lightfoot wanted to bring back Sunday hours at the city’s public libraries, so she passed a property tax increase to fund a $8.5 million increase to the Chicago Public Library 2020 budget.
The mayor also allocated more funding to the Chicago Department of Public Health. The City Council Office of Financial Analysis said in its annual analysis it was the first time CDPH’s budget exceeded its 2011 appropriation. In 2012, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed half of the city’s public mental health clinics, a decision many newly-elected aldermen urged Lightfoot to undo.
Lightfoot did not reopen the mental health clinics, but she did make significant investments in public health. The 2020 budget increased the department’s budget by $20 million. This included $8.7 million for community-based mental health services, which was officially awarded to 32 community-based health providers earlier this month. There was also an additional $8 million in violence prevention allocated to the health department.
The mayor also dedicated $2.7 million to census outreach, but that was an appropriation unique to 2020.
Many of these and other increases were part of Lightfoot’s campaign promises and would be politically difficult to reverse. They also are small drops in an $11.6 billion bucket. But they do add up.
“A billion dollars of increases, and a billion dollar shortfall are not coincidental,” Lopez said. “The mayor has to have a serious conversation with her staff about what she added and what she’s willing to take back if we’re seriously hoping to try and lessen the impact on taxpayers.”
The costs of public safety and police reform
The largest portion of the city’s overall budget went to public safety departments, such as police, fire and emergency management. Of the $400 million worth of increases to city departments, roughly $165 million went to public safety.
The increases included the creation of a new $33 million Office of Public Safety Administration and $8.5 million toward implementing the consent decree, according to city budget documents.
It also included a sizable increase to the 2020 budget for legal settlements. Past mayors have under-budgeted the amount the city spends in court fighting lawsuits. Lightfoot, who led the city’s police board before becoming mayor and campaigned on police reform, increased this line item by $80 million to a total of $153 million. That’s more than double what was budgeted in 2019, and Lightfoot has said she wanted to be more transparent about those costs. As of the end of May, the city had paid $43 million in legal settlements and fees.
With calls to “Defund the Police” continuing to reverberate throughout Chicago and the country, Lightfoot will have to find a way to negotiate with the city’s 50 aldermen over how much money to allocate to public safety.
At a recent committee hearing, the Council Office of Financial Analysis identified $55 million worth of cost-cutting possibilities inside the Police Department, including getting rid of a tuition reimbursement program and striking uniform allowances for officers. But those changes would need to be negotiated with labor unions.
Any cuts to public safety will be difficult on the heels of this year’s unrest.
“I am not for defunding the police,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, and the mayor’s floor leader. “Can we take a look at some more efficiencies utilizing technology for that? Absolutely. But right now, until people feel safe, we have to continue to move forward with a plan that makes citizens feel safe.”
Add to that, Lightfoot recently released a 108-page plan for reducing gun violence. The cost of implementing her plan is not detailed, but there is mention of “sustaining” current public safety funding levels.
Aldermen talking about new revenues, but not expenses yet
Over the past several weeks, aldermen have been meeting virtually to brainstorm new revenue sources to close the $1.2 billion projected gap for 2021.
Existing revenues, like the restaurant tax and the amusement tax, have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and hopes for a second federal stimulus package have diminished.
So far, aldermen have met to consider a variety of other money-making taxes and fees, including a tax on financial transactions and reinstating a so-called head tax that corporations pay per employee.
But there has been far less discussion about cutting expenses.
“This budget is super challenging,” Villegas said. “So I think that the more that we can get people putting forward ideas, people contributing to the debate, I think it is always healthy for a good democratic process.”
Villegas and Lopez said they expect conversations about expenses to ramp up in the coming weeks after Lightfoot proposes her 2021 spending plan on Oct. 21.
After Lightfoot gives her budget address, City Council will begin a series of meetings to discuss the plan. Every year, there are some changes made before a final budget is approved. But this year, Villegas said it could be a longer, more contentious process to pass a final budget.
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.