Chicago’s Budget Season Starts With Public Input Sessions. Is Anybody Listening?

A group of Chicago firefighters, including Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt, brainstorm ideas at a public input session on Chicago's budget Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021. Mariah Woelfel / WBEZ
A group of Chicago firefighters, including Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt, brainstorm ideas at a public input session on Chicago's budget Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021. Mariah Woelfel / WBEZ

Chicago’s Budget Season Starts With Public Input Sessions. Is Anybody Listening?

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Accessible. Safe. Inclusive. Desirable.

Those are a few of the words proclaimed at a recent city-run event that asked attendees to define the values they want to guide Chicago in spending its money. From firefighters, to reproductive rights advocates, to violence prevention workers, about 100 people came out to work through big ideas for fixing their city.

It’s budget season in Chicago — a time when officials release nitty gritty details on how they’ll fund policing, garbage collection or wonkier things like paying the growing pension debt. And with budget season comes a request: for residents to take time out of their daily lives to attend input sessions and share how they want to see taxpayer dollars spent.

But whether that feedback actually makes a difference in how the city spends its money weighed heavily on some attendees’ minds.

“Where’s the follow up?” Donna Hampton-Smith asked. “Where’s the transparency? Where’s the accountability of all the comments people are making today? And that’s what I want to see. As a long time resident — 31 years in Washington Park — I’ve lived here, I’ve struggled here. I don’t see much change.”

Input sessions are ongoing — the next two are Wednesday and Thursday on the city’s West and North sides, respectively. The format of these sessions is different this year. Attendees spend much of their time talking amongst themselves, filling out worksheets on whether they agree with the city’s current budget priorities and what policies they want to see at the forefront, as opposed to lining up behind a microphone to express these ideas verbally to city officials.

“This is not going to be the traditional town hall,” Tina Hone, the chief of community engagement for the mayor’s office, said at the beginning of Saturday’s session. “One of the things that we wanted to do was not have a scenario where people are just sort of screaming at us without any type of interaction.”

The city is working with the University of Illinois at Chicago to organize feedback into a final report that will be released to the public, and will hit the mayor’s desk as she and her team at the budget office finalize their proposal.

But regardless of how efficient or collaborative these forums become, some say input from the general public is competing with too many other financial priorities to actually make a dent.

“The public doesn’t have a lot of input, I think, in the city of Chicago budget, because it’s a very complex thing that I don’t think most people understand,” said Ralph Martire, the director of the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

He explains that while the city operates on an overall budget of about $12 billion dollars, just a small portion of that — the corporate fund — is where the city gets to spend money more freely. It’s the equivalent of the money you keep on hand to buy the stuff you want, compared to the account that pays your rent and water bills.

And even the city’s roughly $4 billion corporate fund is a bit tied up in obligations.

“So you might be able to move $50 million, $75 million, maybe even $100 million, through community activism — really strong, consistent activism on a point,” Martire said. “But there’s really not much more room to do that, because they have legal commitments, they have contractual commitments, they have union commitments.”

One way to make an impact, Martire points out, is public pressure through dogged activism. Another? Giving aldermen — the elected officials closest to their constituents who field complaints on everything from downtrodden community centers, to violence, to tree-trimming needs — a bit more say in the budget process, Martire said.

Currently, the mayor’s budget office is responsible for putting forth the city’s one and only budget proposal. That proposal incorporates extensive input from department commissioners and from the public, the mayor’s office said.

Aldermen currently hold committee meetings and get to vote on whether to accept the mayor’s budget proposal. But in the past, Chicago’s aldermen would pitch their own plans for spending taxpayer dollars, Martire said.

“That’s a powerful thing, because now you’re not just going off of somebody else’s numbers,” he said. “They have to look at yours and see where the differences are. And I do think that’ll be good for the process. And it will help open it up and make it more democratic.”

This is an idea progressive Ald. Andre Vasquez has been thinking a lot about lately, saying he’d like to see the city council get to a point where it’s publishing its own budget proposal as the mayor comes out with hers.

“I think the role that we should play as a council, especially in the time of COVID that’s shown us that we need to step up, is to be the other equal branch of government that can create a budget and talk this stuff out,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez and others point out that this budget season is of particular importance, as the city is expecting a windfall of $1.8 billion from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan to assist in COVID-19 recovery.

Back at the public input session on Saturday, activists that’ve been coming to public input sessions for the past two years were cautiously optimistic they’d secure a sliver of funding out of this year’s budget.

“I hope so,” a group of activists with Good Kids Mad City exclaimed over one another.

They asked the mayor, who was in attendance, for $35 million for a violence prevention initiative called The Peace Book. It would create a book (plus a website and app) with a directory of wraparound services and job opportunities for Chicago’s youth most affected by violence.

“I feel like the more times we say it, the more times she don’t have space to ignore it if we keep saying it,” said Jai Simpson with Good Kids Mad City.

Meanwhile, the budgeting process is full speed ahead. The mayor is expected to introduce her official budget proposal next month, and a budget forecast could come as soon as Wednesday. That will be the first look the public gets at the gap in expenses and revenue the city faces in 2022.

Mariah Woelfel covers city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.