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Chicago fire battalion chief's snowplow contract investigated

A side business run by a high-ranking Chicago firefighter received hundreds of thousands of dollars in municipal snow-plowing contracts even though city rules prohibit such deals.

An investigation by the Better Government Association found that Battalion Chief Tim Gibbons, who runs Tim’s Snowplowing, has received at least $250,000 in contracts with so-called Special Service Areas on the North Side.

Gibbons has been doing business with the service areas – neighborhoods where property owners pay extra taxes for enhanced city services – for at least five years, even though the contracts explicitly say city employees should not get such work.

“The City was made aware of accusations of potential contracting irregularities involving service providers and SSAs,” said Susan Massel, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development. “The City is working to determine whether there are any other City employees who are serving as SSA subcontractors.”

Chicago’s “special service areas” are geographic zones in which extra property taxes are collected from landowners, with the money going for improvements.

That can mean security enhancements, beautification projects, even maintenance. The thought is to supplement existing city services, which often are lacking or at least not up to snuff in the eyes of some.

While special service areas can be created at the behest of residents or business operators in a given area, they must be approved by the City Council and are ultimately overseen by city bureaucrats.

As such, the administration of the service areas comes with certain standards that apply to employees of city government: City workers are not supposed to personally benefit from the zones.

City officials acknowledged oversight has not been great and said they have been conducting a broader review.

Tim’s was paid more than $250,000 for work it performed in special service areas from 2010 to 2012, according to documents obtained from the city under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. It’s unclear how much Tim’s was paid before that period.

So how did Gibbons, whose fire department salary is $132,000 a year, end up with the snowplowing work?

He declined comment, other than to say he did nothing wrong.

Melissa Flynn manages SSA 21 and Garrett FitzGerald manages another special service area nearby, in North Center. Both hired Tim’s, and they each told the BGA that Gibbons’ company was on a list of vendors provided by city officials.

Massel said that’s true, but indicated the vendors weren’t vetted, and the list was intended as a potential resource, not a mandate.

Either way, recently “we received notification from the city we are not allowed to use [Tim’s anymore]”, Flynn said.

In April the Chicago Board of Ethics issued an advisory opinion reasserting that contracts through special service areas are, in essence, city contracts and therefore city workers can’t cash in.

Gibbons, a one-time supporter of former Ald. Gene Schulter (47th), is appealing that ruling.

Throughout the city, there are about 40 special service areas that have together levied nearly $20 million in added property taxes from businesses and homeowners in 2011 alone, according to Chicago’s inspector general.