By William S. Bike
No matter who the mayor is, if she or he can persuade the City Council and the citizens of Chicago to believe that the City is broke, then all sorts of schemes become palatable. Mayors have told the council and the citizens that, because Chicago is allegedly broke, we need a World’s Fair, we need to sell off our parking meters, and we need to funnel steep interest payments to investment bankers who will lend money to our broke City.
Chicago is financially solvent, however, and there is a book to prove it.
The Chicago Is Not Broke-Funding the City We Deserve book project arose as an outgrowth of the TIF Illumination Project, which examined the City’s deliberately hard-to-understand data to expose the problems with tax increment financing (TIF) districts. TIFs withhold tax money from neighborhoods and City agencies and services and create pools of money for Chicago mayors to dole out with almost no oversight. The TIF Illumination Project was allied with CivicLab, an organization that Benjamin Sugar and Tom Tresser founded to increase civic engagement and social justice.
CivicLab closed in 2015 but Tresser, the book’s editor, and his associates continue to fight for social and economic justice by using the Chicago Is Not Broke book to explain to citizens how Chicago’s finances really work—and that they are nowhere near as dire as mayors would have citizens believe.
Chicago communities and organizations have invited Tresser and colleagues to speak about the book to more than 65 community meetings and thousands of people since it came out in 2016. They are happy to come to both community meetings and small “meeting-in-a-box” home get-togethers to discuss the book’s findings.
From ‘can’t have’ to possibility
So what if Chicago is not broke?
“Then we move from a narrative of scarcity and ‘can’t have’ to one of self-sufficiency and possibility,” the book says. On the other hand, if people believe the City is broke, then it is “ripe for fleecing” through “privatization…strip mining the assets of the many to benefit the few,” the book notes.
CivicLab and the TIF Illumination Project assembled an all-star team of financial and policy pros to write the book, now in its second printing after an update in 2018.
The opening chapter by Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, explains how to understand the byzantine City budget and related budgets.
Part one, Money Stolen From Us/Money We Should Not Have Spent, begins with a chapter on the cost of corruption in Chicago by Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, and by journalist, researcher, and political consultant Thomas J. Gradel. They conclude Chicago’s annual waste from corruption amounts to $500 million.
Next comes a chapter on Chicago’s toxic bank deals by Jackson Potter, who helped found the Caucus of Rank and File Educators and the Grassroots Education Movement. He puts the amount of waste from Chicago’s questionable deals with banks at $2.3 billion.
A chapter on the cost of citizen abuse at the hands of Chicago Police, written by Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Invisible Institute, which works to hold public institutions accountable to citizens, totals the costs of lawsuits and judgments against the police—and City settlements of such cases—at $662 million.
In Part Two, Tresser wrote Money That Is Hidden From Us, a chapter explaining how TIFs siphon property tax money from schools, parks, and libraries “into secretive funds that are controlled by the Mayor” and his or her allies and often shoveled to questionable projects by politically connected developers. Tresser pegged the amount of property tax money siphoned off by TIFs since 1986 at $5 billion, noting that, if the City returned the TIF money to Chicago’s services and agencies, residents would see a windfall of $843 million going toward citizens’ needs.
Part Three covers Money We Are Not (But Should Be) Collecting.
Hillary Denk, district director for Congressman Bill Foster (D-11th), wrote a chapter on the benefits of a progressive income tax, which unfortunately failed at the ballot box in 2020 after a disinformation campaign by conservatives. She estimated the tax on high incomes would bring $85 million to Chicago.
Ron Baiman, a business professor for Benedictine University, and Bill Barclay, a founder of the Chicago Political Economy Group, wrote a chapter advocating for a financial transaction tax on stock and commodities trades, a position long supported by Gazette Chicago.That measure would bring $2.6 billion to Chicago.
Public policy expert and Austin Chamber of Commerce director Amara C. Enyia touted the benefits of a public bank in Chicago, similar to one successful in North Dakota for more than a century, which would pump bank fees back into Chicago instead of into the pockets of private bankers. She estimates such a bank would bring $1.3 billion to Chicago.
If all these revenue streams came together for Chicago, they would total $5.5 billion.
Jonathan Peck, who with Tresser co-founded the POWER Institute to train people to organize, wraps things up with a chapter recapping the book and suggesting ways to make its policy ideas become reality.
“Chicago Is Not Broke. Funding the City We Deserve was published in 2016 and we’ve now sold 3,200 copies and gave away over 425 copies to civic and youth groups,” Tresser said, noting that, despite its popularity, no major Chicago media outlet has reviewed the book. “All told, since we launched our civic finance work in 2013, we’ve been invited to present at over 180 community meetings in front of over 13,000 people,” he said. “We know we’ve expanded the collective civic imagination of Chicago.”
Tresser and his colleagues will soon release their 2020 TIF analysis, showing “some all-time high numbers to confirm that Chicago is still not broke,” he said.
“Bring us to your school, place of worship, civic organization, business association, or block club,” Tresser said. “Buy bulk orders—discounts on orders of five copies or more automatically kick in—and sell them to your neighbors, colleagues, and allies. Start a discussion group to review and debate the ideas in this book. Get trained to win for justice by taking workshops from the Power Institute.”
For more on the book and on bringing Tresser and his colleagues to a community or home meeting, log on to www.wearenotbroke.org, call (773) 770-5714, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For the POWER Institute, log on to http://powerinstitute.us. For the TIF Illumination Project, go to www.tifreports.com.
Editor’s note: Next month, Gazette Chicago will look at the TIF Illumination Project’s 2020 TIF analysis, offering more proof that Chicago is financially solvent.