Emanuel revamps Infrastructure Trust plan to appease aldermen

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel answers reporter’s questions at Wrigley Global Innovation Center, 1132 W. Blackhawk St. Thursday, April 12, 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is changing his plan to have five financing giants bankroll $1.7 billion in Chicago infrastructure projects to appease aldermen concerned about “hidden fees,” long-term leasing of city assets, minority participation and the selection of projects by a board that included no aldermanic representation.

A substitute ordinance distributed by the mayor’s office on Friday calls for the appointment of an alderman as one of five voting members of the so-called Infrastructure Trust and requires City Council approval of any transaction that “seeks to utilize present or anticipated funds, revenues, assets or properties” of the city.

“The Trust shall have no power to pledge the full faith and credit of the city, nor shall any obligation issued by the Trust [or any entity sponsored by the Trust] in connection with any infrastructure project be a general obligation of the city,” the ordinance states.

The five-member board would be required to comply with: minority set-aside requirements; procurement rules; the Open Meetings Act; the Freedom of Information Act; and post online minutes of its meetings and disclosure statements of Trust investors.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) applauded the mayor for “collaborating with us” and incorporating changes he outlined in an op-ed published earlier this week in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.

“We’ll end up with a much stronger ordinance that ensures robust taxpayers protections … and a Trust that will be able to make a lot of transformative projects become a reality,” Pawar said.

Ald. John Arena (45th) argued that the changes “don’t go far enough”–particularly when it comes to “oversight by the City Council and the inspector general.”

That could spell trouble for Emanuel’s plan to push the revised ordinance through the City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday and the full Council on Wednesday. Already, ten aldermen have signed a letter urging the mayor to postpone the vote.

“We’re gonna continue to petition the mayor to be rational about this and do this the right way. This is a big deal, in terms of how the city is going to be funding infrastructure projects. It deserves the time and sunlight that makes it good policy. We don’t have a project waiting to be done. We can get this done right and move forward with confidence,” Arena said.

Pressed to describe his biggest concern, Arena said, “That we take the authority of the City Council and the oversight people entrusted us with away and have a body of five people making decisions that are gonna affect, not just this generation, but future generations in terms of obligations.”

But the mayor’s changes were enough for Ald. George Cardenas (12th).

“After further conversations with Mayor Emanuel’s finance team, I am confident of the Trust’s intent, transparency and approaches and feel 110 percent confident that the Infrastructure Trust is a critical investment tool the City can’t afford to pass up,” he said. “ If we want Chicago to be the world class City we know that it can be, I urge my colleagues in the City Council should join me in supporting it. “

Emanuel has repeatedly highlighted the $225 million in energy efficiency projects for government buildings expected to launch the Trust and generate $20 million in energy savings that will be used to repay investors.

He has refused to discuss what other projects he wants to finance or what, if any, user fees would have to be imposed to make certain investors get their money back with interest.

“I expect aldermen to ask questions. I want them to ask questions. … But, the fact is, the vehicle gives us an opportunity to stop talking and start doing,” the mayor told reporters earlier this month.

“It’s a proper vehicle to allow us to get the work done today and spread the payments over time and save taxpayers money, but create jobs today.”

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