Here’s How Chicago’s Proposed ‘Pandemic Budget’ Could Hit Your Wallet

COVID pandemic budget
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is proposing a tough-news budget to help close a projected $1.2 billion shortfall next year. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
COVID pandemic budget
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is proposing a tough-news budget to help close a projected $1.2 billion shortfall next year. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Here’s How Chicago’s Proposed ‘Pandemic Budget’ Could Hit Your Wallet

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday unveiled a pandemic-era budget that will ask Chicagoans to dig a bit deeper to help close a “historic” budget gap.

The city is projecting its finances to run $1.2 billion into the red in 2021, thanks to tanking tax revenues due to coronavirus-related shut-downs and business restrictions, as well as diminished travel and tourism to the city.

The mayor’s official budget recommendations for next year are biblically long, and WBEZ’s reporters are still sifting through them. Everything Lightfoot proposed needs final City Council approval, so things could change as she negotiates with aldermen.

But for now, here’s what we’ve identified that could hit your wallet.

Yes, there’s a property tax hike.

But no, it’s not nearly as big as the one former Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed in 2015. Lightfoot is hoping to raise nearly $94 million next year from property owners in order to stave off even more city worker layoffs, longer furloughs and deep cuts to “critical services.”

The upshot for homeowners: The mayor’s office says the owner of a $250,000 home would pay $56 more per year in property taxes. The asterisk here is that property valuations in Cook County could be changing.

The Lightfoot administration has a two-pronged justification for its proposed property tax hike. Prong one: The tax hike will partly make up for property tax payments that come to the city late – or never arrive at all.

Prong two is the more important one. The mayor’s office says that, unlike other city sister agencies like the school or park districts, City Hall’s slice of the annual property tax pie does not grow with inflation. She wants to change that. So going forward, City Hall’s property tax levy would rise with inflation, which opens the door for more regular property tax increases.

You’d pay a little more for gas in Chicago.

Illinois already has among the highest gas prices in the country, and Chicago has the highest gas prices in Illinois. Under Lightfoot’s proposed budget, that price would get a bit higher when you fill up in Chicago.

The mayor wants to raise the city’s gas tax from the current $.05 a gallon to $.08 cents a gallon. The simple math: Your 12-gallon tank would cost $.36 more to fill up from empty.

Keep in mind, though, that gas taxes in Ilinois are like bobbing for apples: Everybody gets a bite. Not only does Chicago have a gas tax, but Cook County has a gas tax, and the state of Illinois has a gas tax, which lawmakers just increased last year.

Hundreds of city workers could be laid off or furloughed.

This might not directly affect the bottom line of every Chicagoan, but it sure could affect some of the city’s workforce. Lightfoot wants to eliminate more than 1,900 positions from the city’s payroll. Some of these positions will be shifted onto Chicago Public Schools’ budget. And while many are already vacant, some are not.

Lightfoot said Wednesday that 350 city workers will be laid off, though the layoffs would not take effect until March 1 (more on the reason behind that in a bit). She also wants all non-union city workers – including herself – to take five unpaid days off, known as furlough days.

Because it’s still unclear exactly who will be laid off or furloughed, it’s hard to say what impact this might have on Chicagoans and how they get – or don’t get – services from City Hall.

Congress to the rescue?

Not quite yet, but the mayor is hoping that Democrats and Republicans can get their act together and approve another round of COVID-19 economic stimulus, stat. The pandemic has decimated local government budgets across the country. Lightfoot and other mayors – in blue and red states – have been hollering for Congress to negotiate a bailout package for state and local governments.

This matters because money from the feds could mean that Chicago’s 2021 budget doesn’t have to be so tough on your wallet, or on city workers – or maybe a little of both. Lightfoot even delayed her budget speech by a week in hopes that Congress would reach an eleventh-hour deal that would change the proposal she presented Wednesday. That didn’t happen.

The prospect of a new stimulus package passing any time soon – or even the status of negotiations between the Trump administration, Senate Republicans and House Democrats – is utterly unclear. First, the president tweeted that he was stopping talks until after the Nov. 3 election. But then there was optimism about a deal. But then there wasn’t.

This back-and-forth is precisely why Lightfoot is delaying layoffs until March 1, in case Congress rides to the rescue and obviates the need for them. Stay tuned.

There could be a little bit of love on your city water bill.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The city is trying to save money on postage for all those water bills it has to mail out each year. That might sound like peanuts in a gargantuan, $12.8 billion city budget, but it adds up.

To that end, the mayor’s office is offering a one-time, $6 credit on your account if you opt to get your water bill electronically, rather than making the city send you an old-fashioned piece of paper in the mail.

Alex Keefe is an editor on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @akeefe.