Book offers way out of Chicago budget crisis
April 7, 2017

The 2017 budget for the City of Chicago, an $8.2 billion plan, met with effortless approval last October by the Chicago City Council. Aldermen voted for a budget that included many hidden costs for taxpayers 48-0.

Tom Tresser has a dream that includes future crowded public meetings with many of those in attendance waving copies of Chicago Is Not Broke, a book that he and other grassroots organizers in the Civic-Lab have compiled. The book now is in its second edition.

Chicago is “going in the wrong direction,” Tresser said. The book is a primer intended to inspire the city’s citizenry about how things are done in Chicago, the cost paid for misguided programs, how to create new streams of cash revenue, and how to change the system.

Chicago Is Not Broke spells out the budgetary process in Chicago, identifies practices siphoning tax money away from what citizens need, and presents new ideas for untried income streams.

”This book offers solutions, not only for the City to dig itself out from where it is, but for taxpayers, legislators, and concerned Chicagoans, to learn about the financial state of the City,” said Cook County Clerk David Orr.

“No one has stepped forward and challenged” any of the data provided in the book, Tresser said. Copies were delivered to the City’s 50 aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, so Chicago power brokers know what the CivicLab is proposing.

Published in 2016, the book is a collection of essays compiled jointly with the TIF Illumination Project. Academic and street-smart credentials characterize its 11 contributors, including Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability; Dick Simpson, who is on the faculty at University of Illinois at Chicago; and Hilary Denk, director of the League of Women Voters of Illinois. Tresser, a public defender, was a past Green Party candidate for president of the Cook County Board.

The book is full of statistics, data, and topics such as tax-increment financing and the cost of police abuse settlements. Chicago Is Not Broke shines a light on City Hall practices, avoids trashing municipal leaders, does not blame individual agencies for the City’s problems, and makes its case that a well informed citizenry and changes started in City Hall could stem Chicago’s perceived river of red ink.

According to Tresser, the key is a willingness to embrace newer ideas, such as adding transaction fees at the Mercantile Exchange and other trading floors; making a determined effort to correct long standing problems with pensions and poorly negotiated borrowing packages; ending corruption on all levels; and providing greater transparency, especially with TIF districts. The downward trend Chicago has come to accept as inevitable could be changed to the financial betterment of all, he added.

Few citizens grasp budgetary crafting, revenue sources, financial decisions, or if those decisions offer the City’s wisest course, Martire writes. Chicago’s FY 2016 budget alone, $9.32 billion, puts it in a league with other nations, not just large cities. The fact that officials do not present a budget as a single document, but bring it to public awareness in incremental stages, further contributes to confusion, Martire noted.

Simpson covers corruption and the toll it exacts. He identifies favoritism in public contract awards as the costliest offender, although Chicago Police Department settlements have drained an estimated $50 million annually as well, he noted.

Since July, the CivicLab has held nearly 30 open forums, with the book’s message of increased public understanding and awareness as a common link. The group has scheduled more, Tresser said.

Chicago Is Not Broke is available at bookstores and can be downloaded on Kindle. For more information call (773) 770-5714 or log on to www.wearenotbroke.org.

— Sheila Elliott