by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producerBy CBS 2 Chicago Staff

CHICAGO (CBS) — Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday defended City Hall’s decision to spend $281.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to cover Chicago Police Department costs, saying the move saved Chicago taxpayers from having to pick up that tab, and calling criticism from some aldermen and activists “a total head-scratcher.”

“Criticism comes with the job of mayor, but this one’s just dumb,” the mayor said Friday morning.

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The city received approximately $470 million in federal funding from the CARES Act in 2020 to help reimburse the city for costs related to the pandemic. Lightfoot said the city took advantage of that funding to cover $281.5 million in Chicago Police Department payroll costs related to the pandemic.

Without using that money, Chicago would have been faced with an even bigger budget deficit than the combined $2 billion shortfall for 2020 and 2021 that Lightfoot’s office announced last summer.

“We saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by saying yes to the federal government. So should we have said no? ‘No, no, no, no, no, federal government, we’ll incur this expense, we’ll put this burden entirely on city of Chicago taxpayers and you can take your money elsewhere.’ That would be foolish, and of course we didn’t do that,” she said.

Some progressive aldermen and community groups had lashed out at the mayor for using the majority of the city’s discretionary funding from the federal COVID-19 relief plan to cover police costs rather than using that money on programs to help people struggling during the pandemic.

“One pot of money that we had that was flexible funding; the one pot of money that could have been used for small business support, for housing relief for our neighbors, to help prevent violence in our communities, that’s what we’re talking about. And of that $470 million, $284 million of it went directly to the Chicago Police Department,” said Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st).

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The city’s budget office also has defended its spending of CARES Act funding last year.

In a series of tweets on Thursday, the city’s budget office said Chicago received a total of $1.2 billion in federal funding, including $300 million specifically for the Chicago Department of Public Health’s response.

“More than $230M in additional federal funds are coming their way,” officials said.

The budget office also said the city appropriated more than $94 million for homeless and housing assistance efforts, $80 million for rental assistance programs, and more than $100 million for assistance for small businesses.

City officials said the $470 million pot La Spata referred to was money to be used for personnel costs related to the pandemic, including for public health and public safety agencies.

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“Had the City not used this reimbursement, we would have been forced to pass the burden onto our taxpayers,” officials wrote. “Throughout this pandemic our first responders, including our police, firefighters, and EMTs stepped up and kept our communities safe—from performing wellness checks to securing testing sites and quarantine facilities.”

CBS 2 Chicago Staff