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As schools starve, Mayor Emanuel finds $5 million for hot dogs

Teachers get pink slips—and Vienna Beef gets a subsidy.

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On June 11 Mayor Emanuel officially recommended giving about $5 million to Vienna Beef to move its hot dog factory from the north side to Bridgeport. The mayor hailed it as a shrewd investment that will keep at least 250 jobs in Chicago for the next 15 years.

Three days later the mayor's school board fired Eron Easter, a 34-year-old special education teacher in a high-poverty school in Humboldt Park. Easter was one of 850 Chicago Public Schools employees fired by the mayor when he closed 50 schools.

So if you're keeping track on your scorecards at home, the mayor is down about 600 in the job-retention department for the last month—a fact you'll never see him mention in any of the dozens of press releases he routinely sends out.

As you might expect, Vienna's $5 million comes from the tax increment financing program. That's the one in which you, the taxpayer, cough up more in property taxes in the name of things you want, like schools, so that the mayor has more to spend on things you don't want.

Like $5 million for Vienna Beef.

Yet the Vienna Beef project is by no means the dumbest waste of TIF money I've seen through the years. In fact, I think I could concoct a plausible justification for it, if coerced.

Good job, Mr. Mayor! Every now and then you manage to do something almost right, even as you mess up everything else.

Feel free to use that as a slogan in your coming reelection campaign.

In the case of Vienna, it's a "globally recognized manufacturer of hot dogs and other specialty food products, including corned beef, roast beef and soups," according to a report by the city's Department of Housing and Economic Development.

Since 1972, Vienna has operated out of a facility on the northeast corner of the very busy three-way intersection of Damen, Elston, and Fullerton.

The city is realigning Elston—moving it to the east—in order to unclog the traffic artery, so to speak. As part of that plan, the city will buy a portion of Vienna's property.

So Vienna could stay and deal with all that traffic. Or it could get the hell out.

Since the company chose option two, we'll give them the $5 million to buy a vacant factory—once owned by Sara Lee—at 1000 W. Pershing.

The project was praised at the June 11 meeting of the Community Development Commission, a mayoral advisory board, where a city planner noted that Vienna Beef "has been courted to relocate to other states."

Hey, teachers, maybe the mayor will give you money if you threaten to move to Indiana.

"The relocation of this business would retain Vienna in the city and continue a long tradition of manufacturing its globally recognized product in Chicago," according to the city report.

The CDC voted to accept the mayor's proposal to award the $5 million subsidy—and afterward Vienna passed out Polish sausages to everyone!

Not really. But it's the least they could have done for the handout.

The City Council is expected to ratify the deal sometime in the next few months, since the council always ratifies the mayor's deals.

The mayor says there are a number of benefits to the deal, including a provision that requires Vienna to employ at least 250 full-time employees.

Let's hope someone in the city is keeping track, because no one did when TIF funds were handed out in the past to companies like Republic Windows and Doors, which took the money and ran out of town.

Moreover, the city's report says the Vienna project will "expand the tax base because the investment in the property will result in an increase in its assessed value."

That's a compelling point—and exactly the opposite of what will happen with the mayor's biggest TIF project, the DePaul basketball arena/hotel deal. In that case, Mayor Emanuel is planning to reduce the tax base by spending $55 million to buy taxable land and build a facility that's tax exempt.

So much for the good news on the city's job-retention front. Now for the bad news: those 850 CPS employees getting the ax, including about 600 teachers, according to the Chicago Teachers Union.

That figure doesn't include dozens of teachers the mayor will be firing in the next few months thanks to various employee-reduction schemes.

Apparently, Mayor Emanuel thinks we have too many teachers in the workforce and not enough hot dog factory employees.

Eron Easter was one of about 600 Chicago public school teachers pink-slipped this spring. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Eron Easter was one of about 600 Chicago public school teachers pink-slipped this spring.

One of the teachers now looking for a job is Easter, who for the last eight years has taught special ed at various public schools in poor, high-crime neighborhoods that desperately need more economic investment. She spent the last three years at Von Humboldt, which Mayor Emanuel unceremoniously closed this spring over the pleas of parents, students, and staff.

In the course of her tenure, Easter has dealt with grammar school kids suffering a variety of mental breakdowns brought on by everything from gang violence to teenage pregnancies.

"I chose where I went to work because I love what I do," Easter says. "But what CPS has been doing in this past year is disgusting. How can you cut resources from the communities that need them the most?"

The closings will end up cruelly cramming more low-income students into fewer classrooms. But that's not all. They'll also eliminate middle-class teaching jobs, which doesn't make much sense from an economic-development standpoint.

Thanks to residency requirements, public school teachers have to live in Chicago. That means they're invested in the city. In many neighborhoods, particularly on the south and west sides, teachers and city workers are the backbone of the middle class. They're expanding the tax base, as the mayor might put it.

In short, jobs like that are more than numbers in a budget. They allow residents to buy homes and send their kids to college.

Firing teachers is a good way to imperil already vulnerable neighborhoods.

Easter says she'll be looking for jobs at other schools in the system. "But there's not a lot of jobs out there, with all the cuts," she says. In the meantime, she still has about $20,000 in student loans to pay off.

Under the current teacher contract, she'll get paid for up to a year. But if she doesn't get a job within five months, her salary will be cut by about 20 percent and she'll lose her health benefits. After a year, she's on her own.

If all else fails, maybe she and the other 600 pink-slipped teachers can look for jobs selling popcorn in the DePaul basketball arena that the mayor is building with funds diverted from the public schools.

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