Whether at the city, county, state or federal level, producing a balanced, fiscally sound budget is a fundamental task of government.
Leaders sometimes fall short on that task, of course, and Chicago is no stranger to budget sleight of hand and wishful thinking about revenue.
The city saw that wishful thinking again on Wednesday, with the City Council’s approval of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first budget, which includes spending on popular progressive initiatives, relies heavily on one-time revenue of $786.5 million, and banks on hopes and prayers for state and federal dollars to deal with a crippling migrant emergency.
That’s no way to “balance” a $16.77 billion budget, something on which eight alderpersons agreed when they cast “no” votes.
Now it will be up to a council subcommittee to find additional revenue, while the city kicks the fiscal can down the road. That means Chicagoans potentially face budget cuts that could impact services, higher property taxes, a raid on reserves that jeopardizes the city’s bond rating, more fines and fees — or a combination of all the above.
‘Wait and see’ is no strategy
The Johnson administration is now spending $40 million a month on the migrant emergency — which, in its defense, is not a crisis of its own making. Still, migrants have been arriving by the busload since August 2022, and every candidate for mayor surely knew his or her administration would have to deal with the growing emergency.
At the current spending clip, the $150 million budgeted for the entire year will evaporate in a little less than four months.
Then what? Chicagoans, responsible for paying the city’s bills, deserve a realistic Plan B.
It’s not encouraging that a top mayoral adviser wouldn’t outline a contingency plan, telling Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman “We’ll have to wait and see.”
If the Johnson administration is trying to bolster the city’s case for more help by failing to budget for more than that $150 million — well, that could easily backfire.
While the state could potentially provide emergency funding, that may not be enough to cover what Chicago needs as it struggles to put up winterized, heated tents and provide services for migrants who are now living in unheated, bare-bones tents outside police stations.
City Hall, we think, also will have a tough hill to climb to persuade lawmakers in Springfield to appropriate additional money in next year’s fiscal year budget. The state has steered an estimated $115 million in direct funding for migrant assistance to the city since August 2022, when buses of asylum-seekers began arriving here courtesy of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. More money has come to Chicago indirectly via statewide spending on wraparound services and resettlement.
As for more federal money? Don’t bank on it, when Congress can barely agree on a national budget and Republicans, including hard-liners on immigration, hold the majority in the U.S. House.
The mayor avoided putting the onus on taxpayers now, avoiding a property tax increase in this budget despite adding on new spending. But that could quickly change, as Johnson addresses a shortage of over 2,000 Chicago police officers and tries to make good on his ambitious $800 million plan to “invest in people.”
Still, for all our criticism, there are elements of this budget that we like.
Hiring hundreds of civilians to free up more police officers to work the streets seems a smart investment, though it’s not the final answer to the officer shortage. And we’ve championed the idea of resurrecting the Department of Environment, to aggressively tackle the urgent issue of climate change at the local level. There’s also additional spending for a program that frees up police from responding to mental health emergencies and for more summer jobs for youth.
But do City Council members really need a fourth full-time staffer each, a new perk clearly meant as a sweetener — bribe? — to win “yes” votes on the budget. That’s nickel-and-dime stuff, of course, but its the kind of self-serving move that elicits eye-rolling, and rightly so.
The mayor got a win with a 41-8 vote.
Chicagoans got a temporary win with no new taxes, but the bill may still come due on paying for the migrant emergency.
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