Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot is suggesting City Hall could bolster its finances if Chicago got rid of the city clerk and city treasurer’s offices — the only two other citywide elected positions.
Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, made the comments Thursday on WBEZ’s Morning Shift. She was asked how she would find more than $1 billion in new revenue to cover annual pension payments by 2023.
Lightfoot suggested the city treasurer’s office is redundant, saying the mayor’s office already has its own finance team: a budget office, comptroller and chief financial officer.
And many of the functions of the clerk’s office could be absorbed by the mayor’s office, too, she said. The city clerk administers the vehicle sticker program and handles all City Council legislative records.
Lightfoot offered few details on whether she’d raise taxes to pay for pensions, saying cuts come first.
“I think if we demonstrate that we’ve taken all the steps we can to wring savings out of the existing city government, then we will be in a better place to say, ‘OK, here’s some revenue ideas,’” Lightfoot said.
For years, the two citywide positions have been used by City Hall to appease Chicago’s delicate racial politics: clerks have traditionally been Latino, and treasurers have traditionally been African-American. Office holders are often appointed and expected to run as part of a top-ballot ticket.
This election cycle is the first time in years that voters will get to elect a city treasurer. The sitting city clerk, Anna Valencia, ran unopposed on the Feb. 26 ballot after being appointed to the seat in 2016.
Lightfoot also said a commuter tax on people who work in Chicago but live elsewhere would prompt retaliation by surrounding suburbs, who’d respond in kind to those who live in Chicago but work outside city limits.
“It’s an income tax on people who come to the city,” she said.
Below are more highlights from the conversation.
On managing debt by eliminating the offices of treasurer and clerk
Lori Lightfoot: There’s other things that I think that we can look at to make sure that the city government makes sense. I think we have to have the serious question of whether we need a clerk’s office? That organization has a separate administrative function, H.R., finance, all the things that you would set up for a totally different office, when many of the functions of the clerk’s office could easily be performed and absorbed by the executive branch. Similar question regarding the treasurer’s office. Do we need a separate treasurer’s office when, in the executive branch, we’re going to have a CFO, a controller, a budget office. We have to start asking those questions.
On new taxes
Lightfoot: What I’m saying is this: We have to make the case for more revenue with taxpayers. And we have to start making that case by demonstrating to them that we’re actually going to be better fiscal stewards of their precious tax dollars. No one thinks, “I don’t want to pay any taxes.” But what they want is a government that actually is running well, that is transparent, and that is accountable. I think if we demonstrate that we’ve taken all the steps that we can to wring savings out of the existing city government, then we will be in a better place to say, “OK, here’s some revenue ideas. They’ve got to be progressive.” We can’t continue to balance the budget on the backs of people who are least able to shore the responsibility.
Jenn White: Can you give us some example of possible taxes or fees you would look to to raise that revenue?
Lightfoot: Well one of the things that I’ve talked about is the possibility of having a tax on high-end professional services. So like high-end law firms like the one that I came from, the big accounting firms that are here. A small increase, a tax in the invoices that they send to their clients on a monthly basis could potentially generate hundreds of millions of dollars.
It’s an idea. We’re looking at different models and what the tax might look like, but those are some of the things that I think we have to think about, but we also have to do it in a way that doesn’t drive businesses out of the city. We need to think of growing our tax base, not shrinking it with regressive taxes.
On Lincoln Yards and affordable housing
White: There are a number of major developments in the works like Lincoln Yards and The 78. The developers of these projects say they’re not financially feasible without taxpayer money or TIFs to get them built. First of all, do you believe that’s true?
Lightfoot: Your listeners can’t see the eyeroll that I just did in saying that. Look, let’s talk about Lincoln Yards. That’s got to be some of the most valuable commercial property in the city. And $1.2 billion of taxpayer dollars — when we are not investing even a fraction of that moneys in other neighborhoods across the city, particularly south of Roosevelt Road or west of Ashland — I find problematic. That property is going to be developed whether we put a nickel in it or not.
I’ve been very clear from last July when this project really came on the scene publicly, that we should slow it down. It should not be finally approved until the next mayor and a new City Council are up.
White: But it’s a good chance that they will be approved before the next mayor takes office, so what would you do.
Lightfoot: We’ll see. We’ll see.
On restoring funding to the city’s public libraries
Lightfoot: We’ll focus like a laser beam both on restoring the hours that were cut and making sure that we have enough personnel in those libraries. I’ve heard from librarians as well. They want to do a lot more. They want to provide more programming, but they don’t have enough resources, and to me that doesn’t make any sense, because the libraries are so important.
On her record on police reform
Caller Bashir from Humboldt Park: I think that since you’ve been running for mayor you’ve talked a lot about police reform and other progressive issues, but how can we trust you to carry out meaningful police reform in light of a career that many view as being supportive of the worst abuses of the police department?
Lightfoot: Well I think that assumption about my career is inconsistent with the realities. Let me just give you one example: When I started as Police Board president, the Police Board held officers accountable a mere 35 percent of the time. And it’s not like there are any quotas. You have to take individual cases, but 35 percent concerned me. So we made some changes in the way in which the cases came to us, how they were analyzed, how they were litigated. And over the course of my tenure, we changed that 35 percent to over 73 percent, and it would’ve been higher but a number of officers just started resigning instead of coming before the Police Board.
If you look at what we laid out in the Police Accountablity Task Force, which I obviously led and had a significant hand in, not only in the findings but the series of recommendations, those are recommendations that laid bare a lot of hard truths that no one thought that we would talk about. And the consent decree is memorializing a lot of the recommendations that we made as part of the Police Accountability Task Force and were later picked up on by the Obama Department of Justice report.
So I believe that my record on police reform and accountability is second to none because I’ve led to make sure that we’re pushing forward. And that is the track record of accountability and reform that I’m going to bring to the mayor’s office.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Justin Bull. Click play to hear the full conversation.