“Criticism comes with the job of mayor, but this one’s just dumb,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot commented to reporters in a briefing.
Lightfoot noted the funds went to police payroll costs and that the money helped the city avoid larger budget deficits.
Chicago received around $1.2 billion from the U.S. government after Congress approved the massive CARES Act, a relief package, in spring 2020.
“The federal government through the CARES Act funding gave us the opportunity to seek reimbursement for the expenses related to COVID-19 response, whether it was law enforcement, whether it was [health department] funds, and of course, on behalf of taxpayers in the city of Chicago, we took advantage of that and used those monies so that it didn’t result in an even further deficit that would have been borne by our taxpayers,” the mayor said.
“We saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by saying yes to the federal government. So should we have said no? ‘No, no, no, federal government, we’ll incur this expense, we’ll put this burden entirely on the city of Chicago taxpayers and you can take your money elsewhere.’ That would be foolish, and of course we didn’t do that.”
The city’s budget director told officials last year that none of the federal money was used for the police department. However, Chicago’s Office of Budget and Management confirmed on Feb. 18 that the city was permitted by federal authorities to use $470 million for personnel costs. Over half of that went to the police.
The office also revealed where other portions of the money went, such as more than $94 million for housing assistance, more than $100 million for small business aid, and nearly $300 million for public health agencies.
Chicago’s has seen a high murder rate for years. The rate in January was the highest for the month in four years, with 51 killings. Activists have argued that officers aren’t doing their jobs well and pushed to provide the department with less funding.
Activist groups like the United Working Families said earlier in the week that the city should not have used any of the money for the department, while also taking aim at how Chicago left $68 million unspent.
“Not only was this a gross mismanagement of real funds in the middle of a pandemic, it was also a betrayal of public trust.” Kennedy Bartley, the legislative director for the group, told reporters in a call.
“The CARES Act money should have gone to our cousins, our family members who did not have enough when we were all out doing mutual aid drives, not more criminals. Not the police, who have already proven that they cannot stop, they cannot follow the law and they cannot stop beating Chicagoans,” added Amika Tendaji, executive director of Black Lives Matter Chicago.