Chinatown community members discuss new tax at City Hall
November 30, 2017

By Madeline Makoul

The City Council Committee on Finance on Nov. 8 held a public hearing, allowing Chinatown residents to speak in support of or opposition to a new tax on the community.

After months of debate, Chinatown residents and business owners gathered at City Hall to discuss implementing a Special Service Area (SSA) in Chinatown. Despite hosting four community meetings since April 2016, the City is revisiting the issue once more.

Chip Hastings, managing deputy commissioner for the Department of Planning and Development, said officials would amend the proposed SSA #73 to exclude Chinatown Square due to an “outstanding real estate tax liability.” This change to the original SSA boundary has reduced its budget to $96,605, and Hastings explained the SSA would have a ten year term and 0.8% tax rate.

Every seat in the room was taken as residents came ready to express their opinions and ask for the committee’s support.

Proponents argue for beautification

The City has invested in major improvement projects in Chinatown, including the Chinatown Branch Library, a field house, and Ping Tom Memorial Park. SSA proponents believe the new tax will help fix some of Chinatown’s smaller issues.

Bernie Wong, founder and former CEO of the Chinese American Service League, believes the SSA will help improve residents’ quality of life through services such as shoveling snowy sidewalks to avoid ice buildup, evening out the pavement, providing better garbage collection, and improving safety. Wong also thinks the SSA will boost tourism.

“The SSA can create new projects that raise visibility and bring more visitors to frequent our businesses,” Wong said. “I hope we can join the other 52 SSAs across the city in improving our growing community.”

David Wu, chair of the Ping Tom Park Advisory Council, echoed Wong’s hopes of improving both tourist traffic and residents’ quality of life. Wu thinks an SSA could improve safety while making people feel more comfortable.

He recognizes these improvements come at a cost, however. Wu said people typically feel frustrated with taxes because they do not know how officials will allocate the funds. He argued that, in the case of an SSA, residents not only will know how their money is spent but be able to make suggestions for the change they want to see.

“Commissioners who are known to the community will consider how best to spend the limited budget, and these decisions will be transparent to the community, whose members can suggest changes,” Wu said. An SSA “shows our partnership in ensuring that our community is attractive to both tourists and residents in the future.”

Opponents express continued concern

While the two sides still do not agree on whether the neighborhood should implement an SSA, Leslie Moy from the United Chinatown Organization believes everyone’s aims essentially are the same.

“I am sincerely confident that everyone here today has the same goals and aspirations for the Chinese community,” Moy said. “The only difference we have is how that will be accomplished and who will manage it. That’s the only problem.”

Although Moy knows and respects SSA proponents, she thinks the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, a major proponent, approached the issue poorly.

For example, Moy and other residents expressed dismay that people in the Chamber of Commerce are not elected by the people and are not Chinatown residents.

“What’s the risk to them?” Moy asked. “It’s easy to say ‘yeah, let’s raise your tax’ when [they] don’t have to pay it.”

Joanne Moy, who also spoke on behalf of United Chinatown Organization, said details on what beautification means remain unclear. Even after proponents spoke, Joanne Moy still feels they failed to give a clear explanation of what residents will receive from this increased tax.

With many people in Chinatown working 12-hour shifts in lower income jobs, Joanne Moy said the burden of an increased tax would be great. How these residents would see a return on their investment presents another aspect Joanne Moy said supporters did not fully explain—something she believes could have swayed the opposition.

Residents “don’t have a problem supporting this if it’s something they feel is a mutual benefit,” she said. “I mean, we are talking about something that makes them feel safe and good. I ask that you compel the proponents of the SSA to articulate the details of what this involves. There’s just way too much confusion.”

After both the proponents and opposition spoke, Alderman Danny Solis (25th Ward) said he supports the SSA.