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At the end of my recent heart-to-heart with 47th Ward alderman Ameya Pawar, he made a prediction that I've been thinking about ever since.
You watch, he said, this is the year Mayor Emanuel moves to the left.
In other words, with a mayoral election upon us, the mayor has to convince enough Democrats that he's not really the cold-hearted, clinics-closing, teacher-firing, school-privatization Mr. Scrooge Republican that his record shows he is.
In order to expand his base from the 20-or-so percent of the vote that Mitt Romney got from Chicago.
Sure enough, in the last few weeks Mayor Emanuel has slowly started to discover his inner Woody Guthrie.
Let's see, he came out for a hike in the minimum wage—well, OK, even Bruce Rauner did that. Sort of.
And he made a point of posing with New York's recently elected mayor, Bill de Blasio—the liberals' latest patron saint. Of course, that photo op also helps de Blasio win support from Mayor Emanuel's coalition of millionaires and billionaires.
Finally, on Wednesday, members of the mayor's handpicked school board announced that they had miraculously found the $21.5 million they needed to hire some of the art and gym teachers they should have hired when they extended the school day.
Just in time for parents to fall to their knees and say, "Thank you, Mr. Mayor, oh, thank you!"
The funding comes from the good ol' TIF slush fund—where, of course, it could have been "found" years ago, had the mayor been looking for it.
So you might say that the mayor's the-schools-are-too-broke-to-afford-teachers mantra is largely a figment of the mayor's fertile imagination.
Anyway, to remind you about the tax increment financing program . . .
The TIF tax is a surcharge the city adds to your property tax bill. You think you're paying the money in the name of things you want—like schools and parks—but in reality the surcharge goes to the mayor's TIF slush fund.
Each year Chicago's taxpayers pay about $250 million in the name of schools, only to have that money go to the TIF slush fund.
There's a surplus in the TIF slush fund. How much of a surplus is open to interpretation. According to the city's official books, it's about $1.7 billion.
According to the mayor, all but about $180 million of that $1.7 billion has been accounted for, even if the official books don't say how it is accounted for.
It's one of those just-trust-me moments in city accounting—think parking meters.
As much as I want to believe absolutely everything that the mayor tells me, I tend be a little skeptical when it comes to the TIF surplus.
Basically, the mayor has no incentive to accurately reveal how much money we have in surplus. Hoarding TIF money is the secret to his power.
The more TIF money the mayor controls, the more power he has—and this mayor loves power even more than I love fried chicken.
Anyone who needs money for pretty much anything has to come to the mayor for a little TIF handout—and preferably on hands and knees.
That didn't stop the mayor's school-board members from getting all serious as they discussed our somber state of affairs.
Yes, we have miraculously found the money to hire new teachers, they said. But it's only a onetime fix—you can't count on it every year.
Translation: We'll probably fire these teachers just as soon as the mayor's reelected.
All right, school-board members, let's make a deal . . .
I won't make fun of you if you won't call the TIF surplus a onetime deal.
Actually, the TIF districts have been consistently taking about $250 million a year from the schools since the early 2000s.
In fact, the TIF flow is so dependable that the mayor's wasting tens of millions of property tax dollars on that bizarro DePaul basketball arena/Marriott hotel deal he's planning for the South Loop.
By the way, I hear that scheme's about to get even goofier—look for new details to break any day.
When it comes to spending money on public school kids, we're broke. But when it comes to wasting money on real estate deals, the cash supply is damn near endless.