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Top aide defends Emanuel plan to spend unclaimed rebate money

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp, announce new CTA improvements at a news conference last year. File Photo. Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

A top mayoral aide on Friday defended Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to spend $17 million left unclaimed after a token property tax rebate as essential to public safety.

Planting trees, improving parks, renovating vacant homes, creating a West Side small business incubator and a South Side call center may sound like it has little to do with stopping the bloodshed on Chicago streets.

But Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp said every item on the mayor’s list — including providing cyber-security training at City Colleges — has “a tie to” public safety.

“The rehabbing homes project is to reclaim boarded up and foreclosed properties in those neighborhoods to create opportunities for developers and construction contractors, including local small contractors, to create jobs for young people in particular. That is directly tied to the core of the mayor’s strategy on public safety, which includes neighborhood development,” Zopp said.

“The cyber security program is part of creating an expanded program for jobs that people will actually be able to get at City Colleges. Getting work and economic opportunity is a critical part of how we’re going to work to improve public safety.”

Zopp said she anticipates no changes in the mayor’s plan before Tuesday’s vote by the City Council’s Budget Committee. Not even in Emanuel’s plan to spend $500,000 to plant 1,000 trees, 20 in each of the 50 wards.

“The tree component is not as directly tied [to public safety]. But, cleaning up and building up peoples’ relationships with their neighborhoods and beautifying neighborhoods and strengthening them is gonna be an important part,” she said.

“The tree part is one small piece of the ultimate pie. The bulk of the money is directly tied to education, economic development and directly to the police.”

Earlier this week, rookie Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) called the mayor’s list evidence of Emanuel’s misplaced priorities.

“I told him that I cannot take his program to the neighborhood without people thinking that I’m joking,” Lopez said.

“To try and convince my residents that things like fighting cyber-terrorism are important when they’re dodging real bullets? Fixing sidewalks or rehabbing 20 homes instead of getting right to the heart of what the violence was? It came off like a cruel joke. … Now is not the time to try and invest in parks when my kids can’t even walk from one end of the block to the other.”

Lopez wants to earmark $5 million to expand to 3,000 fifth- and sixth-graders school-based counseling and case management programs with a proven track record for reducing school-based disciplinary incidents and repeat arrests.

And he wants to spend $5 million more to provide mentoring to an additional 2,175 at-risk men and women. The mayor has promised to spend $36 million over the next three years to expand mentoring programs. And he asked the Trump administration for even more money.

On Friday, Zopp acknowledged that funding street intervention and creating year-round jobs for disadvantaged youth are important priorities. Top mayoral aides plan to work with Lopez and with “other outside funders” to help bankroll those organizations, she said.

“This fund is a limited amount of money. There’s no dispute that the programs he’s supporting have a role in the public safety effort. They’re just not a part of the proposal we’re making,” she said.

“The programs the mayor has put forth we feel very strongly are directly tied to his public safety strategy. I don’t think it’s a one is better than the other.”

In a profanity-laced tirade behind the City Council chambers last month, Lopez said the mayor accused him of “f——” with him by proposing a rival plan to spend the unclaimed rebate money.

“He didn’t tell me to f— off. He just said, ‘Why am I f—— with him and what he was trying to do?’ I don’t think he was anticipating me coming up with my own ordinance to try and spend the money differently,” Lopez said this week.

“I said, ‘I’m not f—— with you. I’ve got people dying in the street. What do you want me to do?” the alderman said.

Zopp refused to comment on that profanity-laced conversation.

“I don’t know anything at all about that. Wasn’t there. Have no knowledge of it whatsoever,” she said.