A few years ago, Tom Tresser was co-leader of No Games Chicago, an organization devoted to killing Mayor Daley’s push for the 2016 Olympics. It wasn’t easy battling back against the massive, well-funded public-relations push for the games, but he and others helped ignite a tide of opposition. Chicago was eliminated in the first round, but few Chicagoans today seem disappointed that we’re only a couple of months away from what would have been the opening ceremony in Washington Park.
“The Olympics is one of the greatest brands on the planet,” says Tresser. “But it’s a giant corporation, and they make boo-koo bucks. And the cities that sign the Olympic paper, it’s a blank check and there’s no stopping… It essentially privatizes your city for seven years.”
And, as we all know, cites commit to building things that they’ll never use again.
“Yeah,” he says. “Well there’s a whole library of books published on artifacts of Olympic venues where there’s very sad images of weeds growing out of ski lifts and what-not. That’s what our legacy would be, plus debt, plus the corrosive erosion of civil rights because that accompanies the games. So there was this echo chamber at the time, and now years later the Tribune and the Sun Times all are editorializing – if you’ve noticed Phil Rosenthal and a bunch of other columnists have said, “Whew!”
Tresser has also led a years-long resistance to Tax-Increment Financing. Though the battle still rages on, there is significant community opposition to the practice, and the Mayor’s Office insists that it runs the program today in a much fairer and more rational way than in past years.
Today, Tresser’s main focus is City financing in the broadest sense. He’s attempting to crowd-fund the publication of a book on the topic, and he’s currently half-way to his goal. His “Chicago Is Not Broke” campaign argues that corruption, malfeasance and bad policy wastes a huge swath of the City’s assets, and lawmakers are simply ignoring opportunities to raise significant amounts of funding from, for example, a Financial Transaction Tax.
“Basically it’s done in, I’m going to say about 18 different countries,” Tressser explains. “And it’s simply a charge levied on a trade. So you buy a can of soda pop and the state has put a tax on that and the vendor must collect that tax and pass it to the state, it’s the same thing. In this case it would be the Board of Trade that would tack on that surcharge.”
Tresser says studies have ranged from a penny to a dollar per trade, and the more conservative estimates show that, after sharing the revenue with the state and Cook County, the City of Chicago could receive a billion dollars a year or more from the practice. But the financial markets really oppose the idea, despite the fact that the customer, not the exchange, would pay the tax.
“The consumer is paying,” he says. “And so the idea of just this knee-jerk reaction that the Board of Trade will pack up and move to Iowa or some such place. Well would they? Why are they here in the first place? Well there’s a reason why Chicago is a financial center because of the concentration of education, the workplace, the cultural amenities where the workers want to be. The infrastructure. So I mean you can threaten to move to a faraway place that doesn’t have the lake front, the opera, the blues, the food, you know, the architecture or the history, but would your workers move there? It’s an open question. But even before we get there I would make this sort of moral economic argument to the financial elite to say, “You should be part of this. We should be in this together. Don’t fight us.”
You can read a transcript of the show as a Word document here: CN transcript April 7 2016
Or you can read the full transcript below this page break.
Ken: Well hi there, and welcome to Chicago Newsroom here on CAN TV. I am Ken Davis and today we’re going to begin our program with a little meditation. We would like to ask you to close your eyes, lower your head, unless of course you’re driving, and if you’re driving why are you watching CAN TV, but we’ll get to that at a separate time, and just imagine ladies and gentlemen today is 120 days away from August 5th, the first day of Chicago 2016 the Olympics. It’s going to be magnificent.
Right now, just as we’re speaking they’re just putting the finishing touches on that demountable 100,000-seat stadium in Washington Park and it looks like it’s just absolutely beautiful. It takes up the whole park, and they’re going to donate it to Dyett School when they’re finished with it. Dyett is going to use it for something, whatever they can put 100,000 people in. In Washington Park it’s just become a magical center of the universe. The whole world is watching Washington Park transform itself and get ready of course later on for being the Obama Library. Maybe they will use the stadium.
And in Douglas Park the only thing you can hear in the quiet little neighborhood is the tinkling of the fountains outside the new condo towers that are rising all around Douglas Park. Mayor Daley just a week ago initiated the bullet train to O’Hare. He was down in the basement of Block 37 in that new station, and the train takes 3½ minutes to get to O’Hare. It’s just an absolutely magnificent thing. He’s just beaming. I mean he got re-elected in 2015 with 87% of the vote. Crime rate is down to something like it’s down 80% because everybody has jobs. Everybody is building stuff all over the city.
00:02:06 And of course the new thing that’s about to open in a couple of weeks is the Olympic Village over where Michael Reese used to be. There’s going to be hundreds of beautiful apartments that are going to turn out later on for all the citizens of Chicago. When Mayor Daley goes down to dedicate that in a couple of days he will be going right past the new museum that they just built right next to… Well you know, you get the whole idea. There’s just so many things going on and Chicago is better off than it has ever been and we are just incredibly happy.
Now of course the one problem with that is that it didn’t happen, and you ask yourself why didn’t it happen? Who destroyed this dream? Who is responsible for losing this great thing? It’s this guy, Tom Tresser.
Tom Tresser: [Chuckling]
Ken: Tom Tresser was the founder of No Games Chicago and I think really gets most of the credit, deserves most of the credit anyway for stopping that nonsense, and it’s been a little while before we’ve had him on the show, but Tom, welcome to Olympic City.
Tom T: [Chuckles] I’m sorry to pee in your lemonade Chicago. But no, it was a team effort. I was just one of the players. Bob Quellos, Jessica Rodriguez rode a white horse, Martine Massis Jr., we can go on, and some people whose names do not want to be public even to this day.
Ken: I’m sure that’s true, right. [Laughs]
Tom T: It was a lonely fight, but all I can say is back in 2008 and 2009 a lonely group of citizens without even an office or a telephone took about an hour to do the due diligence that no one in Chicago seemed to want to have done to just do a little research on what happens with an Olympics games to a city, which basically destroys its infrastructure, puts it into death for generations.
Ken: I got a call this morning from the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro saying, “Is it too late? Could you give me Tom Tresser’s number?”
Tom T: [Laughs] Yes, I know, and it’s funny, the Olympics is one of the greatest brands on the planet but it’s a giant corporation, and they make buku bucks and the cities that sign the Olympic paper it’s a blank check and there’s no stopping… It essentially privatizes your city for seven years.
Ken: And leaves you with a bunch of junk behind that you can’t use.
Tom T: Yeah, well there’s a whole library of books published on artifacts of Olympic venues where there’s very sad images of weeds growing out of ski lifts and what-not. That’s what our legacy would be, plus debt, plus the corrosive erosion of civil rights because that accompanies the games. So there was this echo chamber at the time, and now years later the Tribune and the Sun Times all are editorializing if you’ve noticed Phil Rosenthal and a bunch of other columnists have said, “Whew!”
Ken: Dodging a bullet there.
Tom T: Imagine if we had gotten the… I wrote to Phil and the folks at Sun Times, yeah, there were a group of people that imagined these things and we basically laid out all the arguments that you’re now citing for why it’s great we didn’t get the games. So look, it’s very relevant to why I think I’m on your show today is this discussion of who is watching our backs. When these plans get foisted down our throats, whether it’s the Olympics or the Central Area plan or some cockamamie stuff – oh, a new ferris wheel for Navy Pier because that’s what’s going to make us a great city. The old ferris wheel wasn’t good enough.
Ken: Well, it was like 50 feet too short I think or something, right?
Tom T: Well off with his head, you know, so we’re in a race to the ferris wheels now. When these crazy plans come down from City Hall and the friends of City Hall who is saying the Emperor has no clothes? Who is doing the least amount of due diligence?
Ken: I think that despite my ridiculous and ornate introduction to you we managed to get you all the way here without really explaining who exactly you are. You’ve been a civic activist for a very long time. I mean you’ve been fighting against privatization in the parks and a lot of other things for a long time. You created the TIF Illumination Project.
Tom T: Yeah.
Ken: You have been just a vociferous battler against TIFs from the beginning, so you’ve been up there on the ramparts for a long time about a lot of things. You started the Civic Lab, which unfortunately only lasted a couple of years.
Tom T: Yeah. Well, again, as a result of all this work my first fight against City Hall was in 1991 when I helped my professor from Roosevelt University, Dr. Hank Rubin, run for the Alderman of the 50th Ward. We did a little organizing for him and I ran into the machine full-fledged in 1991 when Bernie Stone…
Ken: It was Bernie Stone.
Tom T: Bernie Stone, right, and then a year later I helped Dick Simpson run for Congress, and I ran into again these guys with camel coats and pinky rings all manning the precincts for Rostenkowski. And I went up to one of them naively and said, “Hey, you’re a volunteer for Rosty?” The guy looks down and he says, “No kid, I work for Street & San.” And his friend said, “Yeah, I’m working for the Forest Preserves.” And you know it’s emblematic that all these machine workers were out for Rosty. Now Dick was out…8 to 1 but he still got 42% of the vote. Two years later he ran again and he didn’t do quite as well, but a few years after that primary in ’94 Rosty went to prison, and we had a one-term Republican Congressman, and then we got guess who – Rod Blagojevich. Why? Because his father-in-law Dick Mell put him in office, elevated him to the governorship. He gets sent to the poky and who gets his place? A man named Rahm Emanuel.
Ken: Rahm Emanuel I believe, yes.
Tom T: So if the machine had not been present all the way back in the day, and it had been a fair fight between Professor Dick Simpson and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski could Dick have won a fair fight? I think he could have, in which case he would probably be in Congress to this day. We wouldn’t have Rod Blagojevich or Emanuel or they would have had to have taken different flight paths to power, but that’s the story we had. So that stuff drives me bat-shit crazy, if I can say that on public television, and so that’s part of why I do what I do.
Ken: So let’s talk about… There are so many things we can talk about, but generally speaking the conversation often revolves around TIFs because you have this three-bucket thing, right?
Tom T: Yes.
Ken: Maybe we should just briefly talk about what the three buckets are – money we didn’t have to spend, money that’s been hidden from us, money that we just aren’t collecting.
Tom T: Yes.
Ken: I want to talk about bucket #3 for a while, because let me put it this way, it’s easy to criticize all the things that we’re doing wrong, but to come up with a plan for something that we just aren’t doing and to try to get us to do it is something altogether different. And I have been trying for probably a year on this program to get somebody to give me the definitive answer to the question what’s wrong with the FTT?
Tom T: The Financial Transaction…Robinhood tax.
Ken: Yeah, the Financial Transaction Tax.
Tom T: Yeah.
Ken: We’ve been talking about it, and we get people say, “Oh yeah, it’s probably a pretty good idea, but you know you really can’t make it work. Give me the story on Financial Transaction Taxes and how they could work in Chicago.
Tom T: Well, let me step back a second. My premise that comes out of the TIF Illumination project, so first of all, yes, I have been looking at tax increment finances for three years. It takes about $426-million out of our tax rolls every year scooping it off the top, and so I have been doing TIF illumination meetings all of the City in front of 4,600 people, so people are getting smart about basic civic finances, let’s start there. That leads to the question of is Chicago broke? Because what we reveal with the TIF Illumination project is while schools are being closed, while mental health centers are being closed the City is lavishing property taxes willy-nilly on this project or that project.
So that led me to create this book called Chicago is Not Broke, Funding the City We Deserve. And as you say, there are three buckets that we divide the book into – money that is stolen from us that we didn’t have to spend, and that’s corruption and other sorry stories; the second is money that’s hidden from us, that’s the TIFs slush fund; and the third, money we’re not collecting. So in that bucket we talk about financial transaction tax, a public bank for Chicago, and a progressive income tax for the State of Illinois, so those are three powerful ideas.
00:11:20 In the book Ron Baiman, a professor from Benedictine University is writing the chapter on the financial transaction tax. Basically it’s done in, I’m going to say about 18 different countries, and it’s simply a charge levied on a trade. So you buy a can of soda pop and the state has put a tax on that and the vendor must collect that tax and pass it to the state, it’s the same thing. In this case it would be the Board of Trade that would tack on that surcharge, and it’s been varied from a penny to a dollar per trade, so you can play with that on the volume, but his numbers suggest there could be as high as $12-billion a year, billion with a ‘b’ just on the Chicago trades. So cut that in half. Don’t make it that onerous. Say it’s $6-billion to be split between the state…
Ken: What’s that number based on and how much is the…?
Tom T: He’s looking at the volume of trades and based on the future’s market.
Ken: I mean is like a nickel, a dime?
Tom T: Yeah. He’s talking between depending on a dollar to a dime, so depending on…
Ken: That’s a big range.
Tom T: Right. So you know, he’s like putting it out there for us to consider, you know, the low end and the high end and put it out there to start the conversation, which we haven’t had. And you would split this revenue between the state, the county, and the city, so again what would Chicago’s take be? It could be in the range of 1 to 3-bil, depending on how it works out.
So again, when you have this kind of proposition the first thing you get back from the Board of Trade or the Chamber of Commerce is we can’t possibly…that would be a disincentive and will send them packing. Well, I think first of all it has to be a moral argument with Chicago’s wealthiest people, the Pritzkers and the Crowns and other people who have traditionally done very well in the city and who own a lot of it. And I would say before we get into the details of how would the trade be levied, would you exclude the pork people? Before we start horse-trading let’s get our wealthiest individuals and say, “Look guys, back this will you? You’re not going to miss this money, really. You’re making so much, and to make Chicago a great place to live, a place where you will prosper and the people who buy your products will have money so they can buy your products. We need to do this thing, because Chicago is a great city and to fund a great city we require funds.”
Ken: The dime or whatever it is would not come from the people who own the Board of Trade, it would come from the people who are trading, right?
Tom T: Right, right.
Ken: It’s just like using the Coke, buying the can of Coke. It’s like the grocery store doesn’t have to pay.
Tom T: So the consumer is paying and so the idea of just this knee-jerk reaction that the Board of Trade will pack up and move to Iowa or some such place. Well would they? Why are they here in the first place? Well there’s a reason why Chicago is a financial center because of the concentration of education, the workplace, the cultural amenities where the workers want to be.
Ken: The infrastructure.
Tom T: The infrastructure, so I mean you can threaten to move to a faraway place that doesn’t have the lake front, the opera, the blues, the food, you know, the architecture or the history, but would your workers move there? It’s an open question. But even before we get there I would make this sort of moral economic argument to the financial elite to say, “You should be part of this. We should be in this together. Don’t fight us. Don’t hold us ransom like they do in other cities that you’re going to flee to another jurisdiction. You know shame on you if you have that kind of a thought.
Ken: What do you believe is a reasonable number that could be extracted from transaction tax?
Tom T: Make it simple. Put it at a dime a trade. So go down to the lower end of that and try it even for a limited period of time. You know this is part of the actual arc of the book that we’re doing. All the content will be placed online. We’re looking for about a June 15th publish date. By the way, we’re raising money right now to publish the darn book.
Ken: So I hear, yeah.
Tom T: So people can go to wearenotbroke.org and learn the details about this crowd-funding campaign. About 120 people have already donated about half of the money. We’re paying all our authors. We have a book editor and we’re using Salsedo Press, which is a worker-owned cooperative to print the books. We hope that public sector unions and civic voters and other kinds of civic organizations and churches will buy these books in mass quantities. The idea is to flood the civic market with them in the spring and summer to influence the 2017 budget debates.
00:16:19 What we want to do is open this up to the public, to say, “Look, if any of this stuff interests you like the financial transaction tax, which is a hot topic, help us build the case and we will parcel out the work to our public, our reading public to say look, it’s in Singapore, it’s in Denmark, it’s wherever, but I don’t have all the knowledge. I would be remiss if I gave you the impression that I was some of expert, please help us out public. Take a topic, research it, and there it is online.” So if I come back on your show in six months and you ask me these really tough questions about any of the subjects of the book I will be able to just flip and say…you know.
Ken: I checked out the report that the Tax Policy Center wrote. It’s the Urban Institute, Brookings Institution, and they ran a lot of different scenarios and they came up – I mean to the extent that a many many page document could be boiled down, they say in one sentence ‘we find that a financial transaction tax could raise a maximum of about 50-billion a year in the United States allowing for behavioral responses in trading, and we also find the tax would be quite progressive.’
Tom T: Yes.
Ken: Which is an interesting thing for them to say.
Tom T: Naturally, because you’re putting the tax on the wealthiest, the people who have made quadrillions and billions and they have done very well, and the question is how much is enough? I mean if J. Pritzker were in here or Lester Crown or any of these great people whose grandparents built their fortunes, I would say to them, “Look brother, you have a philanthropic heart anyway.” Mr. Pritzker has put his name on Northwestern Law School, so they have a sense of giving back to the City that made them and their families. And I would just say, “Look, this is another example where your moral leadership in the billionaire class, if you want to call it that, don’t fight us. Make it work. Make it work and then Chicago will be a beacon you know.” As your report points out it would be great if it was a Federal law, but we can’t wait for the feds.
Ken: The people who have let’s just say poo-pooed this idea, the most popular retort is you can’t do it in one place. You’ve got to do it everywhere at the same time, because otherwise everybody will just flee and everybody will go to New York and Chicago will become…
Tom T: Well we have to stop this mentality of fleeing, taking your money off-shore. I mean the Panama papers have just come out to reveal global chicanery and financial mismanagement, but other organizations have done research about offshoring of profits to the tune of trillions. I mean Apple, General Electric, people that don’t pay taxes this all has to stop. I’m talking to you out there corporate leaders, you know, pay your bills.
Ken: All of whom watch this show every single week.
Tom T: Every single day, religiously.
Ken: In the board rooms they turn it on…
Tom T: Pay your friggen bills, right, do not flee, because I can’t do it. Could I do it if I would I don’t know.
Ken: Oh, so maybe you would if you were a quadrillionaire.
Tom T: Right. I’ll park my money in the Cayman Islands, the Tresser conglomerate, you know.
Tom T: No, I pay my taxes gladly, even though I lot of it is perhaps misspent, but look, we can’t run our country this way, and so we can’t wait for the feds. The things in this book Chicago is not Broke, Funding the City We Deserve, are all meant to be done here in Chicago in our jurisdiction.
Ken: Talk to me a little bit more about again in #3 this idea of creating kind of a publicly based bank.
Tom T: A public bank, yes sir.
Ken: I mean now you’re talking extreme radicalism.
Tom T: Yeah, science fiction land – whoa! You must be a communist tool. You must be a strange man from another planet. Well…
Ken: They will build the George Lucas Museum on the roof of City Hall before the public bank opens.
Tom T: Exactly. Well, I give you the example, evidence #1, exhibit #1, the Public Bank of North Dakota, a republican prairie state, not a crazy state by any means. This bank has been in operation for over 95 years. It has served the people of North Dakota very well. How does it do this? It is owned by the people of North Dakota, so it is not a separately chartered thing that exists to extract owners’ profit from the good people of North Dakota. It is a public utility just like you have water or the streets or a library. It’s operating a bank and this is a thing to make credit available, so that’s what it does. It makes credit available so that you as a person or a businessman have more possibilities. That’s what it does. And it does return profit to the state, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars over the last ten years, but mainly it lubricates the engines of commerce.
00:21:10 So, student loans, 4 points cheaper than Illinois, so if I was a student going to the University of Illinois versus the University of North Dakota 4 points less, that’s $200 to $300 a month more in my pocket which then goes into the economy and I’m not paying it to Wall Street. First time homeowners, easier to get credit. Expand my business. Farmers, you know, we’re very concerned about the state of our farms in Illinois. In North Dakota no small bank, no community bank has failed in over ten years, whereas here in Chicago we lost South Shore Bank, Parkway National and others that served the African American community and had kind of a social mission. Well, too bad for them, they’re gone, you know, and all the depositors and all the people they served are up the you know what creek.
Well, a public bank of Chicago, well we would certainly need a new leadership class to run this bank because probably people wouldn’t trust Michael Madigan or Mayor Emanuel with such a bank at their disposals I wouldn’t believe, but the concept is sound. It’s proven. It’s the Wall Street Journal for goodness sakes has written this thing up. All you have to do is Google Bank of North Dakota and you will find so many great stories. And again, as this book gets published and the website gets built out these stories will be online. Don’t take my word for it you know, it will all be there. But eventually we would like to take a camera crew to North Dakota and film a farmer, a student, a homeowner and let them just tell their story and that’s all we’ll need to do.
Ken: One of the most often visited topics on this show is the intersection between the public sector and the private sector. It’s something that I really love to explore because there is unquestionably a need for a private sector. There is unquestionably a need for a public sector. What we argue about is where the boundaries are between them.
Tom T: Yeah.
Ken: And I find that there are just so many things that the private sector is incapable of delivering. It simply cannot do it.
Tom T: Yeah.
Ken: And I’ve said that it’s also true the other way, if you really want to give yourself a little giggle imagine a – oh I don’t know, a municipal government charged with the idea of trying to develop the i-Phone, okay, it wouldn’t be able to do it. There are things that can only spring out of a healthy private sector that is driven by competition, that’s driven by money, that’s driven by ambition and all of those things that we cherish as Americans. But the private sector just simply casts off things that it doesn’t want to do or can’t do and those are the things that the public sector has to do.
Tom T: Well you won’t get any argument from me. I call myself a public defender for that very reason. And it goes to the heart of the question of some of these big ticket questions like I say is Chicago broke, but the other question is what is a city for or who is a city for? Who is Chicago for? And it seems to me that American cities are being transformed into mechanisms that transfer wealth from the many to the few, so we see big capital strip-mining public assets for private profit, and all you have to do is go outside the front of your building right here and you’ll see an example of the meter, which I had a feed to come onto this show.
Ken: Oh the parking lot was…we have a free parking…
Tom T: I’m going to throw myself under the bus now. I’ll call ahead next time.
Ken: All right.
Tom T: But the parking meters in Chicago are universally globally used as a teaching lesson to talk about this very subject, what is the proper thing for a city to do, and the TIF project is part of that. So yes, competition, profit, I’m all for it brother, you know. I will yield to no man to my love of making a good living. However, a city is not for that. To me a city is as it should be a machine for opportunity. That is what a city should be about, building opportunities so that when I come to this place and avail myself of the things that a city does like public education, that is a thing that a city should build and do and maintain.
Tom T: Public transportation, streets, law and order, parks, libraries, these are the things that make America great, have made America great, and would make and have made and will make our cities great. These things, not rifle shot-driven projects that dump property taxes on a Wal-Mart. That doesn’t make us great. Not building another ferris wheel, that doesn’t make us great. When kids are dying in our streets and our schools are not graduating, 100% of children reading above grade level we cannot be great. So every time I hear this idea of we need this thing, whether it’s the Olympics or another ferris wheel to be a world-class city, I say brother hold onto your wallet and run the other way.
Ken: Yeah. Which of course gets us to the topic of tax increment financing, something that you have spoken of eloquently so often and for so long. There has been an argument made that there have been a lot of good things that have come from TIFs, and I happen to be one of the people who were somewhat persuaded by that.
Tom T: Okay.
Ken: And we’ve had Ben Jarovsky on the program to talk about. We’ve had Alex Holt on the program. I understand that you had a sit-down with Alex Holt, the budget director and talk about this.
Tom T: I did.
Ken: I would love to have a tape of that conversation.
Tom T: I can tell you everything that happened.
Ken: So, is there… Let’s just begin with this, are all TIFs evil and bad and should they all be abolished or is the process something that can be used in an intelligent way to benefit society?
Tom T: Ah, I reject your frame. [Chuckles] The first question is under what circumstance do you give a private individual public money. Because that’s what TIFs are, it’s a straight-up gift of property taxes to a private developer, that’s what it was set up for. So the first question is why is that okay? Why and how and under what process and under what rationale do I give the public treasury to you who wants to build a thing, and that’s your thing. You own it. We don’t own it, and you can sell that thing as a profit and walk away with the profit plus the TIF money by the way.
Ken: Like a skyscraper.
Tom T: Like a skyscraper or a Mariano’s which is maybe a five minutes’ drive from here on Halsted and Monroe, built by Sy Taxman a very wealthy fellow who has given Alderman Walter Barnett $6,000 between he and his colleagues, and they got a $7-million in TIF funds. He sells the project within a year to Jones, Lang, LaSalle for an undisclosed profit, but he takes the $7-million with him. That’s crazy. So that’s the first question.
Ken: And as has been pointed out there was already a supermarket just across the street.
Tom T: Across the street, so yes, so TIFs in Chicago is a giant slush fund that defies any kind of defense system.
Ken: I don’t want to have to rehash this too often here, but there are civic projects that are being built with tax money.
Tom T: Yes, there are.
Ken: There are critical smaller school projects.
Tom T: Yes there are.
Ken: Replacing a boiler here and there. And the much vaunted green line station by McCormick Place.
Tom T: I know about all that, but here’s the problem with all those when you start to cherry-pick these great projects, which the Mayor is doing by the way. “All the things you’re talking about Tom that’s the old guy,” and he never mentions the guy’s name by the way. It’s Daley, Daley, D-a-l-e-y. It never passes Rahm’s mouth. But anyway, he says, “I’m not that and our new way of doing TIFs is this, it’s a library, it’s a school, it’s an L-station.”
Ken: You don’t believe him?
Tom T: I believe him but here’s the problem, if you’re relying on a TIF district to make those things happen then you’re cutting out 75% of the city where they are TIF-poor. So TIFs are anti-distributional and they further add to inequality and segregation in the city. So what we do need instead of what I call a clout-driven rifle shot project is a master plan for the city that’s breathtaking in social justice and equality that doesn’t benefit the Mayor’s friends like Walsh Construction and Pepper Construction, and the same Skidmore, Owings, the same group of people that would say, “Where are we going to build the next ten parks?” And let’s have a rationale for that like where there’s more kids, where there’s too much smog and we need green.
00:30:03 Give me a reason that has some kind of defensible rationale to build the next ten parks, not because a developer TIFs somebody and spiffs somebody and money under the table what-not and is getting $29-million to build a park by the river, by the L-tracks where nobody will even see this park, but that’s the thing that’s actually happening.
Since we do not have the comprehensive beautiful plan for breathtaking economic justice, what we do have is this thing called TIFs. So yes, there is a new green line station going up at Cermak, but what about parts of the city that need parks and stuff that don’t have a rich tax base? They’re never going to get it if they rely on TIFs. So that’s just a little bit of why I’m…
Ken: So is it a flawed program that evolved because these larger issues that we were talking about about how to rethink how we generate tax money have never been held and so mayors have – not only in Chicago but everywhere, – have had to come up with the cleverest thing they can to sort of capture some money? I think of it is as being like building a dam in a river. It’s sort of like we just need to capture some of this water and siphon it off because we need this money.
Tom T: Yeah, when you do that you create an oasis there and everyone else you know dies of starvation and doesn’t get anymore.
Ken: All the way down the other end of the river. Pretty soon there’s no money down there.
Tom T: Well you know, the background is since Reagan came in and republican presidents killed the CDBG block grants, there used to be lots of money that was recycled back to cities for civic projects. All that’s long gone, and so some people say that TIFs, which are in 47 states by the way, about 1220 TIF districts just in the state of Illinois, that’s the last pot of fundable money that mayors have. That’s how they exercise power. That’s how they dole-out projects and gifts to their developer class.
And then down the line some of the aldermen who are in line with the Mayor this is some of their power base, and I’ve heard alderman say ‘this is my money.’ It’s not your money, but they feel it is.
Ken: Well I bring that up because Alex Holt, for whom I have great respect and who I think is an extraordinarily bright person, has made the argument that I know you’ve heard, but maybe I’m a little bit more vulnerable to the argument that you are, that big cities just simply don’t have resources anymore. They don’t have access to funding, and that they have to come up with these kind of creative if flawed ways of building the things that they need to build. Of course I completely understand the argument that has put this stuff in the spotlight, which is the giving $10-million or however many millions to an airline company to move into a large skyscraper downtown, those kinds of things. That’s goofy. But I mean we are in a very difficult situation right now.
Tom T: That’s why I’m writing the book Ken. Chicago is not Broke, Funding the City We Deserve. I reject Alex’s argument. When I met with her she tried to show me where the $1.4-billion in TIF money that the TIF illumination project has uncovered, and the Mayor doesn’t dispute that there was $1.4-billion sitting in the TIF accounts on January 1, 2015.
Ken: What’s disputed is whether or not it was allocated.
Tom T: Well he says it’s committed and so does she, so I met with her in September of last year with my FOIA lawyer, Matt Topic, to try to get to the bottom of where this money is. I say release these funds and she says it’s all spoken for. And we get down to a wrangle of the legal word ‘committed’.
Ken: Yeah, yeah. How do you define it, right.
Tom T: Well I think it’s committed because the Mayor says it is. I mean I think that’s all he has to say. It’s like he puts a paper and says, “Money committed.”
Ken: I’m committed to that.
Tom T: And that’s done, so they produced about a 190-page document that shows where the TIF money is supposed to go over the next five years, so every TIF has a few pages line item by line item and it all adds up to all this money. So this is the document she was showing me. She had about five pages opened up on a screen and PDF documents open and she was jumping around back and forth so fast that her aide couldn’t up with her. And she is going, “See, it’s all there.” And I’m like, “Are you hallucinating?” I looked at Matt and I said, “Are you hearing what I’m hearing?” But she’s very pleased with herself by saying, “You see, I’ve proven to you now that this is all money that is totally committed and it’s done.”
So we FOIAed 15 line items from the document she was working from, including from the Midwest TIF where there are two items that said for future development. That’s all it said, about $7-million. I said, “What are those things?” So she came back, her response was, “For most of the things we are asking for we cannot tell you. It’s confidential, under discussion.” So which is it, is it committed or is it under discussion? I don’t know. I don’t have the legal power to chase her down. I’m a complete volunteer. I don’t even have an office.
And Matt Topic who was with me, literally weeks after that he pried the Laquan McDonald video from the Police Department, so he’s completely obsessed now with trying to help the victims of police violence get to the bottom of their cases. He has no time for this nonsense. But if I could I would take Alex to court and I would try to get to the bottom of every one of those line items and you would see in like ten minutes that it’s a total slush fund.
Ken: Okay. Well again, I guess my sense of this has always been that it is a deeply flawed system and that it needs to go away.
Tom T: I would say it needs to go away. You’re holding on. I see you’re trying to…
Ken: I’m holding onto it because I just think that in…
Tom T: Let it go. You will feel lighter, you will feel better in the morning, really.
Ken: It has done some good things, it has, and it has done some… It has magnified and amplified some ability to do things.
Tom T: But it’s the same thing with the Olympic, go back to your Olympic fantasy when you opened the show, the people are saying ‘we need jobs.’
Tom T: So Tom you want the Olympics not to come? Yes, you will have a job if you build a stadium and then four weeks later rip it down. That’s a job. But if you’re going to spend $10-billion of public money…
Ken: They will have jobs forever with all the tourism that will come because people will know all around the world that Chicago is a great place.
Tom T: Tourism is depressed after Olympics, but if you build a red line to Indiana…
Ken: Now there’s something that creates jobs.
Tom T: That will be around for 100 years.
Tom T: And so I’m saying since we don’t have any of these plans that make sense…
Ken: All right, okay, we’re about to sort of wind this down, but I’ve got to come back at you again – yes, I want the blue line taken out to Woodfield. I want the red line all the way to Indianapolis.
Tom T: Right, yeah.
Ken: Let’s build build build.
Tom T: Right, right.
Ken: That’s what I want to do.
Tom T: Okay.
Ken: The vast majority of the American people do not want to spend money on taxes. They have been told since 1980 that government is your enemy, that it just does nothing but waste money.
Tom T: You’re right, you’re right.
Ken: That you cannot raise taxes. We have to cut cut cut taxes.
Tom T: That’s why leaders…
Ken: That’s what most people in America now believe, and they could very well elect Donald Trump or Ted Cruz who will take that to ridiculous levels, right.
Tom T: I understand, but look, leaders must be educators and our leaders at all levels are fear-mongering, corrupt, incompetent. And see the thing is I deeply believe in government.
Ken: So do I.
Tom T: It sounds like it’s a contradiction. Here I am bashing the machine, bashing Mayor Daley, bashing Mayor Emanuel and all their crew, yet I deeply believe that a government like the city of Chicago can work for people. You just need leaders who are driven with a heart of service, not a heart of greed. Now, I don’t disagree with your main point that such a leader if he or she were to take office and were to take up my book and start to try to sell it to the people he or she has a lot of educating to do to get over this hump that you’re talking about, thanks to Ronald Reagan where you’re saying the government is the enemy. Yeah, these same people who think government is the enemy they build their mansions on the hills. When the mudslide comes they want FEMA to come down in helicopters, you know, to rescue them.
Ken: Oh don’t get me started.
Tom T: I won’t get you started. But let’s put it this way…
Ken: The same people who build these massive corporations using the interstates and using all of the infrastructure that the government has either designed and/or built for them tell us that they have no need for the government.
Tom T: But that’s another show I’m sure.
Ken: That’s a different show.
Tom T: But the argument here is we are not broke, okay, and the government can work for you. It should work for you. It must work for you, and what I’m trying to do with this book Chicago is not Broke, Funding the City We Deserve is to try to get this conversation…
Ken: What’s the name of that book again? [Laughs]
Tom T: It’s called…
Ken: You are such a plug machine.
Tom T: I’ve got to do it bud. I’m 100% volunteer. The Chicago foundations, the national foundations have turned this work down 15 times. Shame on you Chicago Community Trust, McArthur Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Knight Foundation, Investigative News Network turned all this down, and they’re supposed to fund innovation and journalism and civic engagement, and that’s all we do. That’s all we do without even a telephone. So imagine if we had a little funding we could actually get something accomplished. But really, folks, yes I know it’s hard to put these two things together. You feel Chicago is corrupt. You feel it’s broken. You feel it’s cockamamie. You feel that the government is not working for you, especially in the black communities. This is all true, but look, 2019 isn’t that far away. We have to start getting ready for elections. That’s the only short-term solution to a lot of these problems. We have to stop electing stupid corrupt leaders.
Ken: That seems like a decent place to stop doesn’t it? I think that’s a good place to end the conversation. Tom Tresser – activist, public educator, public defender, and creator of some of the rabble-rousing little organizations that have been around here for a very long time. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show.
Tom T: Thanks again Ken. I appreciate it.
Ken: To finally get you at the table.
Tom T: Thanks.
Ken: Tom thank you very much. That’s Tom Tresser and I’m Ken Davis. We had mentioned last week that our guest this week would be Karen Lewis. She was scheduled, but it didn’t work out. She has something more important to do. She’s got to go over and negotiate with CPS today, so we said, “You know, we think it’s probably better for you to do that and we will get Tom Tresser in anyway, so we’re fine,” and maybe we’ll have her on in the next couple of weeks if she can get it into her schedule, which we appreciate.