• Erin Hegarty
    OCT 21, 2021

    Property tax hike, raised fines for environmental violations set for initial vote

    Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed ordinances to fund next year’s spending plan are set to face a committee vote on Thursday. 

    Aldermen are set on Thursday to take an initial vote to approve the funding mechanisms for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed $16.7 billion spending plan. And while the plan may not technically include new fines, it does propose to capture revenue from hiked fines for environmental violations and a modest property tax increase.

    The revenue plan includes a proposal to raise the city’s property tax levy (O2021-4759) by about $77 million, about $17 million less than last year’s hike. This year’s increase includes a $23 million hike tied to inflation, $25 million to pay down debt for last year’s $3.7 billion capital bond and $28.6 million from expired tax-increment financing districts and new development added to the tax rolls. 

    The capital bond funds the city’s five-year “Chicago Works” capital plan. 

    RelatedStreet makeovers, building upgrades set to accelerate in first phase of 5-year capital plan 

    Aldermen are also set to take up Lightfoot’s proposed revenue ordinance (O2021-4786) and bond issuance ordinance (O2021-4788), the latter of which would issue General Obligation Bonds of up to $660 million to fund Lightfoot’s Chicago Recovery Plan. 

    Related: Lightfoot reveals 'Chicago Recovery Plan' with guaranteed income plank as progressive groups take credit 

    Lightfoot’s proposed revenue ordinance establishes a new “Clear Path Relief Pilot Program,” which would provide debt relief for fines tied to parking, standing, compliance, speed cameras or a “automated traffic law enforcement system.” Debt relief would be available for households with incomes 300 percent or less than the federal poverty level or are enrolled in Chicago’s Utility Relief Program.  

    The fine reforms are part of new system of “income-based ticket costs” Lightfoot promoted in her budget address last month. 

    We’re giving people the opportunity to have a pathway to compliance,” Lightfoot said in her Sept. 20 speech. “For low-income individuals who prove that they don’t have the ability to pay off their tickets, they will have the opportunity to pay off their most recent tickets and have their older debt forgiven.  

    The pilot would offer debt relief via income-based debt waivers, income-based fine waivers and income-based penalty waivers. 

    The proposed revenue ordinance removes a section of city code that suspends driver’s licenses for failure to pay some fines related to parking, standing, compliance and automated speed and traffic law enforcement systems. Lightfoot also proposes to give vehicle owners one 30-day grace period to correct their actions for not displaying a city sticker or license plate without being penalized. 

    Environmental fine hikes 

    The proposed revenue ordinance also hikes the minimum fines for violating environmental regulations, including by increasing the minimum fine for construction debris in the public way from $200 to $350. The proposal leaves the cap on public way construction debris fines at $500. 

    Construction debris issues took on a higher profile after last year’s botched smokestack demolition by Hilco Redevelopment Group. And aldermen aired grievances about messy construction sites during the Department of Transportation’s budget hearing earlier this month.  

    Related: New CDOT division would oversee ‘key’ city contracts including controversial bus shelter agreement set to expire next year 

    Lightfoot’s revenue proposal also makes following environmental fine changes: 

    • Increases from $500 to $750 the minimum fine for spill/overfill cleanup and “surficial cleansing” but leaves the cap at $1,000 for the fine. 
    • Increases from between $300 and $500 to between $1,000 and $5,000 fines for violating the city’s noise ordinance with stationary mechanical equipment. 
    • Increases from $200 to $350 the minimum fine for failing to report certain notifications for hazardous chemical inventories 
    • Increases from $1,000 to $3,500 the minimum fine for failing to submit a “self-certification form” for regulated equipment or areas 
    • Increases from $1,000 to $3,500 fines for violating an air pollution control permit or for violating a certificate of operation 
    • Increases from $200 to $350 the minimum fine for failing to post air pollution control permits or certificates of operation 
    • Changes a blanket fine between $1,000 and $5,000 for the operation of regulated equipment or areas without an air pollution control permit or certificate of operation to a category-based model with fines ranging from $1,000 to $7,500. 

    Also tucked into the revenue ordinance are updates to some environmental permit requirements, including one change to lower from between 10 tons and 100 tons to between five tons and 100 tons the emission threshold requiring a Category B certificate of operation. The proposal also nixes an air pollution control permit exemption for “Stage II vapor recovery systems” and hikes from $300 to $450 environmental review fees for residential buildings containing between two and four units. 

    Lightfoot’s proposed revenue ordinance would also make permanent the city’s Utility Billing Relief Pilot Program, which was approved as part of the city’s 2021 budget. The measure would require the city comptroller to submit an annual report on the effectiveness of the program on Aug. 1. The mayor has so far resisted Ald. Daniel La Spata’s (1) more far-reaching “Water for All” ordinance, calling the existing Utility Billing Relief program a better alternative. 

    Related: ‘Water for All’ ordinance would provide ‘accessible, affordable’ water delivery, alderman says 

    Under her revenue ordinance, Lightfoot proposes increasing fees for building permits and specialized review, in addition to tying all building permit and review fees to the Consumer Price Index, rounded to the closest $50-increment, beginning Jan. 1, 2023. 

    Contrasting the bevy of fine increases, Lightfoot proposes to lower fees for registering or renewing registrations of vacant buildings. The ordinance proposes dropping from $300 to $30 the “voluntary” registration or renewal of vacant buildings by the owner and would drop from $600 to $100 the “involuntary” registration or renewal of vacant buildings once city officials have found a violation. The proposal also lowers from $300 to $30 the renewal registration of a vacant building by a mortgagee. 

    Proposed property tax hike 

    Last year’s $94 million property tax increase (O2020-5747), which also put into place automatic increases tied to the Consumer Price Index in subsequent years’ budgets, passed narrowly with 22 aldermen voting against the hike.  

    Related: ‘Pandemic budget’ with $94M property tax increase narrowly approved by City Council 

    The vote on last year’s increase was closer than any other portion of Lightfoot’s 2021 budget and some aldermen cried foul, saying alternative revenue sources were not taken into consideration to avoid hiking property taxes while so many residents were strapped for cash amid the pandemic. 

    Ald. Tom Tunney (44) voted against the property tax increase last year and explained his “no” vote Tuesday, noting “it wasn’t just one issue, it was huge bonding issues, which our debt is pretty unsustainable as it is,” plus the measure tied future automatic property tax increases to the Consumer Price Index all but guaranteeing there will be a property tax increase with every subsequent budget.  

    “I haven’t made up my mind about this year’s budget,” Tunney told The Daily Line on Tuesday. His question is “what do I bring to my constituents” in turn for a potential property tax hike, he said.  

    Other aldermen, like Ald. Brian Hopkins (2) and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36), have also balked at the automatic annual tax uptick. 

    “I haven’t made up my mind on having less police officers and higher taxes,” Tunney said, pointing to the police department’s initiative in moving police out of beats and onto citywide teams plus the department’s struggle to recruit new officers. 

    Related: ShotSpotter contract, officer shortages come under microscope during 9-hour CPD budget hearing 

    Tunney said he has voted for property tax increases before, but those increases were tied to specific benefits to his residents including improvements to Lakeview High School and the promise of more police officers.  

    Tunney said he supports the proposal to cancel last year’s so-called scoop-and-toss to “handle our debt in a more prudent way and keep our bond rating [improving].” 

    Other aldermen, like Ald. Leslie Hairston (5), are less bothered by the incremental tax hike. Hairston cited an estimate that the approximately $20 million property tax levy hike tied to increases in the Consumer Price Index will pan out to less than a $20 annual tax hike for most homeowners. 
    “You’re not going to see your bill jump $100,” Hairston said. “It’s not that high.” 

    Alex Nitkin contributed reporting. 

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