19 million promises, but still no money

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Money for NATO summit: now you see it, now you dont
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  • Money for NATO summit: now you see it, now you don't
Many Chicagoans were encouraged to hear recently that the federal government would be handing over more than $19 million to help cover security costs for the NATO summit to be held here in May.

Along with another $36 million forked over by corporate donors, the federal money “enables us to keep our commitment to the taxpayers of the City who will not carry the financial burden of hosting the NATO Summit,” said Lori Healey, executive director of the NATO host committee. That’s the private entity created by the mayor to oversee summit fund-raising and organizing.

It was such great news that there were practically celebrations in the street at the thought that taxpayers were off the hook for summit costs.

Alas, it turns out there’s one small footnote: the feds haven’t actually handed over any money yet, and no one knows how much they ever will.

City officials are now clarifying that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security hopes to reimburse Chicago for up to $19.1 million in security costs after the summit is over. But the city hasn’t received any federal funds so far, and the exact amount that’s available for so-called National Special Security Events is subject to Washington budget politics.

You’ve probably heard how productive that process has been lately.

“Reimbursements for state and local costs associated with NSSEs are dependent upon Congressional appropriations,” says Jennifer Hoyle, a city spokeswoman.

In other words, the city continues to spend taxpayer money to prepare for the summit without knowing exactly how much will be covered by Emanuel’s old boss, President Obama.

At the same time, the host committee isn’t planning to disclose what each of the private donors kicked in until after the event is over.

Nor is it clear how much money will be enough. City and host committee officials have guesstimated that $55 million could do it, though that doesn’t appear to include such unpredictable expenses as years-long legal battles that could result from demonstrations.

Of course, the public can’t be sure what it does include, since no budget has been shared, and earlier this year the City Council granted Mayor Emanuel authority to hand out summit-related contracts with no oversight.

This may all sound vaguely familiar. Even by Chicago political standards, the Emanuel administration has repeatedly shown great skill at making headline-generating announcements that are nearly true, in a depends-on-what-the-definition-of-is-is sort of way—like the declarations about cops the mayor has supposedly put on the street when the police department is shrinking, or the alleged child-safety benefits of speed cameras that coincidentally have the potential to produce millions of dollars of revenue.

This isn’t even the first time the city has been less than straight about federal support for summit security. Last fall city officials strongly suggested that they had received $55 million to prepare for the event—even though that money was actually allocated for the city’s everyday emergency management budget.

After I annoyed them for a month, they eventually conceded that they’d applied for a single small grant to cover summit costs, but it had been denied because the feds didn’t have any money free at that time.

Still, a few weeks later, on March 29, Healey announced that the feds had just “made available” $19.1 million “to support eligible security related expenses.”

Among the questions this raises: Might there be expenses that aren’t eligible for funding? It’s not clear.

So I asked for a copy of the grant application. Last week the city dutifully sent it to me. It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day all over again, because just like last time, the documents showed that the amount requested by the city was $7.5 million, much less than advertised.

It took a couple more days before I could find anyone willing to try explaining the $11.6 million difference between $19.1 million and $7.5 million. That would be the previously mentioned Jenny Hoyle, a veteran City Hall press flack.

She says that so far this year Congress has appropriated $7.5 million for special security events, so that’s what the city has applied for. In addition, Homeland Security has helped city officials poke around for other sources of money.

“Given the scope of NATO, DHS also worked with the City of Chicago to make other grant funding available to support estimated security costs,” Hoyle says. But “many of the expenses related to NATO will be made on a reimbursement basis following the summit.”

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