Chicagoans took to City Hall Tuesday afternoon to demand that aldermen resurrect critical ordinances from the Rules Committee, also known to some as the place "where good legislation goes to die."
About 50 organizers with the Grassroots Collaborative, a coalition of labor and community groups, staged a "burial protest" highlighting the various measures stalled in the rules committee, putting a specific focus on a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Surplus Ordinance Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) introduced back in July.
The ordinance calls for any TIF surplus funds to be sent back to government agencies, including the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district, which would help ease recent school budget cuts. The measured garnered support from 32 out of the council's 50 aldermen, but it's been pending in the Rules Committee since it was introduced.
TIF funds come from a portion of collected property tax dollars from those living inside a TIF district. TIF dollars are typically used for economic development projects in the city. The activists, however, said the "buried" TIF Surplus Ordinance would release millions of additional dollars that could be used for the struggling public schools system as well as expanded community services, including the reopening of six city mental health clinics that closed last year.
"But instead of being debated and voted on, this ordinance is stuck in [the] Rules Committee," stressed Grassroots Collaborative Executive Director Amisha Patel. "There it's buried along with many other good ordinances."
Other measures that have yet to see the light of day are the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance and legislation looking to put a moratorium on new charter schools until public schools are sufficiently funded. A resolution seeking a referendum on the ballot about an elected Chicago school board is also held up in the committee.
"For the sake of our children and our communities, we need the Rules Committee to stop burying this critical legislation," stressed Christel Williams with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
Activists at Tuesday's event held fake tombstones with the names of the various "buried" ordinances. Two people dressed up as "corporate vampires" wearing sashes reading "DePaul University" and "Bank of America" meant to demonstrate the wealthy downtown banks and private institutions that, they say, are sucking up tax dollars and other resources from communities. DePaul, for example, is slated to receive a major TIF subsidy to help pay for the construction of a controversial basketball arena near McCormick Place.
One participant toted a photo of Rules Chairman Michelle Harris (8th) reading, "Break the rules. Fund our schools." Others held similar signs of the committee's vice-chairs, including Alds. Ed Burke (14th), Ray Suarez (31st) and Carrie Austin (34th).
"The chairs and vice-chairs of the Rules Committee ... deliberately avoid bringing certain ordinances up for consideration," Patel said. "These aldermen are listening, not to the people of Chicago, but to the dictates of Mayor Emanuel and the business elites."
Here's more from Patel:
The community members also delivered a letter addressed to Ald. Harris Tuesday, urging the rules committee chairman to discharge the TIF Surplus Ordinance from committee to the full council for a vote. The Rules Committee hasn't met since September, and no meeting date has been posted on the city clerk's website prior to the next full council session on November 13.
The activists also called on other aldermen for help. They demanded that councilmembers invoke what's called Rule 41 of the Rules of Order and Procedure of the Chicago City Council, which allows any alderman to call any legislation that's been in committee for at least 60 days to a full city council vote.
As part of the Grassroots Collaborative's Take Back Chicago effort, organizers plan to canvass neighborhoods informing residents about the Rule 41 option. Their hope is to build community pressure about releasing the TIF Surplus Ordinance and other measures from the committee.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he plans to declare a TIF surplus amounting to $49 million, with about $24 million going to the cash-strapped school district as part of the 2014 budgeting process. The activists, however, called the funds designated for CPS a "drop in the bucket" for schools grappling with budget cuts.
"In Brighton Park, budget cuts have hurt our schools and our communities," said Juan Estrada, a student at Thomas Kelly High School and member of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. "Last summer I was going to take a geometry course, but I couldn't because it got cut. This year we have to use old editions of our textbooks because our school doesn't have enough money in the budget to buy up-to-date textbooks."
Patel noted that there is $1.7 billion currently sitting in Chicago's collective TIF district bank accounts, although the city says $1.5 billion is already allocated to various projects. Patel argued that the remaining $200 million could be declared as a surplus and used to reverse the slashes to classroom spending.
"Chicago Public Schools, claiming a budget deficit, closed 50 schools, laid off 3,000 educators and imposed massive budget cuts across the board. So why is the city leaving all of this money on the table," Patel asked.
The city estimates that the true TIF surplus is projected to be at least $160 million.
Those at Tuesday's news conference argued that the city needs a long-term, legislative solution for managing TIF funds and should end the city's practice of handing fat TIF subsidies to "greedy corporations."
"The TIF Surplus Ordinance would put millions of dollars of our money back into our communities," Patel stressed. "While Chicago's neighborhoods are suffering, the city council is ignoring this critical piece of legislation. Inaction on a bill with 32 co-sponsors, a bill that would provide much needed relief to our communities, is unacceptable."