In a roundtable discussion with community news organizations last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended and promoted her 2021 budget, which continues investments in anti-violence efforts but also raises taxes and raises the specter of city layoffs absent of more federal stimulus.
She also touted her administration's neighborhood-and-community-directed efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic and said how bad the second wave will get will depend on whether or not people follow the city's guidelines against having people over to their homes.
"We have a challenge this year trying to close a $1.2 billion budget deficit, and while I'm sure there'll be questions about specific pieces of it, keep in mind that when you have a budget deficit of that size, you have to look at a range of different tools and options in order to address the magnitude of the challenges that we're facing," Lightfoot said.
She laid out that savings and efficiencies are projected to bring the city in $537.2 million, "and that includes better fiscal management … as well as personnel reduction." The proposal includes of hundreds of eliminated job vacancies as well as layoffs, though employees would not lose their jobs under her proposal until March in hopes of more federal aid.
Lightfoot said she does not anticipate more federal aid before the end of this year, by which point the city is required to pass a balanced budget. But she is hoping for more action from Washington in 2021.
"What we've been advocating for at the federal level," she said, "is to fund a stimulus that redirects resources to cities, but what we've been asking for is unrestricted funds." Restrictions like block grants and ties to specific entities would "limit our ability in how we use that money," she said.
"We said very clearly: this is a once-in-a-generation economic meltdown that is entirely related to COVID impact. One hundred percent of our gap in 2020 is COVID-related, to the tune of $800 million. Sixty-five percent of gap in 2021 is COVID-related, to the tune of $783 million. Give us the ability to fill those holes. Give us unrestricted resources so that we can do the right thing by our city, and one of the top priorities of course is rolling back layoffs."
Lightfoot's administration also proposes to refinance the city's debt to take advantage of recession-induced low interest rates, "increasing the size of adjustments in other revenue, lease taxes and so forth, looking at existing sales taxes, but the bottom line is you can't close a gap this large without literally looking at every tool in your toolkit, including a modest property tax increase."
The mayor proposes a property tax increase of $94 million; since the Oct. 27 roundtable, Alds. Sophia King (4th) and Leslie Hairston (5th) have come out against that proposal. Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) announced her opposition the day Lightfoot proposed her budget; Taylor and Hairston have also announced opposition to cuts and furloughs to the municipal payroll.
Funding for public education follows the number of students, and Chicago Public Schools' enrollment is down 15,000. Lightfoot said CPS funding is a matter of equity and said budgeting for under-enrolled schools will not cut corners, especially by pursuing grant funding for them to ensure they have the resources they need.
Lightfoot also pledged to move forward her INVEST South/West initiative, which aims to invest more than $750 million in public funding alongside private and philanthropic capital on 12 commercial corridors in 10 communities, including Bronzeville and South Shore.
"One of the challenges of this budget is that people were saying, 'We need to have deeper cuts. We need to have more layoffs. We need to cut city services.' I think exactly the opposite: we need to use the government as stimulus," she said. "We need to stand tall, even in these difficult times, and not shy away from making investments in economic development. Why? Because we need to push forward our recovery through this economy. We need to continue making investments in mental health, affordable housing, violence prevention."
She said her 2021 budget proposal continues a commitment in violence interruption: $9 million for street outreach, $2.25 million "to sustain the work of community-based organizations" and hundreds of thousands in grants. She recalled investments into violence-reduction resources a year ago and $10 million in federal stimulus money this year to further those efforts. She also said she wants to "monetize those investments over time" in order to move away from year-to-year line items, in order to ensure the programs continue to exist.
Asked about South and West Side disparities in mental health services and situations in which the police are responding mental health emergencies rather than other professionals, Lightfoot said her administration has tried to stitch back together a social safety net left in "tatters" after the two-year state budget impasse during former Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration.
Lightfoot has proposed a co-responder model, in which both police officers and mental health professionals would attend to those having a crisis together. She said professionals told her they would be concerned for their safety if they went alone, but she also said that police do not need to be the "first and only responders" in such situations. But this infrastructure will take time, she said, and it will have to be scaled up. The 2021 budget proposal contains a pilot for the model, and she said it is a good first step.
She said the city spent tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money this spring in affordable housing, mental health services, homelessness intervention and youth services. She said the Chicago Department of Public Health's (CDPH) Framework for Mental Health Equity has a neighborhood-specific approach for individuals to access care through community organizations, including 32 trauma-informed centers of care across the city. Her budget proposal includes $9.3 million in city dollars and an additional $10 million in federal stimulus money.
After remarking on efforts to prevent violence through mental health services through street outreach workers and crisis intervention training to help those with serious mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders, Lightfoot also noted the surge of opioid abuse and overdoses amid the coronavirus pandemic, particularly among older Black men.
Asked what she would do to protect communities of color from the pandemic, as they have been disproportionately affected by it thus far, Lightfoot recalled the work of her administration's Racial Equity Rapid Response Team (RERRT) and spoke of engaging with trusted community partners to combat the epidemic in neighborhoods.
RERRT began in April through city collaboration with South Shore Works, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation and Austin Coming Together to distribute personal protective equipment and spread news about testing, food banks and how the virus spreads.
In June, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) and three dozen more Chicago health care organizations with RERRT jointly declared racism a public health crisis and pledged to do more to overcome health disparities in minority communities and ensure greater health disparity.
As testing ramped up in Chicago and the coronavirus began to hit heavily Latino neighborhoods, the RERRT spread to the Southwest and Northwest sides and began partnering with the Rush University and the University of Illinois-Chicago medical centers.
"We've got to get people at the grassroots, neighborhood level and really make sure that we're communicating in a multi-lingual way to really bring people the information and resources they need to keep themselves safe," Lightfoot said. "The one thing that we've definitely learned from this virus is that you've got to over-communicate. Whatever you think is enough, go the next step."
In an interview with the Herald in May, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said her administration's modeling of the pandemic forecasted a resurgence of COVID-19 in November, which has come to pass. Last week, UCMC lead epidemiologist Emily Landon hypothesized a long, high plateau of coronavirus cases over this second wave.
Lightfoot recalled that the data showing that the second wave's acceleration in Chicago is similar to that of the first wave's ascent in March and April, and she said the city is concerned in hospitalizations. The difference now is that much more is known about the novel coronavirus, both on medical and individual levels.
"Individuals have tools to protect themselves against the surge of this virus," she noted, recalling the emphasis on mask-wearing, social distancing and limiting daily physical contact with others, especially in the home.
"The challenge for us as a city (and) as a health department: we can impose interventions in public spaces; (it's) much harder to do in private spaces," he observed. "It really depends upon individuals recognizing that the danger and deadliness has not gone away and that we all have the power and the ability to affect how this virus spreads."
Lightfoot did say that the CDPH has done some modeling around the second peak, but she reiterated that the disease's trajectory will depend on the ability of people to adhere to public health guidance.
"The worst case scenario, which is happening in some areas, is that we could exceed the spring levels," she said. "We're seeing that in places like Wisconsin. We're seeing that in other parts of the country that the second surge is far worse than what they experienced previously."
Although Wisconsin has opened a field hospital at its state fair grounds in suburban Milwaukee, Lightfoot said there are no immediate plans to reopen Chicago's at McCormick Place, which closed in early May for want of patients. But contingency plans exist: Lightfoot recalled that the closed MetroSouth hospital in suburban Blue Island was considered as an emergency COVID-19 facility, and she said she understood that the site was ready to go if the need arises during the second surge.
"We're not anywhere close to that," she said. "We're not close to where we were with dire predictions, but if we don't get our act together, individually and collectively, we could see a real strain on our health care system, which is why we started sounding the alarm."