CN Oct. 15, 2015


Ben Joravsky’s our guest this week, And when Ben’s at the table the discussion has to include criticism of the TIF program. As it happens, Budget Director Alex Holt was our guest last week, and Ben had some reactions to several points Holt made on the show about, yes, the TIF program.

The reason mayors like TIF, the Reader columnist asserts, is that you can raise lots of money without having to ask all the taxpayers for their approval.

“It’s a surcharge on the amount they tell you you’re going to pay,” he claims. “And it’s not a frivolous trivial amount as she was sort of suggesting on your show. But last year when it was low it was $360-million (that was raised through the various TIF districts). If the City Council were to raise property taxes by $360-million with a direct vote there would be hand-wringing, there would be discussions.”

But the TIF program, he asserts, removes this significant amount of money each year from the total taxes collected, diverting the money to mayoral-controlled projects. And the shortfall, after these funds are deducted from the overall tax collection, must be made up by all of us. It’s a way, he says, “that you can raise the money without anybody…without a hearing, without public debate, without hand-wringing. You could pretend as though it’s not a tax hike at all.”

Alex Holt told us last week that the TIF program has directed hundreds of millions into desperately-needed capital programs, and has allowed the schools, parks and other agencies to repair buildings and facilities for which no other funding would exist.

“The honest discussion,” Joravsky insists, “is the government costs more money than we pretend it costs, and as a result we’re going to have to raise your property taxes to pay for expenses that in the old days were covered by the federal government…So if you want to have the honest discussion that you’re raising, which is that we desperately need this $360-million, this $400-million, this $500-million, whatever it is to pay the bills that the federal government is no longer paying, if you want to make that case to the property tax payers, don’t hide behind the program; don’t hide behind a hidden tax and pretend it doesn’t exist…”

The entire Alex Holt interview can be seen here.

We ask Joravsky for his reaction to the Barbara Byrd-Bennet guilty plea, and her admission that she sought to skim almost $2 million from the no-bid principal-training program awarded to her old associates at SUPES. Joravsky says he’s dismayed that so many people are taken aback more by her foolhardiness in putting the affair into emails than by her corruption.

“So yeah,  that’s the typical Chicago reaction,” he says. “It is, so how could she be so stupid? I mean – the idea, how could she be so corrupt? Everybody assumes there’s a certain amount of corruptness.”

But Joravsky says the question today isn’t really about Byrd-Bennett. It’s about Mayor Emanuel. Was he told about the no-bid contract, the size of which was unprecedented at least for this Board? Did he authorize the CPS Board to sign off on it? Did he know that the action would be hidden in the Omnibus bill, which is a clearing-house action for all of the less significant actions of the board, thereby hiding it from public discussion?

“Somehow or other somebody in a position of power had to decide between, do I go with the advisors who are saying this looks bad, or do I go with Barbara Byrd Bennett who is insisting that ‘my credibility is on the line,'” he explains. “There’s only one person in Chicago who has the authority to tell all those advisors, “No, you’re going with Barbara Byrd Bennett,” and that’s the Mayor. So I don’t know if it will ever come out exactly how he said it, or if he put it in an e-mail or if he put it in a text, but it’s pretty obvious to any Chicagoan all the people who say how dumb she is for putting it in writing are the same people who are saying right now – of course the Mayor knew, and of course the Mayor signed on to it – because probably from a political calculation that $20-million contract was the money he had to spend; he had to commit to keep her aboard so that she could be the public face on his school closings.”

During the show we make reference to Sarah Karp’s reporting on the SUPES contract that led to the investigations that brought Byrd-Bennett down. You can watch her here explaining the whole process in one of her many appearances on Chicago Newsroom.

Read a transcript of the show here: CNOct.15 2015 transcript


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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