CHICAGO (CBS) — The Chicago City Council on Friday approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to spend another $377 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, two days after a pair of aldermen used a parliamentary maneuver to delay the vote.
Aldermen voted 37-10 in favor of an ordinance authorizing a package of new federal grants including $179 million for the Chicago Department of Public Health’s response to the pandemic, $79.8 million for the Department of Housing for rental assistance programs, and a $50 million public assistance grant from FEMA. The plan also included transferring $68 million in unspent grants from last year to the 2021 budget.
On Wednesday, Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), two of Lightfoot’s most consistent critics, moved to delay the final vote on the mayor’s plan until the next council meeting, prompting her to call for a meeting on Friday to push her plan through, rather than wait until next month’s regular meeting.
Lopez and Burke have said they have questions about the mayor using $281.5 million in other federal COVID-19 relief funds to cover Chicago Police Department payroll costs.
Burke has questioned whether CPD really could have racked up such high costs on COVID-19 related duties alone last spring. He noted the costs the Lightfoot administration has said were covered by the $281.5 million in federal funds included helping with passenger screening at airport checkpoints; providing security at COVID testing, isolation, and quarantine sites; staffing at the McCormick Place alternate care facility; well-being checks; and other activity between March 1 and May 16, 2020.
“It’s hard to conceive how these memoranda can justify the expenditure of $281.5 million in a 10-week period of time, providing there are no examples of how many officers were redirected from their ordinary assigned duties to augment … the functions reported to justify this reimbursement,” he said.
Burke has said the federal funding Lightfoot has used to reimburse CPD for COVID-related payroll costs amounts to approximately one-third of the department’s entire patrol division budget for 2021.
Lopez said it appears the Lightfoot administration is trying to patch up structural problems with the city’s 2021 budget plan, and risks having to pay the feds back “if the numbers are being fudged” as he believes.
“If we are not being as truthful, as Alderman Burke alleges, this body will undoubtedly have to reimburse the federal government when the Treasury audit of how we spent our dollars happens, and that should give every single member of this body pause,” Lopez said.
In addition to Burke and Lopez, the council members who voted against the plan included: Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th), Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), and Ald. James Gardiner (45th).
Before Friday’s vote, the mayor said she was confident the City Council would authorize her stimulus fund spending plan.
“Our residents are literally still fighting for their lives every single day. What they want all of us to do is focus on the things that are important to them; to deliver for them. That’s what we ought to be focused on,” she said.
Lightfoot said aldermen received extensive briefings on the plan before last week’s Budget Committee meeting, where they had an opportunity to debate the measure before sending it to the full City Council. She said opponents should have voted against the plan, rather than using “a series of procedural and, in my view, anti-Democratic processes” to delay the vote.
“If they don’t agree on a particular proposal, ordinance, or whatever it is, they can simply vote no, and then we move on,” she said.
The mayor’s use of COVID-19 relief funds prompted criticism from many aldermen in recent days, after it was revealed the Lightfoot administration spent $281.5 million in CARES Act money on police payroll.
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.
Lightfoot has defended using federal relief funds to reimburse CPD for payroll costs during the pandemic, saying the criticism she’s faced is “just dumb.”
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 last week.