PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday January 13th, 2015, 12:58pm

Garcia Talks Public Transit, TIF & Red Light Cameras At U Of C

At a Monday night talk at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics, Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia reiterated his support for scaling back the city's red light camera and tax increment financing (TIF) programs as well as his desire to boost investments in public transportation. Progress Illinois provides highlights from the discussion.

At a Monday night talk before an audience at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics, Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia reiterated his support for scaling back the city's red light camera and tax increment financing (TIF) programs as well as his desire to boost investments in public transportation.

Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, was also asked how he would, if elected mayor, work with the state's new Republican governor.

The mayoral hopeful said Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who was sworn into office Monday, and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly are up against great fiscal challenges, and there is "going to be a lot of bad medicine coming out of Springfield simply to get the state's fiscal house in order."

"We disagree, I think, on some philosophical issues pertaining to education -- for one (Rauner) has been a big proponent of charter schools -- but I'm hoping that as he takes stock of the challenges that he's facing that we'll be able to establish a relationship that will be rooted in mutual respect and understanding the priorities of the state and the city," Garcia said.

On the topic of charter schools, Garcia said they have "gotten out of control" in the city, explaining that a moratorium on charter school expansion should be put in place until "we get a handle [on] and prioritize investment in" traditional neighborhood schools.

"It is not that I am automatically anti-charter," he said. "I have several charters in my district that are quite successful ... But many others are simply mediocre or underperforming neighborhood schools. That is my reservation about charters, and they are draining resources from the existing neighborhood schools. They're also taking some of the best students from neighborhood schools, attracting them to the charter schools. And of course there are many reports about corruption within some of the charter operators in Chicago."

Meeting attendee Robyn Besana, who works at the Noble Network's DRW Trading College Prep high school in North Lawndale, said she would be interested to see how Garcia would implement a charter school moratorium, if elected.

"There are a lot of charter networks, and there are a lot of charter networks that do really well," said Besana, who is also a U of C graduate student studying to be a school social worker. "How can we expand that model (to) ensure accountability in all of these new schools that are springing up," she wondered after the event.

Later in the discussion, Garcia was asked about his approach to handling Chicago's pension crisis, which includes a $550 million contribution the city has to make next year to the woefully underfunded police and fire pension funds. The mayoral candidate said there are "several things that need to happen before we have a more clear picture and a blueprint" for addressing Chicago's pensions issues, including a decision from the Illinois Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the state's recent pension overhaul and what the legislature will do if the high court strikes down the measure.

Once the issue shakes out at the state level, the city will know "exactly what it's pension obligations will be, [and] if any relief will come from it," Garcia said, adding that some revenue needed to cover city pension costs might be able to come from the TIF fund.

"How much can be used from that? Don't know," Garcia said of the TIF program. "The other possibility of course will include whether we increase taxes or not. I have not come down in favoring [increased] real estate property taxes, because I think that people in the city have already been taxed sufficiently, particularly over the past four years."

Regarding the TIF program, Garia said he believes too many economic development projects that did not need city financial assistance have received TIF subsidies.

"It's gotten way out of hand, and it's turned into a form of corporate welfare for connected or preferred developers of City Hall," he said of the TIF program.

He called for a "forensic audit" of the program to shine more light on how TIF money has been or will be used. Many TIF districts, Garcia said, should be terminated in the future after TIF-funded projects in the area have been completed.

Garcia also takes issue with the city's red light camera program, the largest in the nation. The Cook County commissioner said the cameras should be scaled back "dramatically," citing Chicago Tribune investigations that called the program and its purported safety benefits into question. He said he will call for an independent assessment of the photo enforcement program if elected mayor.

On the issue of public safety, Garcia said combating crime in the city requires a multi-pronged approach, including greater investments in restorative justice programs and expanded employment opportunities geared towards young people. He also called for more community policing initiatives and the hiring of 1,000 additional police officers, but "only after we prepare the academy to train them adequately, men and women, to engage in community relationship building."

Additionally, the Cook County commissioner stressed the importance of strengthening the local economies of Chicago's communities, saying, "The prosperity that we've seen in the city's center, in the central business district, cannot be sustained unless Chicago has great neighborhoods that are producing jobs, small business development and thriving neighborhood commercial strips."

At the end of the talk, Garcia touched on public transportation issues, saying he supports a campaign spearheaded by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance calling for the expansion of public transit in the Chicago region.

The mayoral candidate called the groups' "Transit Future" vision a "well-thought-out plan for sustainability that makes transit more accessible, not only in certain parts of the city, but metropolitan Cook County."

"It's one of the vehicles and investments that need to be made to implement regionalism and greater cooperation and collaboration by governments in northern Illinois, and perhaps Indiana too," Garcia added. "But the point being that in order to get us there, we need to be visionary and develop greater courage to invest in transit. Can it be done? Yes."

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