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Special Service Area's Spending Detailed

By Alisa Hauser | January 31, 2013 4:37pm

WICKER PARK — Efforts to attract residents to a meeting of the neighborhood's special service area — which uses tax dollars to improve commercial districts — failed to draw much interest this week.

It wasn't for a lack of trying.

Organizers of the Special Service Area #33's Community Meeting at the Bucktown-Wicker Park Library, 1701 N. Milwaukee Ave., on Wednesday had sent postcard mailers to 3,400 addresses within the boundaries of the taxing district.

The SSA, which levies a special tax on property owners for communal services such as snow removal, also advertised the event on social media.

With a budget of $1,215,133, drawn from 0.304-percent of property taxes and overseen by eight volunteer commissioners, the SSA, which brands itself as WPB for "Wicker Park Bucktown," attracted mostly contractors, grant recipients or chamber of commerce members to the gathering.

"A lot of people in the community don't know what it is and as a mechanism it is so complicated," said Marcy Huttas, a product manager for a non-profit community development agency who was one of about 30 people in attendance.

In a presentation, John Paige, an SSA commissioner, said the bulk of the Wicker Park Bucktown taxing district's 2013 budget will be spent on streetscape: snow removal, graffiti abatement and litter pickup.

Over the past five years, the SSA has given 80 community grants totaling $500,000 and spent taxpayer dollars to contribute to public art installations, holiday decorations and facade improvements, he said.

It also contributes funding for festivals like BooPalooza, Wicker Park Fest and Open Streets, which shut-down the commercial corridor of Milwaukee Avenue for 5 hours Sept. 16 to promote healthy activities while freeing the street of motorized traffic.

A recent Inspector General report detailed 43 active SSA districts in the city with an aggregate budget of $23 million. Given that many of the vendors contracted by SSA districts are the same and prove similar services and products, the local board was asked by a reporter if there are any future plans to band together with other taxing districts to do bulk purchasing.

Commissioner Chair David Ginople replied that it is not something he imagines happening in the foreseeable future, saying each SSA district operates independently and "has its own city ordinance governing and guiding it."

Christy Webber, whose landscaping business has contracts with the West Town SSA, LakeView East and the Wicker Park SSA, suggested that commissioners consider being a trailblazer for collective buying.

"There is an opportunity for certain SSAs across the city to bulk buy certain items," Webber said, citing graffiti sprays and mulch, which are items that more than a few of her clients use.

"Bulk purchases take advantage of economies of scale," Webber said.

The SSA commission holds its monthly meetings at 7 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month at the Wicker Park Field House, 1425 N. Damen Ave.