• Alex Nitkin
    MAR 26, 2021

    City must be ‘fiscally responsible’ with stimulus, not ‘throw money around:’ Lightfoot

    Mayor Lori Lightfoot during a Wednesday news conference; Ald. Daniel La Spata (1) during a Thursday news conference hosted by the Right to Recovery coalition

    Mayor Lori Lightfoot is holding her cards close as debate heats up over how Chicago should spend the $1.8 billion it’s on track to receive through the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden earlier this month.

    But aldermen and other stakeholders are not waiting.

    The City Council voted 30-18 on Wednesday to endorse a resolution (R2021-213) by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36) calling for the city to consider setting aside up to $50 million for a “guaranteed basic income” pilot program. More than a dozen aldermen backed a measure to use some money to reimburse businesses, until one of their colleagues knocked the proposal off course. And on Thursday morning, a coalition of groups allied with progressive aldermen called on city leaders to prioritize housing assistance and mental health programs.

    During separate media appearances on Wednesday or Thursday, Lightfoot did not opine on the guaranteed income proposal, nor did she name any specific programs she wants to supercharge with the federal aid.

    But the mayor tipped her hand during a Wednesday afternoon news conference, when she was asked about the guaranteed income plan and responded that she “favor[s] jobs.”

    “I think in the long term, building a strong, robust and inclusive economy that deals people in is the best way we can cure some of the economic woes people are facing,” Lightfoot said. “I think the best way to do that is through economic development and getting people back to work.”

    Unlike the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which required states and municipalities to spend most of their direct funding by the end of 2020, the American Rescue Plan Act lets governments space out their spending during the next three years.

    Lightfoot said Thursday that she does “not want to repeat” 2009, when the city spent its share of President Barack Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act “very quickly.”

    City leaders under former Mayor Richard M. Daley “didn’t deal with any of the long-term structural fiscal problems” and “didn’t use that money in a way that would grow the economy,” Lightfoot told reporters on Thursday. She added that those actions laid the groundwork for Daley’s infamous 75-year sale of the city’s parking meter revenue — “the worst municipal deal, probably, in the history of the universe.”

    Lightfoot said her administration is “spending time analyzing a number of things,” including “who has been the most impacted by COVID-19” and which populations were “left out” of prior federal relief packages.

    Villegas introduced a resolution (R2021-332) this week calling for hearings on how the city can support undocumented immigrants who were ineligible to receive $1,400 checks.

    “We’ve got to lead with equity, we’ve got to fill the voids that are out there, lift the burden of people who have been really hard-hit and aren’t going to see federal stimulus dollars flow to them,” Lightfoot said Thursday. “But we have to do it in a way that’s fiscally responsible.”

    Aldermen chart their own course

    The mayor also said she did not “know anything” about Right to Recovery, the coalition of groups that held a news conference Thursday morning calling on city leaders to chart out a spending plan focused on health, education and housing support. The coalition includes United Working Families, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, SEIU Healthcare and the Democratic Socialists of America.

    “We have a couple times gotten direct assistance from the federal government, and it’s the direct responsibility of…the leaders of our city and the mayor to adequately put that funding where folks need it to get relief,” said Dixon Romeo, campaign director for United Working Families. “That’s not what happened last time with the CARES Act money.”

    Related: Budget director defends spending federal dollars on CPD as aldermen approve new COVID-related grants

    Progressive groups raised a backlash against Lightfoot in February when they learned her administration had funneled about $281 million from the March 2020 relief bill to reimburse police expenses. The mayor dismissed the criticism as “dumb,” saying the only other alternative would have been asking city taxpayers to pick up the bill for police costs incurred by the pandemic.

    Leaders of the coalition plan to launch a survey asking Chicagoans where the next gush of funding should be directed, they said.

    “This work is necessitated by what did not happen in 2020,” Ald. Daniel La Spata (1) said during the news conference. “We had $470 million in…flexible funding meant to provide stability and help for our most vulnerable residents. That’s not where it went, unfortunately.”

    Most of that aid “went to a black box” labeled in budget documents as “ongoing coronavirus relief” until earlier this year, when aldermen learned of the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to police, La Spata said.

    La Spata said he had yet to hear Lightfoot’s plan on how to spend the money, and cities are still waiting on the U.S. Department of Treasury to provide key details on how and when the money will be delivered.

    In the meantime, “We’re setting our own timetable on this,” La Spata said. “Equity demands listening first, which is why we feel taking the process to the public now is a really smart decision.”

    La Spata and 13 other alderman cosponsored an ordinance (O2021-1215) introduced this week by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25) to peel off $40 million from the city’s stimulus pool to reimburse bars and restaurants for lost revenues.

    Sigcho-Lopez said earlier this week that he was “hopeful” Lightfoot would get behind his proposal. The measure’s cosponsors include Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) and Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30), two close allies of the mayor.

    But the measure suffered a setback on Wednesday, when Ald. Emma Mitts (37), who chairs the council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection, maneuvered to banish the ordinance to the Committee on Committees and Rules.

    Asked about the restaurant reimbursement proposal on Wednesday, Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Comm. Rosa Escareño said she still needs to “dig into” its details but said what she had seen as of Wednesday was “not really balancing with my understanding of the numbers.”

    “We understand many industries across the city have been impacted, and we look forward to working with various industries to see a path forward,” Escareño said.

    Lightfoot predicted Thursday that she will hear from “a lot of people with a lot of opinions about how the money should be spent for the long term.”

    “What I don’t want to do is pander to the crowd [and] throw money around in a way that creates a larger problem financially for the city on the back end,” the mayor said. “Nobody wants to see the history of 2008 to 2011 repeated again, and I’m certainly going to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

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