Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to spend $500,000 in unclaimed property tax rebate money to plant 1,000 trees has become a symbol of what critics call the mayor’s misplaced priorities.
Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) calls it “tone deaf” at a time when a growing number of aldermen are demanding that every penny of the $15 million in leftover money be spent to stop a 60 percent surge in homicides and shootings that, just last week, claimed the lives of three innocent children caught in the crossfire between rival gangs.
Late Tuesday, the mayor sent conflicting signals about whether he was prepared to sacrifice the trees to salvage his stalled plan to spend the unclaimed money.
Top mayoral aides said it was a “safe bet” that the proposal to plant 20 trees in each of the 50 wards would be dropped to throw a bone to recalcitrant aldermen.
But Munoz told a different story after negotiations with the mayor’s office dragged on into late afternoon.
“The administration has decided not to change anything, which is a total slap in the face to a City Council that wants to set priorities in stopping the violence,” Munoz said.
“I was told by [chief lobbyist] Maria Guerra that they were not going to amend their proposal. Not even the trees. Maria Guerra told me they were moving forward with the mayor’s proposal as is. They’re tone-deaf to what’s going on in the neighborhoods.”
Earlier Tuesday, the mayor’s spending plan ran into a buzzsaw of aldermanic opposition, forcing the Budget Committee to postpone a final vote to avoid an almost-certain defeat.
It happened after a rival plan presented by rookie Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) picked up steam.
The City Council’s 11-member Hispanic Caucus joined Lopez in demanding wholesale changes to Emanuel’s plan to use the money to plant trees, improve parks, renovate vacant homes, create a West Side small-business incubator and a South Side call center.
“It’s not public safety. It’s just not. Our communities are beset by violence. We’re living it,” said Hispanic Caucus Chairman George Cardenas (12th).
“The allocation to parks, the trees. How is that public safety? Cybersecurity is not public safety. . . . All of the things that we do for parks and recreation and all of that will be for naught if you can’t walk the streets safely.”
Even Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th), the mayor’s most powerful African-American supporter, demanded that the $500,000 tree-planting initiative be eliminated.
“Money would be better spent in violence prevention as opposed to trees. In that respect is where I have the difference,” Austin said.
After demonstrators disrupted the meeting and were escorted out, Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp could be seen huddling behind the City Council chambers with Lopez and Munoz in a last-ditch effort to hammer out a compromise.
It didn’t work — not even after Lopez withdrew his demand that $2 million of the unclaimed property tax rebate money be used to provide matching grants to homeowners who install security cameras and connect them to the city’s vast network of surveillance cameras.
As a result, Austin called off the vote and adjourned the meeting until 8:45 a.m. Wednesday before the regular City Council meeting.
By that time, Lopez and Zopp hope to come to terms.
If not, Munoz warned, “There will be a floor fight — in the Budget Committee and on the City Council floor” that is likely to produce an embarrassingly large protest vote with as many as 18 aldermen voting against the mayor’s plan.
Emanuel has already committed some of the money to speeding distribution of body cameras to Chicago Police officers, cybersecurity training at City Colleges, renovating vacant homes in depressed neighborhoods, and providing legal assistance for immigrants threatened with deportation.
In addition to the tree-planting, he wants to spend the rest on “crime-fighting intel centers” in the 7th and 11th districts; supporting afterschool athletic programs in Chicago Public Schools; park infrastructure improvements; creating a small-business incubator on the West Side and a call center on the South Side.
Lopez is pushing a rival plan that earmarks $5 million apiece for school-based counseling and case management programs; year-round summer jobs for disadvantaged youth; and mentoring to an additional 2,175 at-risk men and women.
The uproar over tree-planting is reminiscent of the furor over Emanuel’s ill-fated plan to use $55 million in tax increment financing money to help pay for a 10,000-seat basketball arena for DePaul University that would double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.
In that case, the drumbeat about Emanuel’s misplaced priorities got so loud, the mayor rearranged the financing so the TIF subsidy would be used to acquire land for the project and surrounding hotels, instead of to build the stadium.