Chicago mayor’s $1.25 billion bond plan moves forward; alderman says mayor is dodging spending oversight

CHICAGO — As Mayor Brandon Johnson’s bid to borrow $1.25 billion to fund housing and development moved forward in the City Council Tuesday, it faced an unexpected roadblock: an alderman calling on colleagues to vote “no” in protest.

Ald. Bill Conway, 34th, alleged Johnson had prevented a vote on Conway’s own separate ordinance that would require the mayor get council approval when spending over $1 million in in COVID-19 stimulus money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

While both the mayor’s borrowing plan and Conway’s spending restriction ordinance were previously sent to the Rules Committee by opponents in apparent bids to impede their progress, only the mayor’s plan appeared on the committee’s agenda Tuesday.

The move to not consider Conway’s spending restrictions came “obviously at the mayor’s insistence,” the alderman said as he asked colleagues to hold up the mayor’s plan.

“This bond ordinance and the ARPA oversight ordinance really go hand in hand,” he said. “We have to have oversight in these areas.”

Despite the push, Johnson’s borrowing plan was easily moved to the council’s Finance Committee in a 29-7 vote. The borrowing plan would provide $250 million per year through 2028 for projects helmed by the city’s Housing and Planning departments, much needed cash as the city faces “significant shrinkage” in available money, Johnson previously said.

To settle the bond, the city would pay off $2.4 billion in accumulated debt through 2061 using property tax revenues that would become available as special taxing districts that currently sequester revenue into local projects expire.

Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, argued the council could add further oversight to the bond program later and that the borrowing plan has already involved briefings, a commitment to a hearing and discussions with skeptical aldermen.

“These are not dual ordinances,” she said. “They are not tied together.”

While the mayor’s proposal moved forward, several aldermen who voted for it also called on the council to consider Conway’s spending restrictions. His ordinance, introduced in January, would require the mayor to seek council approval for any allocations of American Rescue Plan Act dollars over $1 million.

The city had an estimated $250 million left in unspent ARPA dollars at the end of 2023, according to an analysis by WTTW. Conway’s ordinance had 27 co-sponsors when it was sent to the Rules Committee, where it has not been considered since.

He told the Tribune he believes the ordinance has been “buried by the mayor’s office,” but added he plans to use council rules to try to force a vote in the coming month. The alderman named the mayor’s handling of the city’s contracts with NASCAR, Favorite Staffing, ShotSpotter and the Fraternal Order of Police as evidence that more council control is needed.

“As a result of a lack of oversight, several of those things went off the track,” he said. “There have been a number of failures of collaboration and oversight in this administration and that’s why I think City Council needs to be willing to exercise its oversight role.”

Conway said he believes the ordinance would pass given a majority of the council backed it earlier this year. But if it even comes forward, it will lead to discussion on how aldermen can better scrutinize the mayor’s decisions, he added.

“Because clearly we’re not doing it in a very good way,” he said.