In the category of up is down and down is up, Alderman Ed Burke—yes, that Ed Burke—played the role of reformer at last week’s City Council meeting.
And Mayor Lori Lightfoot—yes, the same Lori Lightfoot who ran as a reformer—took on the role normally played by Mayors Daley and Rahm.
That is—the imperious, mocking, eye-rolling, condescending emperor-in-chief who dismisses reformers as ignorant malcontents who don’t understand how Chicago government really works.
You gotta laugh, folks. ’Cause if there’s one thing old Eddie Burke knows, it’s how Chicago government really works.
Alright, the details . . .
The city is broke, in part because of the pandemic. There’s not enough money coming in to pay the expenditures that have to go out.
And so, Mayor Lightfoot is desperately searching for any cash she can find to pay the obligations.
In that regard, she took $281.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief—CARES Act money—and used it to pay the salaries of cops.
It came to light just ahead of last week’s budget hearing when the mayor had to get council approval to spend even more CARES Act money. (What, you think Mayor Lightfoot sent out a press release confessing to her budget games?)
Activists of the lefty persuasion—i.e., my kind of people—cried foul.
And they pointed out that CARES Act money is supposed to help people struggling to pay their bills (rent, utilities, groceries) because they can’t work.
To which the mayor—adopting that tone of weary disdain and condescension that mayors generally employ on lefties who dare to question mayoral priorities—said, Oh, you silly lefties. Don’t be “dumb.”
“Criticism comes with the job of mayor, but this one’s just dumb,” Lightfoot said.
I almost expected her to ask: How many trees have you planted?
And then the mayor dragged out budget chief Susie Park to do what budget chiefs are always being asked to do: keep a straight face while they tell you something that everyone knows is utterly absurd.
In this case, Park said that the police officers were, um, providing security at various hospitals and vaccination sites and, ugh, the airport, and ugh, other stuff.
In short, all of that $281.5 million was a legitimate COVID expense.
Well, Burke wasn’t buying it. Oh, no, he sensed mayoral bullshit. And he should know. From his perch as chair of the Finance Committee, he’s been watching mayors and their top aides dole out bullshit for years.
Usually he was joining in on the doling out—as he was a team player back in those days.
And so, at Friday’s council Budget Committee meeting, he pointed out that $281.5 million is roughly a third of the annual $862 million allocated for the police payroll.
And it’s really, really doubtful that a third of police time was spent on COVID-related assignments. “I just have a hard time with your numbers,” Burke concluded.
Now, you’re asking: Why would an old machine creature like Ed Burke suddenly transform himself into the second coming of, oh, a young Scottie Waguespack?
My, my—your memory is short, Chicago.
If you recall, Burke is one of the main reasons Lightfoot got elected. Back in 2019, on the eve of the mayoral election, the feds accused Burke of trying to force local businesses to hire him as a property tax attorney.
And candidate Lightfoot essentially ran against Burke, continually pointing out she was the only leading candidate without connections to the 14th Ward powerhouse.
You might say he’s getting even. I mean, you don’t really think that Burke suddenly cares about robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul finances?
So now we must ask some all-important questions:
Was the $281.5 million spent on legitimate COVID-related duties?
And is this spending money that’s intended for one thing on something else?
And should it be tolerated?
And does it happen all the time?
In fact, indulge me as I tell you about the time Mick Dumke and I dedicated the better part of a month of our lives plowing through mind-numbingly boring budget documents to show that the water bills we pay are used to pay for things that have nothing to do with water.
Like the inspector general’s office.
Did Ed Burke raise a fuss over that practice?
Of course not. Back then he was part of the Mayor Rahm team. And as such he was guzzling the mayoral Kool-Aid, not criticizing it.
Back to Lightfoot.
Do her budget games expose structural deficiencies in her budget—as Alderman Ray Lopez contends?
She’s just winging it, folks. She has no clue as to how she’s going to pay all the bills the city is facing.
It’s called Dusty Springfield financing.
In other words, she’s “wishin’ and hopin’” that once the pandemic ends, more taxes will flow in.
The mayor is also wishin’ and hopin’ the federal government will send Chicago more aid—now that a saner man has replaced the lunatic in the White House—money that she’ll probably feel free to spend as she wants, thank you very much. If the past is a prelude to the future.
And when, or if, these wishes and hopes become real, Mayor Lightfoot will call a press conference to hail herself as the smartest fiduciary wizard Chicago’s ever seen.
Just like Mayor Rahm used to say about himself.
And Mayor Daley before that. Actually, Mayor Daley didn’t have to say it. The city’s lovestruck editorial boards said it for him. And he sat back and said—Oh, shucks.
And if those mayoral wishes and hopes don’t come true? Well, Lightfoot may have to pay for police by taking some of the billions in property taxes she’s setting aside to pay for upscale developments in already-gentrifying neighborhoods.
Take TIF money from gazillionaire developers who didn’t need it in the first place? Oh, you know, she won’t do that.
Times may be desperate, but they’re not that desperate. v