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Number of Chicago aldermen declining pay raise drops to 5 as George Cardenas blames ‘mix-up’ for his inclusion in list

Forty-five out of 50 Chicago aldermen have opted to accept a 5.5% pay increase in 2022 that will push the highest paid among them to a salary over $130,000. One council member who the city reported would forgo the raise now says he will take it.

Just five aldermen took the proactive step of declining what are otherwise automatic pay increases.

They are Raymond Lopez, 15th, and Silvana Tabares, 23rd, from the Southwest Side; along with Northwest Side Alds. Felix Cardona, 31st, and Gilbert Villegas, 36th; and North Side Ald. Matt Martin, 47th.

The city initially reported Wednesday that Southwest Side Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, was among those who filed paperwork to decline the pay increase. But Cardenas said on Thursday that he never had any intention of turning down the raise, and there was “some kind of mix-up,” likely involving one of his staffers wrongly filing the form.

“It’s tied to (the Consumer Price Index), it goes up, it goes down,” Cardenas said of the city ordinance that links yearly council salary changes to inflation.

The city Finance Department said Cardenas, who’s running for the Cook County Board of Review, would get the raise along with the other 44 aldermen, starting on Jan. 1.

Also accepting the raise is Ald. Jim Gardiner, 45th, who apologized on the council floor Tuesday for “offensive” remarks he made about colleagues and constituents — and who, several sources have told the Tribune, is the subject of FBI inquiries about whether he withheld services to political detractors.

Aldermen give themselves automatic yearly raises — or salary reductions if the CPI goes down — in order to save themselves from having to take politically difficult votes periodically to boost their pay.

Lopez said it was “morally and politically wrong” to take such a big bump when residents in his ward are struggling so mightily.

Aldermen rise to begin a City Council meeting Wednesday, May 26, 2021 at City Hall.

Aldermen rise to begin a City Council meeting Wednesday, May 26, 2021 at City Hall. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Lopez makes $122,304, and had taken the increases and decreases tied to the CPI since his 2015 election. But when COVID-19 hit last year, he turned down the raise for 2021.

“In the last year, in the height of the pandemic, to take a raise just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “I think people all over Chicago are going to be upset seeing aldermen take raises when they’re having such a hard time themselves. The optics just aren’t good, especially as many aldermen have had to close their offices and go to Zoom meetings. You’re getting paid more for doing less?”

All five Democratic Socialist members of the council took the 2022 raise.

Martin was the only one of the 18 members of the council’s Progressive Caucus to turn it down.

Over the years, many aldermen have accepted all the salary increases tied to inflation, which have hiked the top earners among the 50 ward representatives to a current annual salary of $123,504, up from $98,125 in 2006.

Others have declined some or all of the raises, leading to a wide range of council salaries.

The lowest-paid alderman is Marty Quinn, who represents the Southwest Side 13th Ward that’s former House Speaker Michael Madigan’s seat of power. Quinn makes $109,812, according to city records. He accepted the 2022 raise.

At the high end, 31 aldermen are paid $123,504. The other 18 council members have salaries between those poles.

The last time the CPI went up more than this for aldermanic pay purposes was in 2008, when a 6.2% increase gave the highest-paid City Council members who accepted it a $6,455 raise in 2009.

Since then the biggest percentage bump in the CPI-tied raises occurred in 2011, when it went up 3.9% and council pay increased from $108,806 to $112,345 for the highest earners.

Meanwhile, the median household income in Chicago in 2019 was $58,247, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And in the private sector, wages grew by a smaller 3% in Chicago for the 12-month period ending in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There’s no automatic pay adjustment for other city elected officials. Mayor Lori Lightfoot makes $216,210, a mayoral salary that hasn’t changed since 2006, after the council had passed a series of gradual raises in 2002 for themselves, Mayor Richard M. Daley, the city clerk and treasurer.

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