Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson pitches $16.6 billion budget

Johnson is pledging he won’t raise property taxes, saying the city’s budget gap will be plugged with rosier revenue projections and other money.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson pitches his first budget, a $16.6 spending plan that he says will not require raising property taxes, at City Hall on Oct. 11, 2023. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson pitches his first budget, a $16.6 spending plan that he says will not require raising property taxes, at City Hall on Oct. 11, 2023. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson pitches $16.6 billion budget

Johnson is pledging he won’t raise property taxes, saying the city’s budget gap will be plugged with rosier revenue projections and other money.

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Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson is pitching a $16.6 billion “people’s budget” that aims to chip away at ambitious campaign promises, support an influx of migrants, and increase the number of police officers on the streets while not raising property taxes.

“I made a commitment to invest in people without balancing this budget on the backs of working families,” Johnson said Wednesday. “That is why I am proud this budget makes strategic investments (in) people and communities without raising base property taxes.”

Instead, Johnson said the city is able to close an estimated $538 million budget gap by tapping $49.5 million in surplus of tax increment financing dollars, saving $112.6 in “operational efficiencies,” and hundreds of millions in increased revenue projections next year.

His budget proposal released Wednesday showed he intends to keep police spending relatively flat. It also shows Johnson plans to accept an automatic raise set to go into effect next year, bringing his annual salary to $221,052. His administration previously refused to reveal whether Johnson and others would be accepting the pay hikes.

The first-term mayor’s inaugural budget address also laid out the groundwork for his long-term policy goals. Johnson is also vowing to reopen two shuttered mental health clinics as part of a pilot program in existing city buildings, as well as reinstitute the city’s Department of Environment — two key progressive campaign promises.

The mayor is taking those steps while adding city staff to help confront the growing need to house thousands of Central American immigrants arriving in the city daily. More than 3,800 migrants are living in police station lobbies and O’Hare Airport while they wait for a spot in maxed-out city shelters that are housing nearly 10,800 migrants and asylum seekers.

In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s address, Johnson has tempered expectations that his first city budget will be taking big swings. He reiterated Wednesday the proposal is the first of four he will craft that will begin to reenvision public safety in Chicago, including housing and mental health services.

“It will take time but we are going to see, Chicago, what happens when water hits that dry land,” said Johnson, referencing Gregory Porter’s song “Liquid Spirit.” “With each investment in our neighborhoods and our people — what I like to call the Soul of Chicago — we are going to witness Chicago’s great potential.”

Johnson’s plans for the Chicago police budget

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.”

The department’s budget has steadily increased under his predecessor former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, topping out at $1.94 billion in 2023.

Johnson says his administration aims to add 398 civilian positions to the Police Department, presumably freeing up sworn street patrol officers, as well as adding 440 “promotional opportunities.” His budget also increases the number of full-time officers to bolster patrol training and aims to return 70 police officers to the street.

After distancing himself from the movement to defund the police, on the campaign trail Johnson instead pointed to finding efficiencies within the police department and “redeploying those resources to support officers on our streets, not on desk duties.”

The department, like its counterparts nationwide, has been beleaguered by vacancies spurred by the pandemic.

According to Office of Inspector General data as of Oct. 10, there were 12,365 active CPD employees — 12% below the 14,093 budget positions for 2023, according to the Civic Federation.

Staffing shortfalls are hampering the department’s efforts at meeting reform goals mandated by the federal consent decree, and Johnson has vowed to train and promote 200 detectives to lower caseloads and improve murder clearance rates.

As of early October, there were 1,135 detectives within CPD, an increase of 33 detectives, or 3%, from the 1,102 that held the title in May, according to Office of Inspector General data.

Johnson noted 70 detectives have been promoted since he took office, and that his proposed budget will create 100 additional detective positions that “will allow us to hold violent offenders accountable while bringing justice and restoring confidence to impacted residents.”

Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st Ward, said while he’s glad to see more detectives, he’s concerned the increase will be pulling from officers on the street – where he says more officers are desperately needed.

“That’s post crime initiatives. Detectives are called in after crimes are happening,” Napolitano said. “Hopefully they solve future crimes, but we need more coppers on the street.”

Johnson has already taken steps toward his goal of taking a more holistic approach at tackling the so-called “root causes” of violence, including appointing the city’s first ever Deputy Mayor of Community Safety, who will oversee a new office, and increasing the number of youth employed in summer jobs — although he fell short of his goal of doubling the number hired.

Johnson’s plan to support migrants

Johnson’s budget proposal shows plans to spend $150 million in “new arrival services,” as part of his overall plan to provide help to the thousands of migrants that have and continue to arrive in Chicago.

The city has received over 18,000 asylum-seekers and migrants since August of last year. The pace of buses transporting migrants to Chicago from other states, like Texas, has ramped up — with roughly 73% of the more than 400 buses arriving since mid-May, shortly before Johnson took office.

Johnson’s proposed budget aims to pay for the growing need in part by also adding more staff to the city’s Department of Family and Support Services dedicated to new arrivals —–- with $1.2 million for an Office of New Arrivals —–- as well as the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Johnson also pointed to a referendum the City Council is currently weighing that, if passed and approved by voters, would raise a tax on the sale of high-end properties to create dedicated funding for permanent supportive housing and addressing homelessness.

Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward and chair of the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said it’s hard to determine if the funding slated to support new arrivals will be enough with the city estimating it will spend hundreds of millions through the end of the year. But he said it’s “in some regard inappropriate” to expect the onus to be solely on municipal government.

“We’re talking about a city government that is facing an unprecedented pressure with the amount of folks that are being bused in from other states. It’s hard to argue that anything is enough when you’re looking at that challenge,” Vasquez said, later adding: “If the governor coordinated other municipalities in the state to take on some capacity, you’d see a better way to address this issue. That’s not being done. If the federal government and the President, to be more exact, issued a declaration of emergency that allowed for more funding and coordination, we’d be in better position. Those things are not happening.”

The sheer pace has strained the city’s infrastructure to adequately house and care for newly-arriving immigrants, with long waits for housing, people sleeping on the floors of police stations and even living in tents outside them and volunteers stepping up to fill in gaps in the city’s services.

His administration’s plans, like hiring a controversial contractor to construct base camps ahead of winter, have already faced criticism from alderpersons and even skepticism from Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker. The requested funding will likely continue a fierce debate in City Hall over using city funds to help resettle new arrivals versus bolstering long-disinvested communities.

“I’m going to be perfectly clear: What current residents need and deserve from our city is not the same as what new arrivals need in this moment,” Johnson said. “But we must meet all demands if we truly love all people. I am fully committed to doing that in the coming months and years. You elected a mayor who loves people – well done, Chicago.”

In recent weeks, several alderpersons have ratcheted up their pushback on the placement of shelters in their wards, with Alds. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, and Brian Hopkins, 2nd Ward, calling for the former Streeterville hotel the Inn of Chicago to no longer be used to house migrants past this year.

“The ‘experiment’ of housing 1,500 migrants at the Inn of Chicago has been an abject failure,” Reilly said in a statement Friday, later adding: “Chicago desperately needs financial help and logistical assistance from the federal government to manage this growing crisis. But the Johnson Administration needs to demonstrate some leadership and finally develop a realistic plan to responsibly manage the flow of migrants to Chicago and house them in locations where they have access to public parks, accessible healthcare and affordable goods and amenities.”

Chicago pensions costs weigh heavily

Johnson plans to follow through on passing a budget that doesn’t raise property taxes, which contributes to the half-billion budget gap by about $88 million, the city’s budget office previously said.

The deficit is only expected to grow in future years, according to Johnson’s budget forecast. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward and Johnson’s floor leader, said it will require working with state lawmakers to authorize many of Johnson’s proposals to generate revenue long-term.

“We’ve only been in office now for five, six months,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “Having an additional year plus to work on those things, obviously, is going to be very helpful toward enlisting the support of Springfield in those new revenue ideas.”

The city’s growing pension costs are one of the factors driving the city’s budget deficit, and Johnson plans to continue Lightfoot’s policy of making advance payments through 2026.

Johnson’s budget forecast plans for $2.7 billion in pension contributions next year, with nearly $307 million of that advance payments. That’s an increase from the $2.6 billion the city made in pension payments this year, with $242 million of that for advanced payments.

While the city will begin to realize revenue from the city’s first temporary casino, it remains to be seen whether it will meet the city’s projections to help pay for pensions.

In the three weeks Bally’s temporary casino at the Medinah Temple in River North was open, it generated nearly $6.7 million in profit – with nearly $695,000 going toward local taxes, according to Illinois Gaming Board data. Bally’s already made a $40 million upfront payment that was incorporated into the 2023 budget.

Wednesday’s budget proposal projects at least $35 million in revenue next year from the “Casino Public Safety Pension Fund” will go toward underfunded police and firefighter pensions.

Johnson’s other campaign promises

To relieve officers from responding to mental health calls, Johnson has endorsed Treatment Not Trauma, a platform that aims to send health professionals, and not police, to mental health-related 911 calls and reopen the city’s shuttered mental health clinics.

His first budget pitch takes steps toward enacting those proposals by piloting the reopening of two shuttered mental health clinics in existing Chicago Department of Public Health buildings and doubling the number of staff on the Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement teams that provide an alternate response to mental health calls.

Johnson also plans to spend $1.8 million to reinstitute the city’s previously shuttered Department of Environment — a move progressive organizers have long called for to help address environmental racism — and increase funding to replace lead service lines.

Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th Ward and chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy, said she’s “very excited” to see a proposed Department of Environment that will have more regulatory teeth and build on the office Lightfoot created.

Having campaigned on a promise to increase youth jobs, Johnson is committing 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.

That number is still far below the demand for jobs, and below the number of positions offered in 2019, before the city’s summer jobs program was battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to creating an Office of Labor Relations with the mayor’s office, Johnson is also proposing restructuring 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.

Wednesday’s address marks the start of weeks of hearings with city departments and alderpersons as the mayor and City Council work to finalize the spending plan. By law, the city’s budget must be passed by Dec. 31.

WBEZ’s Tessa Weinberg and Mariah Woelfel cover Chicago city government and politics.