In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former President Bill Clinton together unveiled plans to create a $1.7 billion Infrastructure Trust tailor-made to convince private investors to bankroll transformative projects Chicago could not afford to build on its own.
Three years later, the trust was such a bust that Emanuel ordered a top-to-bottom shake-up to get it moving.
On Thursday, mayoral candidate Gery Chico argued that it’s time to give up on the idea altogether.
He wants to pull the plug on the Infrastructure Trust and funnel the nearly $2 million in annual spending into bolstering mental health services decimated by Emanuel’s 2012 clinic closings.
“It hasn’t produced the results we all wished it had. It’s time to move on [and] re-direct precious money to something absolutely needed by so many Chicagoans. And that’s more mental health services,” Chico said.
“I would look at re-opening some of those [shuttered] clinics. And if not reopening the clinics, then using the money with other parties that are out there providing mental health services to give them additional capacity. Every place I go in the city, I hear about the need for additional mental health service.”
The mayor’s office refused to comment on Chico’s proposal to disband the Trust.
“The mayor isn’t going to referee the race. It’s up to the voters to evaluate the candidates and their positions,” Emanuel spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier wrote in an emailed statement.
Last year, the Sun-Times Watchdogs reported that the Infrastructure Trust had yet to raise a dime in private financing for a single public works project.
At the same time, it had cost Chicago taxpayers more than $5.1 million to pay for its handful of employees, offices on Wacker Drive, consulting fees and other expenses.
Rather than disband the taxpayer-funded not-for-profit, Emanuel saved face by shifting course.
When his plan to use the trust as a vehicle to renovate the Uptown Theater fell apart, Emanuel changed the core mission. He handed the trust procurement and management work that would otherwise be handled by city departments or by the Public Building Commission he chairs.
The trust helped pick a contractor to upgrade Chicago’s 278,000 streetlights and did the same for the $95 million police and fire training academy that Emanuel wants to build in West Garfield Park.
The trust is now negotiating an O’Hare Express contract with visionary billionaire Elon Musk and overseeing the rebuilding of Chicago’s longtime fleet maintenance facility on a vacant 12.5-acre site at 210 W. 69th St. that once housed Kennedy-King College.
On Thursday, Chico argued that the Trust has “nothing to show but lightbulbs” and it’s not worth the money to keep it around to ride herd over other city projects.
“Shut it down. You could do every one of those projects out of a city department. We don’t need to spend two million bucks on staff when we have competent people in the departments,” he said.
Emanuel’s decision to consolidate mental health clinics has become a flash point in the mayor’s race, as it was four years ago, when he was still a candidate.
Chance the Rapper and his hand-picked candidate, Amara Enyia, have a shared plan to bolster mental health services and guarantee that Chicago Public Schools students have access to licensed social workers and nurses.
Earlier this year, Chance used the second annual summit for his SocialWorks charity to announce $100,000 grants to 20 more CPS schools and a $1 million donation to mental health services in Chicago.
During City Council hearings on Emanuel’s final budget this fall, Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita argued that the mayor’s decision to consolidate Chicago’s 12 mental health clinics has been blamed for “all social ills,” but it was the “necessary and right thing to do” after devastating state funding cuts.