Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget director has challenged aldermen who want to use surplus tax-increment financing money to bail out Chicago Public Schools to step forward and identify the local projects they’re willing to sacrifice.
Now two aldermen are doing just that to put the heat on Gov. Bruce Rauner to deliver the $480 million in pension help already built into the CPS budget.
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) is putting $16.5 million in TIF projects on the chopping block that would have made dramatic improvements at Sulzer Regional Library, Revere and Chase parks, and Northcenter Town Square. He’s also offering to cancel a $2 million plan to complete an outdoor campus project at McPherson School.
Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) is swallowing hard and offering to cancel a $1 million baseball field for the “incredible” team at Roberto Clemente High School.
Neither alderman is thrilled about the idea of forfeiting long-sought public improvements that are the lifeblood of a community and political currency to Chicago aldermen. But they say they’re doing it to stave off devastating teacher layoffs and classroom cuts while Rauner continues to hold CPS and the state budget hostage until he gets his pro-business, anti-union reforms.
“These projects will be on hold and may have to permanently go away. Gov. Rauner’s inaction is going to hurt kids in other ways. Chase Park has one of the largest summer programs in the city. It serves a huge special needs population. Revere Park is home to the neighborhood Boys and Girls Club serving thousands,” Pawar said.
“When you have a governor who’s trying to sabotage CPS and bankrupt the system, sometimes you have to take drastic measures,” he said. “These are public projects in my wards. It’s how I spend my TIF money. But the alternative is classroom cuts. . . . We have to keep the schools open and prevent cuts to the classroom.”
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Moreno said it absolutely kills him to forfeit a new baseball field that the “incredible baseball team” at Clemente deserves. It’s a field that would have been used by other schools and community groups.
“Aldermen are going to have to step up and say, `Here’s the money. Every alderman is going to have to look at these projects and say, `We’re not going to be able to do these things,’ ” Moreno said. “It’s a shame. I don’t want to do it. It will be gut-wrenching to look at those kids who deserve this in the face and tell them, `I know we had this, but we need emergency money just to keep CPS afloat.’ But what else can we do? Rauner’s inactions are forcing us to do this.”
Last month, Democratic lawmakers led by Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie took the wraps off their plan to use surplus TIF money — as much as $350 million — to plug a $480 million hole in the CPS budget.
“We’re trying to help ourselves. . . . A lot of complaints from Springfield say that Chicago isn’t doing enough to solve its own problems,” Currie said.
The plan called for defining extra TIF money as all funds that aren’t already committed to a project. The mayor now decides what is surplus TIF money and splits it among CPS and several other agencies such as the parks and City Colleges.
The cash influx would buy time for legislators to settle on a long-term school funding solution, said Currie, a lieutenant of powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan.
State Rep. Mary Flowers said the proposal meant “taxpayers of Illinois and the city of Chicago will not have to bear this burden. . . . The money is there already, and we will use it to continue to educate our children.”
Budget Director Alex Holt countered that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been “aggressively” surplussing TIF money — to the tune of $700 million since 2011 and $113 million this year alone, with roughly $60 million of that money earmarked for CPS.
“We froze downtown TIFs. We declared an aggressive surplus. There’s not a whole lot left to surplus. At this point, we probably need to look at canceling current or future projects to generate more money,” Holt said.
“To the extent that any elected officials want to cancel projects in their community, we would be more than happy to work with them and send additional surplus dollars to CPS. However the amount of additional surplus is not going to be sufficient to solve the financial problem at CPS,” he said.
Pawar and Moreno are the first two aldermen to step forward.
They’re also joining forces with Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) in introducing a so-called “Rauner Premium resolution” at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
It asks the City Council’s financial analyst to work with the budget office and local aldermen to determine a surplus amount in each ward and TIF district and identify revenue options for the City Council to consider should Rauner “continue to fail to pass a budget with equitable funding for Chicago schools.”
The resolution also asks financial analyst Ben Winick to determine how much money CPS stands to gain if the General Assembly raises the state income tax, makes the switch to a graduated income tax or approves legislation authorizing Chicago to impose a corporate income tax.
Winick was directed to “present options” to the state on ways to help the city bankroll capital improvements and economic development projects “as the city begins the process” of creating a larger TIF surplus.
Dowell said she’s all for the “deliberate approach” of identifying TIF projects that might be put on hold in every ward. But she’s not about to sign on to what she called the “scorched earth policy” championed by rookie Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).
“I’m not going to identify projects right now. I’m willing to go through a process of seeing where I can do surplus in many TIFs that serve the 3rd Ward. But I will not support a blanket surplus of all TIFs. Every alderman should participate in that. It shouldn’t be an across-the-board cut,” she said.
Pawar added, “If we’re going to bail Rauner out, every ward and every alderman should drive the process — not the mayor. This is how it’s done. The mayor shouldn’t have control over how the dollars are surplussed. These dollars are administered locally. We need to make the recommendations at the local level.”
Ramirez-Rosa took issue with Dowell’s “scorched earth” characterization of his TIF resolution, which is on the agenda at Tuesday’s Budget Committee meeting.
“I never once said that we should completely empty out all TIF funds. What I’ve called for is a full accounting…of all projects that have been scheduled, but not yet voted on by the City Council. We need to dig in and look at every single line-item in every single TIF district to figure out what can be surplussed,” Ramirez-Rosa said.
As part of the teachers contract unanimously rejected by the Chicago Teachers Union’s 40-person bargaining unit, Emanuel promised to raise property taxes by $170 million for teacher pensions whether or not the state does its part.
That’s the last thing aldermen want to do after approving a $588 million property tax increase in late October for police and fire pensions and school construction.
The study by the City Council’s budget office is aimed, in part, at searching for any and all alternatives to another walk along what aldermen call the third-rail of Chicago politics.