What We Learned From 11 Days Of Virtual Chicago Budget Hearings

2021 Chicago City Budget Hearings
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
2021 Chicago City Budget Hearings
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

What We Learned From 11 Days Of Virtual Chicago Budget Hearings

The first ever all-virtual budget hearings on Chicago Mayor Lori Lighfoot’s proposed 2021 spending plan are finally over.

Thirty-five department heads and deputies went before aldermen over the course of 11 days, with some sessions stretching well past dinner time. Amidst the pandemic, aldermen Zoomed in from their ward offices, their kitchen tables and, occasionally, from their cars.

The hearings covered everything from the mayor’s proposed perpetual property tax increases, to the ongoing debate over police funding, to the kind of minutiae that only the most dedicated ally alderman could find riveting. (Does the rest of the city really care how many two-man vs. one-man garbage trucks roam the streets?)

But this exercise in municipal government is just the beginning. The mayor’s quest for 26 “yes” votes to pass a budget by the end of the year is underway. Both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times report Lightfoot told aldermen not to expect resources for their wards if they vote against her 2021 budget.

There’s also the question of whether Congress will act before the end of the year to pass a second stimulus package for state and local governments — something Lightfoot has repeatedly called for. And with no veto session planned for the state legislature in Springfield, the door is also closed on a laundry list of potential revenue ideas from the more progressive side of the City Council.

No matter what, there will be at least a few amendments before a final vote is taken. As Budget Chair Pat Dowell said after the final hearing on Tuesday, “And now we make the sausage.”

Here are five takeaways from the last two weeks of virtual budget hearings.

Public health budget more than doubles, but mostly due to federal COVID-19 grants

The Chicago Department of Public Health’s proposed budget for 2021 is $518 million, double what it was in 2020. Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady told aldermen last week that federal grants are funding “the lion’s share” of the department’s work for next year.

This is both a blessing and a curse. A windfall of federal money aimed at combating COVID-19 is helping do just that, but those funds will eventually dry up.

“We must look beyond COVID-19 in a variety of ways,” Arwady told aldermen. “The pandemic has highlighted gaps that have long existed in Chicago’s health system. … Addressing them requires us to make long-term investments that outlive COVID and build the infrastructure for healthy communities.”

The department’s budget was expanded by about $10 million before the pandemic hit to increase funding for mental health. That funding will remain, Arwady said. The department will also get additional funding for a pilot program that will pair mental health professionals with paramedics and police to respond to 911 calls in two police districts.

The city’s top doctor said despite having her budget double in size, the federal government will need to come through with additional funding once a vaccine is ready for distribution, which she predicted would be ready next summer or fall.

“My hope is that a year from now we will be in a place where we are starting to talk and serious ways about having large amounts of the population that have been vaccinated and really moving toward more of this herd immunity scenario,” Arwady said.

City Clerk wants to go digital and save $900,000

Chicagoans interact with the city clerk’s office more than most other departments. After all, it’s where you go to buy city stickers, look up city laws and register furry friends.

Like dozens of other departments, the clerk’s office is seeing a reduction in the 2021 budget proposal from $10.7 to $10.3 million. City Clerk Anna Valencia told aldermen during budget hearings that one of the key initiatives for her office next year will be moving the record-keeping her office does online. Right now, all legislation must be proposed on paper, in-person at her office.

“We have a lot of paper documents,” Valencia said. “It’s very archaic. We are literally scanning in documents and (creating) pdfs.”

Valencia said her office had plans in 2020 to create a digital system for aldermen to introduce, sponsor, sign — and, perhaps eventually, vote — on legislation. Her office will pick that back up now and into 2021.

For some aldermen, the move online is long overdue. Valencia estimated that moving more operations online would save $900,000 in her office over the next three years. She anticipated there would be additional savings in other departments, as well.

Recycling rates still stink and garbage fees are unlikely to increase

Chicagoans accumulated a lot more trash in 2020 than in previous years — at least 10% more waste than in 2019, the Department of Streets and Sanitation revealed. But there’s no chance the city will migrate to a volume-based garbage fee.

Right now, single-family homes pay a flat $9.50 a month fee for the privilege of having city sanitation workers pick up their waste.

Commissioner John Tully, Jr. told aldermen a volume-based system isn’t feasible given the city’s network of alleys, because there’s nothing stopping someone from dumping their trash in their neighbor’s garbage can.

Chicago also has a recycling problem that it just can’t seem to address. Every year, aldermen complain about the city’s abysmal recycling rates, and every year officials with the Department of Streets and Sanitation express a commitment to do better. This year was no different.

“Improving recycling and sustainability remains a top priority for the department,” Tully told aldermen. DSS is scheduled to complete its search for a new recycling firm this month. Those companies selected will have contracts effective in January 2021 for a three-year term.

Overall, the department is expected to receive $10 million more than 2019, or about $284 million.

Keeping police accountable

This summer of unrest has made 2020 a busy year for the department that investigates allegations of police misconduct.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA, “received an unprecedented number of just over 400 complaints within a two-week time period,” Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts told aldermen.

To address the flood of complaints, COPA created a new investigative unit and launched a new data portal to provide updates and information on complaints filed during the wave of protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd.

COPA was created in response to the fatal 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald. It was supposed to fix the inefficiencies that plagued its predecessor agency. For 2021, the department is receiving a little over $13 million. To put that in perspective, the entire public safety budget is $2.7 billion

But Roberts told aldermen the “young” agency still doesn’t have the system in place to identify misconduct trends, such as which officers are repeatedly accused of misconduct or what types of misconduct are most prevalent. Roberts was unable to explain to aldermen why some officers have more complaints than others or how the agency is tracking bad actors within the department.

COPA’s predecessors — most recently the Independent Police Review Authority, or IPRA — were bogged down by a lengthy backlog of unresolved complaints of police misconduct, some going back years.

Roberts told aldermen that COPA has closed nearly twice as many cases following a full investigation compared to IPRA.

New planning commissioner, aldermen tussle over who speaks for communities

The Department of Planning and Development has seen major increases under Lightfoot’s administration, growing from $37.5 million in 2019 to $97 million proposed for 2021.

But Commissioner Maurice Cox, the mayor’s pick to lead the department, has gotten off to a rocky start with the city’s 50 “mini-mayors,” and this year’s budget hearing highlighted the tensions.

“If I would have to give a grade to your department, commissioner, it would be a resounding D or F,” said Chris Taliaferro, 29th Ward.

Taliaferro was one of several aldermen who said Cox and his growing cadre of city planners talk too much to neighborhood groups and not enough to aldermen.

“I have to get my information through them, which I find is very disturbing,” Taliaferro said. “If you work strictly through community organizations and not with the alderman’s office … I think that’s bad.”

The sentiment is something of a reversal from the past, when city planners were seen as being out-of-touch with neighborhood residents.

“Everything can’t be what [the] planning [department] wants,” said Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th Ward. “Some things have to be what the community and the aldermen want. A lot of us have been in these communities all our lives. We grew up here, and we know what we want and how we want it.”

Some communities have several aldermen because of how the city’s ward maps are drawn. Some aldermen represent multiple communities with very different interests, like Burnett. His ward includes wealthy downtown neighborhoods, like the West Loop, and disinvested areas, like East Garfield Park.

Still, several aldermen, including Burnett, praised Cox for visiting their wards and working to understand the intricate nuances of each neighborhood. Cox said he will continue to work with communities and aldermen to implement Chicago’s new citywide plan for development, dubbed “We Will.”