Aldermen, parents and community leaders demanded Wednesday that an estimated $17 million left unclaimed from a token property tax rebate be earmarked for violence prevention in neighborhoods that have “turned into war zones.”
Even before providing a full accounting of rebate spending, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already used the unspent money to bankroll more than $6 million worth of programs.
That includes $1.3 million to create a Legal Protection Fund to assist immigrants threatened with deportation after the election of President-elect Donald Trump; $1.8 million to speed distribution of body cameras to Chicago Police officers by one year; $2 million for a “pilot program” aimed at acquiring and rehabilitating vacant homes in inner-city neighborhoods, and $1 million for cybersecurity training at Wright College.
Only the Legal Protection Fund was approved by the City Council.
On Wednesday, a half-dozen aldermen joined forces with community leaders to declare a higher priority: reducing a 60 percent surge in homicides and shootings that has pushed the bloodshed on Chicago streets to levels not seen since the 1990s.
Specifically, the aldermen want to convert the city’s 24,000-strong summer jobs program into a year-round program to keep kids occupied during the winter.
They want to expand to fifth- and sixth-graders school-based mentoring, counseling and case management programs that have been a particular focus for the mayor.
They want to expand “street-level interventions” like CeaseFire to prevent gang conflicts from “being resolved with an AK-47,” as Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) put it.
And they want to use $2.5 million of the money to offer $200 rebates to homeowners who install security cameras at their homes that the Chicago Police Department can access during investigations.
Joining Lopez at a City Hall news conference Wednesday were Aldermen George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus; Derrick Curtis (18th); Walter Burnett (27th); Jason Ervin (28th) and Tom Tunney (44th).
They were careful not to criticize the mayor’s priorities for the unspent pot of money. They simply argued that Chicago has no higher priority than crime prevention.
“Yesterday, I received a letter from a 6th-grader who told me that the gangs were like his family and they loved him. And he loved them. We, as a city, must show that we love our children and our communities more than the gangs do,” said Lopez, who represents gang-ridden Brighton Park and Back of the Yards neighborhoods.
“This money is a down payment in that effort. None of us should have to bury our children. None of us should have to bury our grandchildren or see our neighborhood riddled with bullets that are three-inches long. We know what works. And every dollar we have should not be used for sidewalks. Shouldn’t be used for things that are good headlines, but don’t make an impact.”
Ervin said he has no quarrel with the mayor’s three-year mentoring initiative. But he said the final decision rests with a City Council determined to spend the money on “some of our younger people.”
“Gangs are recruiting kids at 7, 8 and 9 years old. We need to be focusing on these youngsters and give them after school opportunities. Give them some different choices. If you have no other choice but the gang,” it’s advantage gangs, Ervin said.
Carmen Castillo serves as president of the parent advisory committee at Shields middle school. She’s a leader with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council who has children at Shields elementary and Shields middle school.
“Over the past few weeks, the blocks around our schools have experienced an unprecedented level of violence. There have been seven people shot and three people murdered since the week before Christmas,” she said.
“This violence comes as Brighton Park has experienced a 300 percent increase in shootings since 2013. . . . Our city is in crisis. The mayor needs to know that.”
After unveiling the cybersecurity initiative, Emanuel made no apologies for using rebate leftovers without first obtaining City Council approval.
“This is one of those things that’s investing in jobs,” the mayor told the Chicago Sun-Times in a telephone interview.
“Like we did on protecting immigrants, like we’re doing in protecting an industry for the future and like we did on police officer body cameras — this is something that all aldermen will support. I’m confident of that. . . . We’ve been in consultation with aldermen. . . . There will be time to get people’s support for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the one school in the United States that has state-of-the-art cybersecurity training.”
Four other aldermen — Pat Dowell (3rd); Greg Mitchell (7th); David Moore (17th) and Michael Scott (24th) — outlined their own plan for the rebate leftovers. They want to spend $5 million on “community partners working with CeaseFire Illinois violence interrupters” and $5 million on home repairs that help senior citizens “remain in their homes.”