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Is Chicago Really Broke?

Activist Tom Tresser doesn’t think so. He’s got a new book full of ideas to balance the books and fund the things we aren’t, and he wants Chicagoans talking about them.

Tom Tresser, then a Green Party candidate for Cook County Board President, at the Union League Club of Chicago in 2010.   Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

The topic seems unavoidable: Chicago is broke. Maybe it’s CPS being in “crisis mode.” Or the Chicago Police Department being understaffed with detectives. Or a potential utility tax increase to pay for municipal employee pensions.

But what if the city wasn’t actually broke? That’s the thesis of a new book, Chicago Is Not Broke: Funding the City We Deserve, edited by longtime activist Tom Tresser, cofounder of the CivicLab, NewCity’s “Best activist in the interest of the public defense,” and one of the many people behind the TIF Illumination Project, which gathers and analyzes the money within the city’s massive tax increment finance districts and where that money goes.

Tresser started with a very hyperlocal gripe—when the Latin School tried to build a soccer field in Lincoln Park, one of the city’s ongoing run-ins between private institutions and public parkland, and which Ben Joravsky covered at length when I was at the Reader. Tresser saw that conflict scale up with the city’s bid for the Olympics, and he was one of the organizers behind No Games Chicago (a grassroots organization that’s now widely acknowledged to have been, well, right). And he’s been going ever since.

Emerging from Tresser’s work with the two organizations, Tresser and his co-authors aimed to calculate where the city could save money and where it could bring in new revenues. It doesn’t go through the budget trying to squeeze blood from a stone; they’re big ideas aimed at bringing in, or back, big money.

Some you’re probably familiar with, like the cost of corruption in the city (which Dick Simpson and Thomas Gradel estimate to be $500 million a year), or the city’s massive police-abuse settlements (some $50 million a year).

Others are less well known but have been part of discussion and protest, like a state-level progressive income tax (Hilary Denk estimates Chicago would get an additional $85 million), clawing back money from toxic swap deals instead of paying to get out of them (CTU staff coordinator Jackson Potter argues that it’s doable and would save $1 billion), and a financial transaction tax on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, and the Chicago Board of Exchange.

I follow these issues closely, and yet one idea was completely new to me: a public bank based on the state-run, almost century-old Bank of North Dakota. It’s been widely covered elsewhere, by Mother Jones, Governing, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Time, The American Prospect, and many other outlets. But the piece in Chicago Is Not Broke, by public policy consultant and former Daley admin policy analyst Amara C. Enyia, was the first I’d ever heard anyone propose the idea for Chicago.

I spoke to Tresser about his education as an activist, why he thinks there’s plenty of money to save the city, and what’s next for him. (The interview has been edited for length.)

You’ve been studying these issues for a long time. How did you come to edit a book?

I have to take you back a few years. Who am I? I’m just a citizen. There’s so much talk in foundations, and press, and general, about how people should be engaged in public life. Well, I guess I’ve taken that pretty far. I’m a minister without portfolio. I’m just a person. I have no special standing. I teach at two different universities, but it’s not that I’m appointed by anybody, or that I have a large organization behind me. I’m just a guy that asks questions. I really do believe in democracy, in people controlling their governments, and a vigorous public sector. My mother was a public school teacher, my wife is a public school teacher. I believe in this idea of a public.

And I also hate bullies. So I don’t like to see people get pushed around. I don’t like to see people with privilege pushing around people that don’t have privilege. I don’t like to see unfairness and inequality in my city and my community.

The current arc of my work started back in 2007, when a group of neighbors who were active in Lincoln Park, progressive activists, learned of the Lincoln Park land grab by the Latin School. It’s one of these things where you read in the paper of a secret deal between the Latin School and the Park District to carve out a couple acres for a soccer field. This is just one of many things that you could be reading about in the paper any day to get you mad about how the city does business. But it struck us as particularly egregious, as a really bad deal, as cynical, as hidden. So we formed Protect Our Parks, a group of neighbors without an office or budget. And we sued the Latin School and the City of Chicago in late April of 2008. And we come in to find 13 lawyers arranged against us.

The other thing that was happening was that we were finalists for the Olympics. When the bid was made public, our fears were justified, because all the venues were in public parks. [The Latin School issue] propelled us into No Games Chicago.

There’s this mantra that the city was broke. This narrative that was voiced by Mayor Daley, his allies, in many different forms, to justify both the bad privatization deals—such as the [parking] meter deal and the deal with the Latin School—and the Olympic bid itself. Because we had no money and no ideas. Mayor Daley said, in a Chicago Sun-Times article, that we had nothing up our sleeves.

So we were wondering: are we really broke? That’s the question that remains on the table.

One of the things that we did as part of the No Games fight was get a hold of the TIF reports, and we opened them all up, and we discovered about $1.4 billion in property tax dollars sitting in the TIF accounts. This called out the mayor and the 2016 committee as liars—we’re far from broke, there’s a lot of cash on hand, we don’t have to go to Switzerland and put on a party seven years from now at a cost of $10 billion or more. We can do a lot to improve the city right now. What are we waiting for?

And we were never able to get an answer. Because they can’t answer us.

But my interest in the TIFs kept going. This is a lot of money, and it’s really difficult to describe and explain to folks across the city. That’s the origins of the TIF Illumination project. It’s a completely volunteer organization. We tell what projects have been funded by TIFs in their ward. In some cases it’s horrible, it’s egregious. The last thing we do is tell people how much money is left over, we believe, at the current time. Over and over again we’ve been invited into communities. We’ve done 47 public meetings, all meetings organized by the community.

That’s what led to the book. Over and over again, people said, well, how can we be broke? If they closed my public school, or they’re cutting the hell out of my school, but over here they’re showering public tax money on this developer, it doesn’t add up. That was the genesis of the project.

What did you not know when you started the project?

The teacher’s union had been organizing around toxic swaps. I’d never heard of it until I’d looked into it as a result of what the Chicago Teachers Union has done. And the more I looked at it the more I realized it was a whole ‘nother brand of corruption here. A bad deal. As the CTU has pointed out with toxic swaps, we get into bed with banks and we seem to be stuck there. We can’t possibly renegotiate, we can’t walk away from the deal.

And unfortunately, over the past three years we’ve heard a lot about police violence. Broadly speaking, this is money we should not have been spending. We should not have to spend $600 million to settle cases because policemen are shooting people and torturing people. That’s a practice that should have been weeded out decades ago.

The third part is maybe the more imaginative part of the book: money that we’re not collecting, but we should be. These are three proposals from civic experts, including the League of Women Voters talking about a progressive income tax. Nothing new there, it’s been discussed in Illinois for at least 20 years, or longer, but the League has really been at the forefront of educating us about this.

Then we have a financial-transaction test. It’s been talked about by Bernie Sanders, I think the progressive caucus talks about it. There’s a bill at the state level that’s being introduced by Mary Flowers. We’re starting to hear, how does that work?

And the last is maybe the most unusual idea, and that’s a public bank for Chicago. I’d venture to say that most of your readers, as educated as they are, I’d dare say most of them have never heard of a public bank. Huh? We’re saying, well, if it’s a public bank, it’s operated for the public good, not to wring usurious profits from us.

Tell me more about the public bank. I’ve come across the other proposals in your book before. But not the public bank.

The Bank of North Dakota is the model here. Essentially it was started around 1920. It’s the only state-owned bank in the country, a prairie, conservative, Republican state. And the current junior senator of North Dakota used to be the president of the bank. In terms of the popularity and the stability and the viability of such a thing as a public bank, it is an institution in North Dakota. This bank has returned hundreds of millions of dollars to the state. It’s cheap credit. It’s the full force of the state of North Dakota that allows the banks of North Dakota to back up loans—student loans are cheaper by far than student loans you can get here in Chicago, by like four points. But it’s also homeowners, small-business owners, and farmers.

The small banks love this, because the state bank is not competing with them, it’s backing them up. If I’m a small bank in Fargo, and you want a loan to expand your business and it’s bigger than I can afford, and therefore you might go to a large, out-of-town bank, that doesn’t have to happen now. I can go to the Bank of North Dakota, and you’ll stand behind me. The local businessman prospers, he keeps his business with the small bank, everyone’s happy. The Institute for Self-Reliance did a huge study, and they talk about all the benefits this thing has done for the state of North Dakota.

It rang a bell, but I didn’t know anything about it.

It’s a great model, so we say, why not? If we could get a good public debate in City Council on any one of these ideas, it’d be very beneficial to the city. If we could get them all enacted, it would completely change the nature of the city. We’d move from a narrative of scarcity to one of abundance. That’s the goal here.

What have you learned from all this organizing?

My complaint, the reason I do what I do, is that it’s not like we’ve learned anything from all this; it’s not like we’re good at pushing back at all the bullshit plans that the mayor and his people keep pushing on us. It may not be as big as the Olympics, it may not have the same pricetag, but it’s the same rationale and the same actors. We’re still kind of in a limited mindset of solutions, and we’re still ignoring 45 wards, pretty much.

So I just say to whoever will listen, there’s the voice of opposition in this city. There are people doing good work, whether it’s the Dyett hunger strikers, Jamie Kalven and his work on police, people laboring away for years and years. And they never get anything from the system. They never get any love; they get very little coverage.

But you asked me what I learned. You just have to tell the truth. You have to be smart with the media, have your own apparatus, your own website, and don’t rely on the powers that be to tell the truth. Because they won’t.

Do you think you’re making progress?

I do! We have a three-year plan. This is the first of three books. We have a three-year arc that I hope will lead to a better Chicago.

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