News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Aldermen advance Rahm's South Loop plan without analyzing it first

While the plan for independent analysis stalls, the City Council approves spending $55 million on the mayor's hotel and stadium deal.



In January, when I sat down for what ended up being a five-hour gabfest with Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th), he predicted that this year was going to be better than the last one in our fair city.

It was a stark contrast with my view that every year is pretty much the same as the last in the oligarchy known as Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Chicago.

Specifically, Alderman Pawar was proud that, after more than a year, he had finally convinced the mayor to let the City Council create an office of financial analysis. The hope was that, among other things, the office would help save us from wacky schemes hatched by the mayor to waste our money.

Such as—to mention but one example—Mayor Emanuel's plans to build a Marriott hotel and a basketball arena for DePaul University on two plots of land near Michigan and Cermak in the South Loop.

The mayor, Alderman Pawar insisted, was not nearly as intransigent as I'd been writing. Moreover, his heart was in the right place when it came to fiduciary reform.

Naive as I am, I said, OK, Mr. Alderman, let's see how this works out.

When will we ever learn . . .

Once again, Mayor Emanuel has proved to be sneakier than either Alderman Pawar or I could have imagined. Well, maybe I could have imagined it.

In any event, almost four months have passed since the mayor let the council authorize the office of financial analysis, but the aldermen still haven't set it up yet. And they show no signs of doing so any time soon.

It's as if Mayor Emanuel said to the aldermen, "OK, I'll let you pretend to be independent." And the aldermen are saying, "No, boss—we'd rather remain dependent on you!"

Meanwhile, the council didn't delay before approving an intergovernmental agreement presented by the mayor that commits the city to spending public money on the aforementioned DePaul/Marriott deal.

On March 5, without debate, study, or analysis, aldermen ratified Mayor Emanuel's proposal to take up to $55 million in property tax funds—over half of which would have gone to the schools—and spend it buying up South Loop real estate.

The legislation passed by a 46-3 vote even though the aldermen had virtually no information about how this project will impact our tax base, property tax bills, or cash-strapped schools—only Mayor Emanuel's assurance that it will be a boon.

I seem to recall that Mayor Daley said something similar about the parking meter deal.

Let's hope that Emanuel is right, because otherwise parents are going to have to gear up for more fund-raisers to make sure their kids' schools have books and toilet paper.

I could go on and on about the South Loop boondoggle, like some drunk at a bar lamenting that nothing's been the same since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls.

It's as if Mayor Emanuel said to the aldermen, "OK, I'll let you pretend to be independent."

But before I do, let me offer a word about the office of financial analysis. Its purpose was to provide the council with an independent source of information and analysis on budgets, projects, and public-private ventures so that the aldermen could intelligently vote on these matters—in contrast to how they generally make their decisions.

And so on December 11, the council unanimously voted to create the office, which was to have a financial analyst, a staff of six, and a budget of almost $500,000.

But of course it wasn't quite that simple.

The financial analyst would have to be nominated by the Office of Financial Analysis Oversight Committee—a newly created body consisting of seven aldermen, including Carrie Austin and Ed Burke, two of the mayor's closest allies. The other five members would be chosen by Alderman Michelle Harris, chair of the council's rules committee, who also happens to be a close ally of the mayor.

In short, the council agreed to spend roughly half a million dollars a year on an office that's dedicated to providing independent analysis of the mayor's projects even though it's controlled by the mayor.

Now I think we can understand why Mayor Emanuel allowed the council to create it.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the oversight committee hasn't gotten around to selecting a financial analyst, because Alderman Harris hasn't gotten around to naming its members.

And she hasn't done that because—well, I don't know. She didn't return calls for comment.

Alderman Pawar says he doesn't know either. "I wish I had some answers," he says. "Every time I ask about this they say they're working on it."

The latest news he received—just as we were about to go to press—was that Alderman Harris is getting ready to schedule a meeting to discuss it. That's better than not getting ready to schedule a meeting.

Pawar assures me that Mayor Emanuel is not in any way to be blamed for the delays. "The mayor's office is not being obstructionist here," Pawar says.

Alderman, I think this is going to be yet another one of those instances where we agree to disagree. Actually, that pretty much sums up my relationship with almost every elected official in town.

Meanwhile, at the March 5 meeting the council signed off on an intergovernmental agreement with the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the city/state entity that runs McCormick Place and Navy Pier.

Under the agreement, the city will dedicate $55 million in property tax dollars—diverted from three South Loop tax increment financing districts—to buy up land at 330 E. Cermak.

That will be the site of a 1,200-room Marriott hotel, which McPier has committed more than $400 million to construct.

That's a lot of money that might otherwise be used on schools, cops, pothole repairs, or any number of other needs. And it's not even the full extent of the money that we're dropping on this project.

There's still the untold millions it will cost to buy the land for the DePaul basketball arena. And the additional untold millions it will cost for the land where the mayor wants to put a smaller hotel.

Plus, as soon as McPier takes control of this real estate, it becomes exempt from property taxes. So we're spending tens of millions of property tax dollars to lose millions of future property tax dollars.

Look on the bright side, Chicago—at least the mayor's not in charge of your retirement plans. Unless you work for the city.

For the record, the three aldermen who voted against the intergovernmental agreement are Rick Munoz (22nd), Scott Waguespack (32nd), and John Arena (45th).

Good job, fellas.

Rest assured that for your independence you will most definitely not be chosen to sit on the Financial Analysis Oversight Committee, should Alderman Harris ever get around to filling it.

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