Mell challenger in 33rd Ward blasts TIF program 'patronage'

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Tim Meegan, 33rd Ward candidate, working at his campaign office in Albany Park.
  • Chloe Riley
  • Tim Meegan, 33rd Ward candidate, working at his campaign office in Albany Park

If it were up to social studies teacher Tim Meegan, tax increment financing money would be a thing of the past.

"The TIF program is too corrupt and it's been misused too heavily for too long," says Meegan, who's running for alderman in the 33rd, a ward stretching from Avondale to Albany Park on the northwest side.

The TIF program, of course, funnels city property tax funds into special accounts that the mayor and favored aldermen ostensibly use for development and community-improvement projects. But Meegan is one of a number of candidates citywide, including Jorge Mujica in the 25th Ward, who wants to put a moratorium on TIFs.

Money currently in TIF accounts should be directed to projects that benefit schools and other public development instead of going into the pockets of well-connected private developers, they argue.

"Right now, TIF money is the new form of patronage," Meegan says, pointing to the $5 million in TIF dollars that subsidized construction of the new Hyatt hotel in Hyde Park or Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to allocate $55 million in TIF funds for the DePaul University basketball arena near McCormick Place.

The 39-year-old Chicago Teachers Union delegate—one of six around the city running for alderman—is talking as we sit in his campaign office in Albany Park. Outside, people scramble to dig out their cars from the more than 19 inches of snow dropped in the city’s fifth-worst blizzard. Inside, under florescent lights and red MEEGAN FOR ALDERMAN signs, Meegan sips coffee and riffs on the state of the 33rd Ward and incumbent Deb Mell, who is also being challenged by nonprofit consultant Annisa Wanat.

"She's part and parcel of that whole political machine," Meegan says of Mell. "We have all these rubber stamp aldermen who do everything the mayor says. There's no accountability."

If TIF money's a new form of patronage, the old forms of patronage also still linger—like Emanuel's appointment of Deb Mell to the ward long controlled by her father, Richard Mell. After 38 years as alderman, Mell announced his retirement in 2013 only to be swiftly replaced by his daughter, a former state rep.

At the time, Deb Mell—the city's first openly lesbian alderman—brushed off the charges of nepotism, saying her time as a legislator spoke for itself.

However, in her first year as alderman, she voted with Emanuel 100 percent of the time, a record that follows the path set by her father.

Elected 33rd Ward alderman in 1975, Dick Mell has served as one of the city's most powerful ward bosses for four decades—and not without some missteps that cost taxpayers plenty.

In the 80s, he opposed a $125 million bond issue to patch crumbling sidewalks because of the chance it might increase popularity for then-mayor Harold Washington. Later, he fought tirelessly to get his son-in-law Rod Blagojevich elected governor—and then leaked information that led to Blago's downfall and imprisonment.

More recently, a progressive political group has accused Mell, now a lobbyist, of improperly contributing rent payments toward his daughter's ward office space.

At a 33rd Ward candidate forum on January 27, Deb Mell tried to distance herself from her father.

"For the record, my father didn't want me to go into politics," Mell said. "We're different people. I'm not my father. Anybody who knows me absolutely knows that. We conduct business very differently."

She went on to criticize Dick Mell for his past decision to approve a Walgreens for the ward without consulting neighborhood groups.

"His thinking was, any development is good development," said Mell, who ultimately canceled plans for the Walgreens. "I don't think that way. I think our ward is too important to just throw stuff in there."

In addition to being backed by the teachers union, Meegan—a social studies teacher at Theodore Roosevelt High School—has also received endorsements from political action committee Reclaim Chicago, SEIU Local 1, the Green Party, and Chicago Socialists.

In addition to eliminating TIFs, Meegan supports a moratorium on school closings and charter expansion, a $15 minimum wage, and an elected school board. Mell has said she would support a combination of elected and appointed members.

Deb Mell has close to $76,000 in campaign funds, according to state records. Meegan has only raised around $38,000 to date, but he says Mell can be beat if his team can get his name to every corner of the 33rd Ward.

"We've gotten great reception at the doors," he says. "People love what we stand for. People are universally upset at the things we stand against. They're interested in seeing a teacher in City Council."

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