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What to look for in Chicago’s first contested treasurer race since 1999

City Treasurer candidates, left to right, Peter Gariepy, Melissa Conyears-Ervin and Ameya Pawar. File Photos. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Chicago voters will have a choice for a new city treasurer for the first time this century as three candidates vie to replace the retiring incumbent in the first contested treasurer race since 1999.

One of the three hopefuls — state Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin, D-Chicago, accountant Peter Gariepy or Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) — will take the place of outgoing Treasurer Kurt Summers, who announced in October he would not seek re-election.

Though the new treasurer will be tasked with managing the city’s escrow and operating fund accounts, controlling the city’s investments and overseeing the city’s pension funds, ideas have been floated that envision more for the office.

Conyears-Ervin said she would undertake a watchdog role that would offer more transparency of city finances. Gariepy — who last year made an unsuccessful bid for county treasurer — would prioritize finding a solution to the city’s pension crisis while trying to keep the burden off taxpayers’ shoulders, he said. Pawar, meanwhile, said he would look to fight income inequality by launching a public bank that would offer low-interest loans to residents looking to start small-businesses, buy homes or refinance their student loans.

Part of the plan for Conyears-Ervin — whose husband is Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) — would include auditing city departments and moving the City Council Office of Financial Analysis under the treasurer’s control. Though Conyears-Ervin said she believes a productive relationship with the mayor and city council is required, she would keep a close eye on the city’s other offices.

“I believe the treasurer’s responsibility is first and foremost to safeguard public tax dollars,” Conyears-Ervin said. “Outside of the official duties of the office, I believe that requires a productive relationship with both the mayor and the city council, but it also demands that the treasurer speak out when politicians are acting in such a way that is not in the best interest of taxpayers.

“I will do what’s right for Chicago residents, not the mayor or the members of the city council,” she added.

As for the public bank idea that is central to Pawar’s campaign, Conyears-Ervin said it would be a “powerful tool” to keep private banks in check, but she would have to decide if it was the best option for the city.

Pawar — who ran for governor last year on a progressive platform before dropping out of the Democratic primaries out due to lack of campaign funding — said the goal of a city-owned bank would be to use public dollars to prop up under-developed communities.

“For too long, big banks have been able to take advantage of Chicago taxpayers through predatory service fees, unpredictable changes in interest rates and other bad deals that have cost us dearly,” Pawar said. “A public bank could remove the stranglehold big banks have had over our city for decades and would allow us to wrest back control over our own financial future.”

Pawar touts his social and economic justice policies, saying he would make it a priority to develop Chicago’s version of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s, D-NY, Green New Deal, which would set a financial plan for the city to move toward environmentally friendly investments and away from carbon.

Gariepy, on the other hand, claimed he is the “only financial professional” in a race against two politicians. A public bank would be fiscally irresponsible, unrealistic and not “within the bounds of financial and political reality,” Gariepy argued. He said the city would not have the up-front resources to open a bank in the first place.

“To create a municipal-owned public bank, Chicago would likely necessitate a capital requirement between $3.5 and $4 billion,” Gariepy said. “Given the city’s current and forthcoming financial challenges and the encumbrance of future tax revenue … it is logical to conclude that the minimum capital requirement would be monumental and imprudent in light of the city’s far more pressing commitments to its pensioners, public schools, civil servants and residents.”

Gariepy did, however, agree that the treasurer’s office should look to a more environmentally friendly investment portfolio with the goal of being carbon-neutral by 2020. He also said he would work to diversify the firms with which the company does businesses, including LGBTQ vendors, that he says have been excluded.