Aldermen demand plan for unclaimed property tax rebate money

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Aldermen Roderick Sawyer, Scott Waguespack and Areil Reboyras at a City Council committee hearing in July. File Photo. Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Chicago aldermen demanded Monday that Mayor Rahm Emanuel present the City Council with a plan to use millions left unclaimed after a token $20 million property tax rebate instead of doling out the money to pet projects of his own choosing.

Even before providing a full accounting of rebate spending, Emanuel has already used the unspent money to bankroll more than $5 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 and $2 million for a “pilot program” aimed at acquiring and rehabilitating vacant homes in inner-city neighborhoods.

Only the Legal Protection Fund was approved by the City Council.

All of those may well be noble goals. But, it’s the process that angers aldermen.

“We were specific enough on intent for rebates — not spinning off to more and more of his personal ideas,” Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), a leader of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, wrote Monday in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Taxpayers heard we were doing a rebate. Now, there’s been several things tacked on that weren’t the original item. He should stop, bring it back to the Finance Committee and say, ‘Here’s what my plan is for the funds’ and let us vote on it.”

Ald. John Arena (45th) added, “We just closed the window on the rebate. Only a couple million was spent. That leaves around $17 million. We want to have a conversation about how the money is spent and about this pool as well as other pools the mayor might have laying around.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said the mayor’s use of rebate leftovers is troublesome because it appears to be a return to the dictatorial style he used during his first term as mayor.

“Aldermen would like to be involved in the decision-making process of whatever excess money needs to be spent. All of us have some particular pet projects,” Sawyer said Monday.

“If we have some excess funding that we can use to help our individual communities, we should do that. But, we should all be involved in the process. It shouldn’t be a one-sided event.”

Asked how he feels about the mayor’s priorities, Sawyer said, “I’m not saying any of them were bad. But, there was no input. I would appreciate a little more collaboration. I know they’re small initiatives. But depending on what they are, they can go a long way. …We didn’t hit our numbers for the rebate. We’ve got quite a bit of money left. Is it $10 million left? Is it $5 million? A million here, a million there can go a long way in our individual communities.”

Molly Poppe, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, responded to the demands of aldermen by promising that the mayor would seek City Council approval after-the-fact.

“The Mayor’s proposals to apply unused property rebate funds to build on our public safety reforms by purchasing police body cameras and drive investment and economic opportunity by investing in rehabbing vacant homes in distressed neighborhoods will go before City Council for approval, just like his plan to defend residents from the threat of deportation did,” Poppe wrote in an email.

On the day the $1.3 million Legal Protection Fund sailed through the Budget Committee, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) put in a pitch for a legal protection fund “for all of those young black boys and black girls that are racially profiled in this city or are shot by the police unnecessarily.” She also joined Ald. David Moore (17th) in pushing to fund CeaseFire “to quell some of the violence in our community.”

“When the mayor talks about wanting to keep the immigrant communities safe, secure and supported, those are the same needs that other communities have. … I’d like to see the same attention to some needs we have,” Dowell said on that day.

During the hearing, Budget Director Alex Holt disclosed that only 17,000 of 155,000 eligible homeowners had applied for the property tax rebate. With an average rebate check of $109-per-homeowner, that amounts to just $1.85 million with more than $18 million unclaimed.

“There may be more that’s unspent. And then, we’ll come back at that point in time and have a conversation with City Council about how to spend those dollars once the program is finished at the end of the year,” Holt said on that day.

The $20 million was set aside to inoculate the mayor and aldermen from at least some of the blame for a record $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and school construction.

Emanuel had promised to encourage Chicagoans to claim their share of the money instead of offering the property tax relief for political cover and secretly hoping — with a “wink-and-a-nod,” as he put it — that they don’t apply.

But, the city’s efforts to cast the broadest possible net fell flat, just as they did under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

This time, the city extended the deadline until, Dec. 30, in hopes that more homeowners would apply. Final figures on how many homeowners actually did take advantage of the break have not been released.

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