Hairston Nov. 19

Ald. Leslie Hairston at a Nov. 19 meeting of the Budget Committee

Alds. Sophia King (4th) and Leslie Hairston (5th) backed Mayor Lori Lightfoot's budget in a committee meeting alongside a majority of their City Council colleagues.

Lightfoot has at least 26 aldermen in support of her second mayoral budget, likely presaging passage when the full 50-member council meets on Monday.

The budget also passed the Finance Committee on Nov. 18, with Hairston voting in support. King missed that meeting because her father died and is currently mourning with family. Her office will release a statement explaining her support for the budget on Monday.

Interviewed over a break in the Nov. 19 Budget Committee hearing, Hairston said that the increase in property taxes, due to take place in 2022, is Chicago's last recourse.

"Everything was on the table until we had exhausted all the other options, and levied and borrowed," she said "That was the only thing that was left."

Hairston said that it has been five years since property taxes were last raised and said that, if the council had not acted this year, aldermen would have had to do it next year. And she called the hike, which Lightfoot has said would be worth $56 a year on houses appraised at $250,000, "modest."

When Lightfoot proposed the budget on Oct. 21, King said tax increases "should be the very last things that we look at and that we should take every kind of progressive revenue measure before we take something drastic like that." Hairston, for her part, would not commit to voting against a budget that raised property taxes, as she did last year. She did, however, express skepticism over the following weeks about the proposed increase. 

On Oct. 26, the first day of Budget Committee hearings on the proposal, the Sun-Times reported that Hairston said that Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett estimated average annual property taxes will be $112 once levies for Chicago Public Schools, the City Colleges and Cook County (which is not expected to raise property taxes) are factored in alongside the city's, and that Hairston took Bennett to task for arguing that the city's property tax rate is "comparatively low" compared with the suburbs. 

Hairston noted the city's racial demographics and level of higher educational attainment and noted the preponderance of suburbanites' good-paying jobs. WTTW reported that she said the city should find the $94 million for the property tax increase somewhere else.

At Hairston's Oct. 27 ward meeting, she said that $56 "may still be a lot of money," adding "don't think now is the time to add more taxes" and "I would like to find a way to give people a break, because it's $56 this year, then it'll double next year, and it'll keep going up."

When King, who chairs the council's Progressive Reform Caucus, introduced the group's budget priorities on Oct. 29, she said again that she opposed property tax increases, adding that they should "not be pursued until the city has fully explored progressive revenues like a vacancy tax, pilots, graduated fines and fees (and) also until Springfield lawmakers will be forced to look at some regressive fines, fees and penalties that cause disproportionate harm to our poor and working class residents and communities of color."

Since then, the General Assembly has cancelled its fall veto session. None of the other revenue sources she mentioned are thus far included.

At the Progressive Caucus' town hall on Nov. 12, which King and Hairston, a founding member, both attended, South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said the group was still seeking to avoid raising property taxes.

During the Nov. 19 interview with the Herald, Hairston conceded that $56 "still is" a lot of money to people.

Hairston acknowledged what she had said in public and to the press before the committee voted in favor of the budget, including the property tax increases.

"This is where we are now, and it is a difficult decision. It has been a very difficult decision," she said. "It is never easy, and we take it with great seriousness. And it is a very difficult thing to do, to ask people to pay more."

At a Nov. 18 Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce meeting, Hairston suggested tying property taxes to a price index so that "if the market is not going up then our taxes aren't going up, they they may stay the same, or they may lower," adding that such a system may be more predictable and forgiving.

Hairston said in the interview that the idea is under discussion among aldermen, and suggested that it be tied to inflation.

Since last month, Hairston had wanted to avoid laying off city workers, and Lightfoot reached an agreement with the Chicago Federation of Labor on Nov. 14 to avoid doing so. Hairston said city employee furloughs will only be "for those who can better afford it," not those making less than $100,000.

In the meeting, Hairston argued that Chicago Police Department employees who make more than $100,000 a year should have been had to take furlough days, but Budget Director Susie Park said CPD Supt. David Brown had argued those furloughs would have been too difficult for the police to operationally accommodate.

Hairston, in the interview said raising property taxes "is part of" what went into preventing municipal layoffs or wider furloughs. And she touted the benefits she said the additional tax revenue will bring in: $35 million in violence prevention, $10 million for mental health, $1 million for a co-responder pilot (in which social and mental health workers will respond to some emergency situations, accompanied by police) and more than $52 million in federal stimulus money for housing carried over into the new year.

Hairston is also happy that the budget will fund local infrastructural projects through a five-year capital plan, which Lightfoot and associated city departments unveiled on Nov. 18.

Citywide, the plan includes repairs and replacement of bridges, shoreline revetments, Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible sidewalks, street resurfacing, streetlights, traffic signals and other projects funded next year and in 2022 through $1.4 billion in bonds included in the budget.

It is oriented around reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving stormwater management and local air quality by increasing the ability of streets and alleys to absorb stormwater and investing $3 million more a year to plant trees. Further work would go into deferred maintenance needs at libraries, firehouses, city office buildings and health centers across Chicago. 

"This five-year capital plan provides CDOT with the resources to make vital infrastructure investments across the entire city of Chicago, including those prioritized in the Mayor's Invest South/West Initiative,” Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said in a statement, pointing to recent improvements along Drexel Boulevard in the 4th Ward funded by the initiative as an example.

“Through this plan, we will work with our partners to invest in our neighborhoods in a way that emphasizes equity, safety and mobility and lowers the economic and environmental burden of transportation for all of our residents."

Most programs involved in the plan require at least half of hired staff to live in Chicago, and the city's procurement and contracting process places priorities on using minority-, women- and locally owned businesses. 

"Menu money," which aldermen traditionally have used for sundry ward infrastructural projects, has increased from $1.32 to $1.5 million in the current budget.

Hairston said the capital plan will pay for repairs to the 5th Ward's portion of the lakefront, including long-awaited improvements to Promontory Point, as well as the 71st Street Streetscape project in South Shore, which has been gestating for more than a decade. The project would include new lighting, sidewalks, planters, curbs and gutters.

"I've had money for it, and the previous administration did not move on it," Hairston commented. "There was money before; they just didn't implement it. I spoke with the mayor personally, and she thought it was ridiculous it had not been done. And as a result of that, we'll be having quarterly meetings with CDOT to make sure that we are following up with all of these projects."

Christian Belanger contributed reporting. 

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