- Sue Kwong
With state legislators trying to force the mayor to spend hundreds of millions of TIF dollars on the schools, it looks like the mayor's taking a page from the George Bluth book of money management.
George is the sleazy patriarch of the hilariously dysfunctional Bluth clan in Arrested Development.
One day, Bluth's nervous son comes to him to complain that the family's running out of money because of a SEC investigation into their finances.
No worry, Bluth assures his son: "There's always money in the banana stand."
The banana stand being—aw, forget it, just watch the show.
The point is that Mayor Emanuel, like George Bluth, hides a secret stash of cash for when he needs it.
To illustrate the point, I have two examples, starting with Sara Sayigh, the much-admired librarian at Bronzeville's DuSable High School.
Late last year, CPS officials decided they couldn't afford Sayigh. So on December 8, they sent her a letter saying she was being laid off.
Immediately, about 50 students gathered in DuSable's hallways to show their support for Sayigh by reading books. They called it a read-in.
That put Emanuel in a bind. It's hard to ignore a bunch of kids who say they love the librarian who fostered their appreciation for reading. Especially since the mayor swears up and down that he's a voracious reader who routinely consumes impenetrable tomes the way I race through episodes of old sitcoms—like Arrested Development.
This was also around the time other teenagers were in the streets demanding that the mayor resign for his scandalous handling of the Laquan McDonald scandal.
You know, the one in which Emanuel and his crew seem to have buried evidence in a fatal police shooting so as not to derail his reelection campaign. In case you forgot.
As for the kids in the DuSable hallway, I'll bet you some semblance of the following conversation took place between Emanuel and Forrest Claypool, his schools CEO.
Mayor Rahm: Get that damn librarian back on the payroll so I don't have to see those kids and their books!
Claypool: You got it, boss!
But here's the problem: the official line is that librarians are a luxury our broke schools can't afford.
More than two-thirds of CPS schools are without librarians. And Claypool swears up and down that there's no money to hire any more. So don't even ask!
But if the mayor were to suddenly find the dough to put Sayigh back on the payroll, what's to stop students at other schools from taking to the hallways to demand that Rahm find some money to get them a librarian?
What the mayor needed to solve this problem, to get those kids out of DuSable's hallways, was a banana stand.
And so it was that an anonymous donor appeared out of nowhere to contribute an unspecified amount of money that was precisely the amount CPS needed to keep Sayigh on the payroll!
It remains to be seen whether that anonymous donation will cover Sayigh's salary for next year. By then the McDonald protesters may have stopped marching, leaving the mayor free to return to his old librarian-firing ways.
Better stay vigilant, DuSable students.
And actually, that goes for the rest of us as well.
'Cause it's not just librarians' salaries that miraculously appear from the mayor's banana stand. Sometimes Emanuel finds money for developers too, in the biggest banana stand of them all: the tax increment financing program.
The TIFs are a surcharge the mayor slaps on property tax bills, supposedly to eradicate blight in low-income neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, the money mostly goes for projects in relatively wealthy neighborhoods. For instance, there's the one on Montrose Avenue not far from the lake, where the mayor wants to hand out $16 million to developers to build upscale high-rise apartments.
It’s not just librarians’ salaries that miraculously appear from the mayor’s banana stand. Sometimes Emanuel finds money for developers too.
Man, if only those young protesters would discover the TIF scam. Maybe they could stage a read-in at the next Community Development Council meeting.
The TIFs bring in so much money every year that even the mayor can't spend it all. At last count, he had about $1.4 billion sitting in various TIF-related bank accounts.
I call this the Tom Tresser fund—in honor of the activist who tallied up the amount by plowing through dozens of TIF reports.
After Tresser blew the whistle, the mayor said, well, yes, there's millions in the TIF accounts, but I can't spend the money on the schools because it falls under the category of "unauthorized anticipated project costs."
Basically, these are projects the mayor might eventually want to fund. So he's going to keep the money tucked away in the banana stand—just in case.
He certainly doesn't want anyone to think he can spend it on school librarians. All they do is try to teach kids how to be creative thinkers—the last thing any Chicago mayor wants more of.
Apparently, several Democratic legislators from Chicago have had enough of these games, what with constituents demanding they do something about bailing out CPS.
They've joined forces with the Chicago Teachers Union to propose a bill that would redefine what the mayor can declare as off-limits for TIF funds.
In short, if there isn't a binding contract obligating TIF money to be spent on a precise project, the mayor has to spend it on CPS if the schools are broke.
Currently, there could be as much as $350 million in those TIF funds for CPS—it's hard to say for certain because the city's playing so many games with the books.
The bill's chief sponsor is state rep Barbara Flynn Currie from Hyde Park, who happens to be a close ally of house speaker Michael Madigan.
It's one thing for Emanuel to ignore an activist like Tresser when he goes after the TIF banana stand.
But just as it's harder to ignore students who say they just want to read, it's harder to ignore a message from Michael—as the song goes—that comes by way of Currie.
Keep up the pressure, everyone. v