Monday, April 20, 2009

Coalition demands greater transparency of Chicago city finances

By John Bachtell
Chicago – With public outrage mounting over the privatization of the city’s parking meters, a coalition of labor and community groups and progressive aldermen called for greater transparency of the city budget and an accounting of the city’s privatization deals. The groups staged a protest in Chicago City Hall on April 20.

They claimed a $2.1 billion budget surplus exists including money from the parking meter and Chicago Skyway deals and funds hidden in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) accounts. After big one round of layoffs last fall Daley now says a new $300 million deficit has opened. He is demanding concessions from the city’s workforce or has threatened another 1,600 layoffs and service cuts.

“There’s $2.1 billion in assets sitting somewhere. We have been told this is a rainy day fund,” said Denise Dixon, Executive Director of Action Now. “I would call this a hurricane. We want to know how they are being spent.”

The groups also released poll results of 550 residents showing a growing dissatisfaction with essential services especially snow removal and street repair. Residents also want greater checks and balances on how money is spent with a greater role for city council.

“The largest percentage of people wants the surplus money to go for balancing the city budget and for paying for roads and infrastructure. Only 3% thought paying for the Olympics was a good idea,” said Genie Kastrup, political director of SEIU. Many suspect Daley is planning to use surplus funds on the 2016 Olympics should the city be chosen.

When asked if the 1,600 layoffs were necessary in light of the surplus, Tom Balanoff, president of the Illinois State Council of the Service Employees International Union said he didn’t know and that was exactly why transparency of city finances was necessary.

“The city is struggling through a sharp decline in services and the worst economic crisis in decades. Across Illinois there were 15,000 foreclosures in March, most in the city. Unemployment has topped 9%. We want to work together with the Mayor and City Council to solve this crisis, but we need open and transparent government and full accounting of all the funds available,” said Balanoff.

“The city council keeps getting press releases from Daley about the dire state of city finances,” said Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, but never gets full disclosure of the facts. Preckwinkle opposed the meter privatization with four other aldermen. She said many others complained about how the deal was rushed through city council by Daley and how ill informed they were on the details.

“We couldn’t check the facts. We’re selling off income streams. This won’t just affect the people of Chicago now but especially future generations. There’s a growing feeling theses are not in the city’s interests,” said Preckwinkle.

Alderman Manny Flores called for passage of the TIF Sunshine ordinance backed by 22 aldermen. Some of Daley’s council allies are attempting to block it.

“We are standing by our city and working for a greater degree of transparency and accountability,” said Flores. “This is a way for people to engage their city government.”

Balanoff told the World the City Council and the public should have had more input on the process of how the Federal stimulus money was being spent. Daley didn’t consult with anyone before he announced the list.

“We hope the money can be spent to help prevent foreclosures and create summer jobs to address the epidemic of youth violence which has claimed the lives of 33 young people this year. We have a very difficult economic future. We need the City Council to be a bigger part of the process and to all work together to solve this crisis,” he said.

In addition to SEIU, the coalition includes the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, Illinois Public Interest Research Group, Citizen Action Illinois, ARISE Chicago, Northside POWER, Illinois Hunger Coalition, Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Grassroots Collaborative, and Action Now.

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