CHICAGO (CBS) — A group of progressive aldermen is proposing a handful of changes to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s budget plan for 2021, including a so-called “Amazon Tax” aimed at large logistics companies, but their proposals are unlikely to get a debate before the City Council votes on the budget.
The aldermen also are proposing to shut down a smattering of special taxing districts earlier than planned to return more property tax revenue to the city and other government bodies in Cook County, to transfer funds out of the Chicago Police Department to pay for a new mental health mobile crisis response program within the Chicago Department of Public Health, and to require CPD to vacate its infamous Homan Square facility on the West Side.
However, most of the proposals they introduced on Monday were banished to the City Council Rules Committee, where ordinances the mayor opposes are typically sent to languish without a vote. Supporters of the budget amendments would need the Rules Committee to decide the proper committee to debate the proposals, and then have that committee vote on them, which appears highly unlikely given the current City Council schedule.
United Working Families, a community coalition which helped draft the proposals, denounced the moves to bottle up the ordinances in the Rules Committee, calling it “cynical maneuvering.”
“Members of the Chicago City Council were today provided with the opportunity to tax Amazon, send mental health workers to people in crisis, and close a police torture facility. But instead of doing the right thing by the Black and Brown working-class people who have suffered the most from generations of racist disinvestment, they took a pass and sent these amendments to the Rules Committee to die,” UWF Executive Director Emma Tai said in a statement. “This is not a moral budget. It relies on poor and working-class people for revenue instead of taxing the rich. It keeps a police torture facility and police department vacancies on the books instead of more funds for rental relief and COVID testing.”
The proposed budget changes come as the mayor is working behind the scenes to wrangle 26 votes for her 2021 spending plan, which includes several unpopular choices for aldermen to close a $1.2 billion deficit.
The mayor’s budget plan relies on a $94 million property tax hike, a 3 cents per gallon gas tax increase, refinancing $501 million in debt, and eliminating nearly 2,000 vacant positions.
Over the weekend, Lightfoot canceled plans for 350 layoffs, amid stiff opposition from aldermen and labor unions. The mayor’s office did not provide specifics on an agreement with the Chicago Federation of Labor to avert the planned layoffs, but according to published reports the city instead would borrow against future marijuana tax revenue to make up for the $15 million in savings expected from the planned layoffs.
The City Council is expected to vote on the mayor’s budget plan at the end of the month, and it’s unclear whether the proposed amendments from progressive aldermen would have sufficient support for approval, even if they do make it out of the Rules Committee.
Progressive aldermen are proposing to generate an estimated $5.8 million a year in revenue through a proposed $16-per-employee “Amazon Tax” on logistics companies with more than 50 employees. United Working Families, which helped draft the ordinances, said it would target logistics firms like Amazon, Walmart and Target.
In the past, Lightfoot has opposed reinstating the city’s more sweeping “head tax” on most city businesses, arguing it discourages business development.
But progressive aldermen have argued large corporations should take on a greater tax burden in Chicago, rather than relying on residents and small businesses.
The proposed “Amazon Tax” was among the measures sent to Rules Committee.
Lightfoot declined to comment on the tax proposal after Monday’s council meeting.
Lightfoot declined to comment on the budget amendments offered on Monday.
“They did not share that with us ahead of time, so we have not had time to analyze that. So I don’t have an opinion on it at this point,” she said.
Meantime, progressive aldermen are also pushing to transfer approximately $5.25 million from the Chicago Police Department budget to the Chicago Department of Public Health to fund a six-month pilot program for a mental health responder program through the city’s mental health clinics.
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) is the chief sponsor of the measure to have teams of mental health clinicians, social workers, and emergency medical technicians respond to calls for mental health crises, rather than police.
However, her proposal also was among those sent to Rules Committee.
As part of her 2021 budget plan, Lightfoot has proposed a separate mental health co-responder pilot program that would see police officers trained in crisis intervention respond along with mental health professionals and paramedics. The mayor has said police should be included in the plan to make sure mental health professionals are safe if mental health calls escalate into a dangerous situation.
Another proposal from the aldermen would sunset three tax increment financing (TIF) districts ahead of schedule to return an estimated $39.7 million in property tax revenue to the city.
TIF districts freeze the amount of money that goes to schools, parks, and other taxing bodies for 23 years. Any increase in tax revenue generated by the district over those 23 years is funneled into a TIF fund that can be used for redevelopment projects in that area.
State law requires TIF funds to go only to “blighted” areas, but critics have said the city often ignores that standard.
Lightfoot already has proposed declaring a $350 million TIF surplus next year to help balance the budget. The TIF surplus would provide $76 million for the city’s corporate fund and $167 million for the Chicago Public Schools, but at the same time, Lightfoot is calling on CPS to reimburse the city for $40 million in school pension contributions the city typically makes for the district.
Progressive aldermen’s proposal to sunset three TIF districts early was not among the proposed budget amendments sent to the Rules Committee. Instead, they were assigned to the Finance Committee, but it’s too late to add those proposals to the panel’s agendas for two upcoming meetings this week, its only meetings before the expected final vote on the budget at the end of the month.
Finally, aldermen are proposing an ordinance that would require the Chicago Police Department to vacate its Homan Square facility by March 1, 2021.
The Homan Square facility on the West Side has drawn the ire of many community activist groups since 2015, in the wake of reports in a British newspaper report that officers sometimes used it as the equivalent of a CIA black site, where they illegally detained suspects for questioning, and denied their attorneys access.
An article published in The Guardian in 2015 reported the Homan Square facility, 1011 S. Homan Av., is operated as an “off-the-books interrogation compound,” where people who have been arrested are questioned and beaten by police, while keeping the arrests out of official booking databases. Chicago attorneys who spoke to The Guardian claimed they have been denied access to the facility after learning their clients were held there, sometimes for 12 to 24 hours.
The Chicago Police Department has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing at Homan Square, saying the department follows all laws regarding the questioning of suspects or witnesses there and at any other CPD facility.
Like most of the other budget amendments offered by progressive aldermen, the measure seeking to require CPD to vacate the building was shunted to the Rules Committee.
The measure would also require the Department of Planning and Development to determine the future use of the Homan Square building, after seeking input from various community and activist groups.
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