Here Are The Immediate, Enormous Problems Facing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot

lightfoot inauguration
Lori Lightfoot celebrates as she is sworn in as Chicago's new mayor on Monday, May 20, 2019, at Wintrust Arena. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
lightfoot inauguration
Lori Lightfoot celebrates as she is sworn in as Chicago's new mayor on Monday, May 20, 2019, at Wintrust Arena. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Here Are The Immediate, Enormous Problems Facing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot has a lot to celebrate.

She’s becoming the first black woman and lesbian to serve as the “boss” of Chicago after overwhelmingly winning the April election by margins that would make any politician feel on top of the world.

But the honeymoon might not last long.

That’s because Lightfoot will confront a host of enormous problems that will require immediate attention and unpopular decisions. How she handles those problems could affect taxpayers’ wallets, the city’s reputation and her grip on political power.

The solutions to these problems are open questions, but they could carry consequences for her four years in office and the city’s future.

Here’s a rundown of some of those problems and what’s at stake for taxpayers and Lightfoot.

Summer violence

Lightfoot takes office just days before the Memorial Day weekend, when the city’s violence begins to draw more attention with the warming weather.

“Whatever happens this summer will be her first test to reduce violence,” said a former top aide in Rahm Emanuel’s administration, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid being perceived as speaking for the outgoing mayor.

It’s probably not surprising that one of the first city officials to meet with Lightfoot after her election victory was Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who will undoubtedly be front and center for the Lightfoot administration this summer.

And it might be even less surprising that Chicago’s violence came up during a recent meeting at the White House between Lightfoot and Ivanka Trump, whose father isn’t shy about throwing an unflattering national spotlight on the city’s shootings.

When you look at the numbers, violent crime was down during the first four months of the year compared to the same time period last year, according to recently released figures from the Chicago Police Department.

From Jan. 1 to April 20, there were 136 murders, a 10% drop from last year. And shootings were down 8% this year at 541, according to police data. Overall crime in the city fell by 9%.

But the actual crime rate doesn’t trump the public’s perception, said the former Emanuel official, adding that if things look bad, people will believe they are bad, and that can be a tough narrative to fight.

The city’s horrible financial shape

Where to begin?

Lightfoot’s team will immediately have to tackle a shortfall in next year’s budget that is estimated to be more than $750 million, according to Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog group. Lightfoot said last week the budget shortfall she’s inheriting is much worse, though she wouldn’t give a number.

Whatever the case, punting on making tough decisions to close that deficit will only make matters worse.

“The longer you wait, the more expensive the problem gets,” Msall said.

The options for balancing the 2020 budget aren’t great, either. There’s a lot of political risk in asking taxpayers to pay more, especially for two of City Hall’s huge cash generators.

Chicago residents are experiencing “property tax fatigue,” Msall said, after Emanuel pushed through a record hike in 2015 to help shore up the city’s underfunded pensions for police and firefighters. Msall also noted that the Chicago housing market remains relatively flat and hasn’t rebounded to pre-Great Recession levels.

The other big tax is the sales tax, and that’ll be a tough sell since city residents already face one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation.

“There’s going to be a need for more creativity” when it comes to finding revenue, Msall said.

Crunch time in Springfield

Lightfoot’s already in a tough spot, fiscally speaking, and getting help from state lawmakers right now might be dicey.

Some big bills are sucking up a lot of oxygen in the capitol, such as Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature plan to overhaul the state’s flat tax rate before the legislature adjourns on May 31. That’s just a little over a week after Lightfoot’s swearing in, giving her little time to seek help from lawmakers if she chooses to do so.

But even if lawmakers pass measures that would add revenue to the city’s coffers, such as a plan to legalize recreational marijuana and approve a city-run casino that has eluded Chicago mayors Richard M. Daley and Emanuel, City Hall won’t be seeing the dollar bills stacking up immediately. It will take years for those plans to come to fruition.

“It takes, what, five years to build a casino?” said the former Emanuel official.

But even bigger than the budget shortfall are the continuing problems with the city’s massively underfunded pensions, which will become worse under Lightfoot’s watch.

The amount of money the city is required to pay into the pensions will jump by an eye-popping $1 billion by 2023, which will be Lightfoot’s third year in office. If Lightfoot wants to make changes to that payment schedule — or any pension changes — those would need approval from Illinois’ legislature and the governor.

“That is an enormous increase, especially if you want to pursue a property tax and sales tax increase to pay for it,” Msall said.

The unexpected

Everyday at City Hall presents a new set of unforeseeable problems, and that can wipe out an administration’s bandwidth to tackle its big agenda if it’s not properly staffed.

“The day you go in, there’s going to by 500 things thrown at you,” said the former Emanuel official. “All of these issues get thrown at you and you have less time with the big issues.”

Hunter Clauss is a digital editor who writes the station’s daily newsletter, The Rundown. You can follow him at @whuntah.