- COURTESY CITY OF CHICAGO
With much fanfare, Mayor Lightfoot signaled the start of the budget season with last Thursday's state of the city address.
I'd say the budget season started a few weeks earlier, when the county told us our TIF take had gone up to $841 million. But since the official attitude of the city is that TIFs don't exist, let's move on.
As with any mayoral budget speech, the mayor said all the right things, in such an artful way as to pretty much avoid saying anything at all. Don't say Lori's not a fast learner.
To help you understand what's going on, let me read between the lines. Mayor Lightfoot's actual words come first, followed by my italicized translations.
"Tonight, I want to speak to you about the state of our city and its finances."
The city's finances suck.
"We have some hard choices to make."
"Tonight is not a budget speech where I would lay out in detail every expense and every source of revenue."
Things are so bad, she doesn't know what to do. So . . .
"That will come in October."
"Let me begin by telling you we walked into a staggeringly large budget deficit for next year."
Told you she'd blame Rahm . . .
"If we followed the old playbook, we could have tried to muscle through another historically large property tax increase, relied upon a massive borrowing scheme, shortchanged pensions, or some measure of all of the above."
You watch—before all is said and done, she'll probably do a little of all of the above.
"We focused on creating a foundational shift in the way that the city . . . balances its budget."
Don't know what that means.
"First, by in the short term creating structural efficiencies in the way we spend your tax dollars."
I doubt Mayor Lightfoot does either.
"And for the longer term, laying the foundation for a strategy that shifts the focus to investing in our people."
But it sounds good, so what the hell?
"On my first day in office, I signed an executive order ending the practice known as aldermanic prerogative."
Told you she'd mention aldermanic prerogative.
"We have taken important steps to professionalize the $100 million-a-year workers' compensation program."
Get ready for an Ed Burke reference, if not by name.
"That program had been under the sole control of a single alderman . . . "
Right on time . . .
" . . . who is now under federal indictment."
Give Lightfoot an A for this—she had the guts to take on Burke. Unlike Rahm and Mayor Daley.
"We have also started looking at our borrowing practices and making changes there to save money."
Here comes some mumbo jumbo about saving money on interest.
"For example, we will be replacing high-cost debt—kind of like how homeowners refinance their mortgages—which we expect will generate $100 million in savings alone."
Rahm was always talking about saving money on borrowing, yet interest payments kept rising.
"We eliminated $1.4 billion in short-term borrowing from big banks . . . "
How could something increase if it were being cut?
" . . . which is expected to save $22 million in interest and fees."
Just one of life's mysteries, I guess.
"On August 20th, we also implemented a hiring freeze across city government."
That doesn't mean your taxes will drop. It means the city will spend money targeted for job vacancies on other things. It's a budget trick Rahm learned from Daley, who learned it from his father, who probably learned it from Anton Cermak. And so it goes . . .
"We must expand opportunity, expand our tax base, and expand our population. We need to continue to give residents and businesses of all stripes reasons to stay, to come, and to grow."
How she'll do this without restructuring the TIF program—which is mostly dedicated to upscale communities—is anyone's guess.
"One of the things that I am most proud of as mayor is our unequivocal support for immigrant and refugee communities."
This has nothing to do with the budget, but it's her way of saying F you to the immigrant activists who say she's not doing enough.
"In addition to being present in immigrant communities . . ."
Speaking of nettlesome critics—get ready, progressives, you're next.
" . . . I have spent time in neighborhoods that have historically not seen investment or even the presence of a mayor in years."
"When I started as mayor on May 20th, we walked into a projected deficit for next year of $1 billion. Yes, that's billion with a B."
And that rhymes with P, and that stands for pool. Sorry, but mayors often remind me of Harold Hill, the fast-talking salesman from The Music Man, when they talk budgets.
"As a result of all of the efforts we have made to date . . . that number has decreased by almost $200 million. But that still means that the budget gap for 2020 is $838 million."
Almost as much as this year's tax yield from the TIFs, which she still hasn't mentioned.
"As your mayor, I cannot in good faith promise you that I will take any option off the table to tackle this crisis, whether it's through budget reductions or by raising revenue."
Look out for those rising taxes.
"We are exploring revenue options to address rampant congestion that solves the problems of traffic, pollution, and other issues."
Hmm, now that's a promising idea—a progressive tax on car-driving commuters. But that would be really hard to pass. So . . .
"We are pursuing a Chicago casino . . . "
She'll probably be sticking with the old regressive standby of soaking suckers foolish enough to think they can beat the odds.
"I will be hosting four budget town halls across Chicago . . . "
There was a time when even Mayor Rahm hosted budget hearings.
" . . . in order to truly hear from residents, including our city's young people."
But Rahm eventually stopped hosting them because he didn't like what residents had to say.
"Together, let's seize this moment to do the right thing, to chart a new course, and put our city on a stronger path once and for all."
We'll see how this turns out . . . v