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Emanuel offers plan to spend $16.2M unclaimed property tax rebate

Mayor Rahm Emanuel after a Chicago City Council meeting.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged Wednesday that only 25,300 eligible Chicago homeowners applied for his $20 million property tax rebate. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged Wednesday that only 25,300 of the 155,000 eligible Chicago homeowners applied for his $20 million property tax rebate and sought after-the-fact City Council approval to spend $16 million of the leftover money.

Some of the mayor’s chosen projects were already known and announced: speeding distribution of body cameras to Chicago Police officers, cybersecurity training at City Colleges, renovating vacant homes in depressed neighborhoods, and providing legal assistance for immigrants threatened with deportation.

A budget amendment introduced at the City Council meeting Wednesday also includes some new goodies aimed at appeasing aldermen angered by Emanuel’s decision to spend the leftovers without Council authorization.

Among the additions to the laundry list:

  • $1.1 million for “crime-fighting intel centers” in the 7th and 11th police districts “to inform officers of current crime conditions and responses”
  • $500,000 to plant 1,000 trees, 20 in each of the 50 wards
  • $1.8 million to support afterschool athletics programs for CPS students “and other afterschool programs” that operate in Chicago Public Schools
  • $3.5 million for “park infrastructure improvements to ensure Chicago’s youth continue to have a variety of safe spaces for positive recreational opportunities”
  • $1 million to create a small-business incubator on the West Side
  • $1 million toward a South Side call center “to create jobs and job training opportunities”

In a press release, Emanuel said all of his choices “build on” the investments made in his 2017 budget “to drive economic growth” in depressed Chicago neighborhoods. Emanuel specifically mentioned his ambitious plan to increase the police officer ranks by 970 officers over the next two years.

The question now is whether aldermen will be satisfied with the mayor’s plan or are determined to craft their own plan for the leftover money.

Last week, aldermen, parents and community leaders demanded that a every penny of the unclaimed millions be earmarked for violence prevention in neighborhoods that have “turned into war zones.”

Emanuel’s initial programs were expected to cost more than $6 million.

Specifically, the aldermen want to convert the city’s 24,000-strong summer jobs program into a year-round program to keep kids occupied during the winter.

They want to expand to fifth- and sixth-graders school-based mentoring, counseling and case management programs that have been a particular focus for the mayor.

They want to expand “street-level interventions” like CeaseFire to prevent gang conflicts from “being resolved with an AK-47,” as Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) put it.

And they want to use $2.5 million of the money to offer $200 rebates to homeowners who install security cameras at their homes that the Chicago Police Department can access during investigations.

“Yesterday, I received a letter from a sixth-grader who told me that the gangs were like his family and they loved him. And he loved them. We, as a city, must show that we love our children and our communities more than the gangs do,” Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) said last week. He represents the gang-ridden Brighton Park and Back of the Yards neighborhoods.

“This money is a down payment in that effort. None of us should have to bury our children. None of us should have to bury our grandchildren or see our neighborhood riddled with bullets that are three-inches long. We know what works. And every dollar we have should not be used for sidewalks. Shouldn’t be used for things that are good headlines, but don’t make an impact.”

West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said he had no quarrel with the mayor’s three-year mentoring initiative. But he said the final decision rests with a City Council determined to spend the money on “some of our younger people.”

“Gangs are recruiting kids at 7, 8 and 9 years old. We need to be focusing on these youngsters and give them afterschool opportunities. Give them some different choices,” Ervin said.

Four other aldermen — Pat Dowell (3rd); Greg Mitchell (7th); David Moore (17th) and Michael Scott (24th) — have outlined their own plan for the rebate leftovers. They want to spend $5 million on “community partners working with CeaseFire Illinois violence interrupters” and $5 million on home repairs that help senior citizens “remain in their homes.”

Emanuel had promised to launch a massive outreach program to encourage homeowners to apply for the break, instead of offering the rebate for political cover and hoping they don’t apply.

The city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire community groups to get the word out and administer the program. It didn’t work. Just like former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s similar offer, Emanuel’s rebate was a flop.

Asked last week to explain why, Emanuel talked about his preferred plan to double the homeowners exemption. That went nowhere in the Illinois General Assembly.

The mayor said it was the difference in getting the break upfront and being reimbursed on the backend. For all too many Chicagoans, it just wasn’t worth the trouble to claim an average check of $108.