- brian jackson/sun-times media
- Aldermen Raymond Lopez, right, at City Council meeting in May.
Over the last few months Mayor Emanuel has repeatedly vowed to use every tool at his disposal to help end the murders on the city's south and west sides.
And yet, time and time again, we've seen him use these tools for other things. No, I'm not plunging into another fun-filled treatise on the city's unfair distribution of TIF money to wealthy communities.
Instead, I want to discuss the mayor's developing battle of wills with 15th Ward alderman Raymond Lopez, a heretofore obscure southwest-side legislator, over how to spend roughly $17 million of the so-called property tax rebate funds.
That's a newly created mayoral slush fund that most of you probably didn't even know existed.
The mayor established the approximately $20 million fund last year to provide property tax rebates to home owners who couldn't afford his tax hike, intended to finally pay off our pension obligations.
The fund had enough money for roughly 155,000 home owners. But only 11,000 applied. So suddenly the mayor had a windfall to spend on anything his little heart desired. Thankfully, he resisted the temptation to add another wing to the DePaul basketball arena.
Now, already I see you wondering: How can the mayor have money to pay for property tax rebates if, as he claims, we're pretty much broke?
Excellent question. The answer, as I may have told you before, is that there's always a "banana stand" for a clever mayor to find or stash some money. In this case, the money was generated from the taxes paid on the 2015 resale of the Skyway.
You remember the original Skyway deal, don't you? In 2005, the City Council approved former Mayor Daley's proposal to lease it for 99 years to a consortium of investors from Australia and Spain. In return, the city got $1.8 billion.
Indulge me for a moment as I return to a happier time in Chicago finances, when former alderman Richard Mell offered this breathless ode to Daley during the council's debate on the Skyway deal:
"If you ever decide to change careers, there's truly a place in Las Vegas for you," gushed Mell. "You have [pulled] not a rabbit out of a hat. You've been able to pull a $1.8 billion gorilla out of a hat."
Oh, I miss you, Alderman Mell.
Anyway, in 2015 that gorilla fetched $2.8 billion when the Aussies and Spaniards sold it to a consortium of three Canadian pension funds. That means it appreciated about 55 percent over the last decade. I told you we should have held on to it.
So the Skyway tolls—it's up to $3 a ride—will help fortify the pensions of retired teachers and other municipal employees in Canada for years to come.
It's good to know that pensioners somewhere are benefiting from our largesse—too bad they're in another country.
—Fifteenth Ward alderman Raymond Lopez
But back to the property tax rebates. After Rahm realized he literally couldn't give these millions away to home owners—apparently, not enough people knew to apply for the rebate—he decided to use it to buy himself some good publicity. In January, he announced he was using the property tax rebate money for, among other things, body cameras for cops, rehabbing vacant buildings, community college cybersecurity courses, and planting a bunch of trees.
"These are investments in job creation, neighborhood improvement, public safety," the mayor told reporters. "Things that we want to invest in that are right to do."
To which Alderman Lopez said—enough.
A few words about Lopez: He's an unlikely source of aldermanic opposition—a 38-year-old rookie alderman who won his 2015 runoff in part because Mayor Rahm's backing helped him win votes from black residents. His opponent in the runoff, Rafael Yañez, actually took most of the votes in the Hispanic areas.
(Yes, folks, there was a time, before the release of the Laquan McDonald video, when having Rahm's endorsement was an advantage in black precincts—especially when your opponent was supported by Jesús "Chuy" Garcia.)
So don't blame Rahm if he figured Lopez would be more of the Richard Mell persuasion when it came to worshipping at the mayoral altar.
Lopez says recent shootings in his ward—particularly West Englewood and Back of the Yards—jolted him into action.
"It's heartbreaking," says Lopez. "Not a week goes by when my neighborhood is not in the newspaper for shootings or murders. I've had shootings in front of my house. I realize this money won't solve everything. But we have to do everything we can."
On January 12, Lopez sent out a press release urging the mayor to use "the leftover money" for "public safety, violence reduction and youth job development, rather than pet projects."
On January 25, Lopez followed up with a press conference in which he proposed to spend the tax rebate money on programs that might keep people from shooting each other—on youth employment and mentorship programs, on outfitting houses in high-crime areas with surveillance cameras, and on street-level intervention programs like Ceasefire.
"This money should be used not for things that get headlines, but for things that make an impact," Lopez told reporters at that press conference.
How did the mayor react to Lopez's counter proposals? Well, he didn't exactly welcome the alderman's suggestions. Instead, Lopez says, the mayor cornered him in the back room of the council chambers and lit into him with F-bomb-laced invective for daring to embarrass him.
Oh, if only Rahm were so tough on President Trump.
Anyway, both Lopez's and Rahm's spending plans have been shuttled off to the budget committee for further review. It will be interesting to see whether a compromise gets hashed out, and if so, how.
Of course, as Lopez continually points out, the $17 million is a relative drop in the bucket, especially when you consider that Trump's proposing to spend $20 billion building his wall.
"Our priorities are all wrong," Lopez says.
Amen to that, Alderman Lopez. Give 'em hell. With Rahm, as with Trump, it's always good to see a little resistance. v