Aldermen on the City Council’s Budget Committee on Friday approved another round of federal coronavirus relief aid for Chicago, but it wasn’t without heated exchanges with the city budget director and more anger about how City Hall spent an earlier round of COVID-19 funding on police.
This latest round of federal support will help the city pay nearly $80 million toward rental assistance programs; $24 million toward vaccine distribution; and nearly $157 million toward technology upgrades to help the city’s Department of Public Health track and monitor the virus. Chicago Budget Director Susie Park also sought council authority to carry over $68 million in unspent CARES Act dollars that the city received in March.
But aldermen weren’t that interested in talking about the new federal money that was up for consideration. They wanted to know how the Chicago Police Department benefited from $281 million from the last round of federal aid and why the administration is dismissing their objections as the product of “misinformation.”
Earlier this week, some Chicago aldermen and activists criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot for using federal COVID-19 relief dollars to cover overtime hours for cops instead of spending that money on housing relief, business support and vaccine outreach for residents impacted by the pandemic.
Park said the federal aid covered staff salaries and fringe benefits for police officers who were deployed in numerous pandemic-related situations, such as wellness checks. They also provided additional security at the makeshift hospital at McCormick Place, at vaccination sites and at the city’s two airports. At the peak of the pandemic last spring, a significant amount of police manpower was needed to handle the massive crowds at O’Hare Airport, Park said.
But those answers weren’t sufficient for many aldermen on the committee. They demanded details that Park was unable to provide at the meeting.
Aldermen asked why Lightfoot’s administration used police officers to conduct wellness checks when health department employees could have sufficed – and even asked for the definition of a wellness check. They also asked how many officers were pulled from each district and redeployed to these various COVID-19-related situations.
At one point, Budget Chairwoman Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward, and freshman Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd Ward, started yelling over each other before Dowell cut her off because Sanchez isn’t a member of the committee.
“I just have a hard time with your numbers,” said Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward. He later quoted Mayor Lori Lightfoot who said at a press conference earlier that morning that criticisms about the police spending were “dumb.”
“And if we believe that the criticisms, according to what the mayor said, are ‘dumb’, quote unquote, these numbers that you’re testifying to today would make most observers, highly suspicious,” Burke added. He went on to reference the “dumb” quote at least three more times.
“It defies any reasonable explanation,” Burke said, noting that the $281 million in salary and fringe benefits that went to the police department equates to one-third of the city’s patrol budget in a normal year.
Burke, the most senior member of the council and former finance committee chairman, pressed Park on the airport issue. Airport police are generally funded by collecting fees from the airlines and concessionaires. When CPD is deployed at the airports, those funds reimburse the city for the added cost, “which is a practice that has existed for decades,” Burke added.
The city’s budget office committed to providing a more detailed breakdown of the staffing numbers ahead of a scheduled vote on the matter by the full City Council meeting next week.
Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow @claudiamorell