CITY HALL — Following through on proposals made by government officials and union teachers, a group of aldermen on Monday formally called on the mayor to declare a surplus in development funds and send that tax revenue back to public schools.
One alderman said there may be tens of millions of dollars that could be pumped into the shrinking budgets of local schools.
Eight members of the Progressive Reform Caucus announced Monday they'd submit an ordinance at the City Council meeting this week calling for the Finance Department to probe Tax Increment Financing districts for any leftover funds.
Those surplus funds should be redistributed, not left in a mayoral "slush fund," in the words of Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).
"This comes down to some common sense here," said 45th Ward Ald. John Arena. "We have to start setting our priorities. This is not a new idea."
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) cited how the Daley administration declared a TIF surplus during the budget crises in 2009 and 2010 and redistributed $187 million to government agencies, with about $90 million going to Chicago Public Schools. Mayor Rahm Emanuel did the same on a smaller scale two years ago, he said, adding that state law requires leftover funds to be redistributed.
"We're not asking for anything that doesn't already exist," Waguespack said. "We can close some of the budget gap for CPS."
"It's time to put that money back into the classrooms," Arena added. "The money's there. This is rational and a reasonable request for the administration."
Cook County Clerk David Orr recently found the city skimmed off $457 million in TIF revenue last year, but decried how there is no real accounting for how that funding is spent overall.
According to Waguespack, the ordinance would call on the Finance Department to determine how much remains unspent in every TIF district and what money is already committed.
"Show us what specific projects are out there," Waguespack said. "We know that if they do their homework there will be a surplus there in the tens of millions" of dollars.
Waguespack called the TIF money being spent on the McCormick Place expansion, including a DePaul University arena, "wrongheaded." Fioretti went further, calling it "boneheaded."
Both also pointed to TIF money being diverted to projects such as the Divvy bike-rental program.
"Is that the priority right now?" Waguespack said. "When we're closing schools and telling students you can't have a gym teacher or an art teacher?"
"People are upset," Fioretti said, adding that many South Loop parents in his ward were moving out of the city in the face of repeated cuts at CPS and the failure to build a neighborhood high school.
"The public sentiment right now citywide is, 'Stop doing what you're doing. Reverse the layoffs of these teachers,'" Waguespack said. "People are angry throughout the city about it."
CPS has stated TIF funds would not offer a long-term solution to the budget crisis, and Emanuel has blamed CPS' estimated $1 billion budget deficit in large part on the statewide public-pension crisis.
Fioretti called that a "red herring," saying, "The mayor's been here two years. It's his budget, his cuts, his school board." He called it a "manufactured crisis."
"No one trusts CPS to do the right thing," Waguespack added, saying that the school district has failed to try to renegotiate high-interest bank loans.
The aldermen also called for the city to consider a 25-cent financial-transfer tax for the buyer and seller on all transactions at Chicago financial markets.