Spare Some Change? Chicagoans Pitch Ideas To Close Huge Budget Gap As she stares down a $838 million gap, Mayor Lori Lightfoot turned to Chicagoans for their budget ideas Wednesday night.
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Spare Some Change? Chicagoans Pitch Ideas To Close Huge Budget Gap

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot outlines her plan for Chicago's $838 million budget gap at Harold Washington Library on August 29, 2019. On Wednesday, she heard from Chicagoans at the first of four budget town halls. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ hide caption

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Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Dig under those couch cushions and empty out that pocket change.

That's one suggestion Mayor Lori Lightfoot heard from Chicagoans at her first public budget hearing Wednesday night about how City Hall could begin to tackle its $838 million projected budget gap for next year.

"We all have lots of pennies sitting at home that we don't know what to do with," said Northwest Side resident Therese Stasik. "How about drop-off sites for pennies like some churches have done to see if we can make everyone see Chicago is worth every penny."

The "penny drop" pitch was one of the more creative ideas residents presented to Lightfoot Wednesday night at the first of four budget town halls where the rookie executive is asking Chicagoans for input on her upcoming budget proposal. She's set to deliver her official spending plan to the City Council on Oct. 23.

Lightfoot's team started the meeting asking city residents to talk about which programs or services are most important to them. But a few speakers took issue with the question, arguing that it indicated the city was focused more on making cuts than raising revenue.

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"We're actually coming to you to find out what you want to see in your budget," Lightfoot said in response.

Several people urged the mayor to approach the city budget the way a family would, and cut inefficiencies and unnecessary spending. Others urged the mayor to tax corporations and do away with the city's tax increment financing districts, or TIFs. The special taxing areas have long been criticized for being politicized slush funds that lack transparency and siphon property tax dollars away from core government functions, such as education.

Tom Tresser, an organizer and activist with the TIF Illumination Project, drew a loud round of applause with his suggestion that the mayor eliminate all TIFs and release the approximately $1.5 billion currently in those accounts back to public agencies.

He also called on Lightfoot to cancel recently created TIFs for two mega-developments known as Lincoln Yards and The 78. Both were approved in the final days of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel's term.

Ultimately, Chicago will need a combination of cuts and revenue to fix its finances. Next year, the city must contribute an additional $277 million to its pension funds in order to keep them on the path to solvency. It must also pay about $650 million in debt service.

In a rare prime-time speech last week, Lightfoot said she would need help from the Illinois legislature to tackle the city's beleaguered finances.

Lightfoot has already floated a litany of potential tax increases, including several that won't be possible without changes to state law. Those include a tax on professional services, such as law and accounting, and adjustments to the state's plan for a Chicago casino.

Feelings on a new casino were mixed at the town hall Wednesday.

Resident Jan Robinson said she isn't convinced a Chicago casino would be a good thing.

"I've never seen how this has ever bettered our city," Robinson said. "Gambling is a huge problem and people are addicted and a lot of the people that are addicted can't afford to gamble, so please think twice before you let a casino come into the city."

Rick Heidner, owner of Gold Rush Gaming, urged Lightfoot also to consider allowing video gambling in Chicago, which the city currently forbids.

"Many, many jobs would be created. I've seen it happen in the suburbs," he said. "There are a lot of empty stores. We could fill those."

Other speakers asked the mayor to allocate more money to affordable housing and homelessness, and to beef up mental health services to remedy the cuts made by Emanuel during his first year in office.

At the end of the town hall, Lightfoot reiterated that she does not want to raise property taxes.

"Property taxes? I think the answer is no," the mayor said.

But in the past, she has said that her administration doesn't have the luxury of taking that option off the table. Emanuel, passed a record property tax hike in 2015 right after winning a second term in office. The increase has been phased in over the past four years.

Public budget hearings had been regular spectacle during former Mayor Richard M. Daley's years in office, providing a rare opportunity for Chicagoans to air their grievances directly to the mayor. But Daley's successor, Rahm Emanuel, eventually stopped holding the town-hall style meetings and opted for rigorously controlled budget-related events in front of friendly audiences.

The next public hearing on the 2020 budget is set for Saturday, Sept. 14 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at Roberto Clemente High School, 1147 Western Ave.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.

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