Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Juanita Irizarry

Juanita Irizarry

Candidate for City Council, 26th Ward

Juanita Irizarry

Candidate for City Council, 26th Ward

Portrait of Juanita Irizarry

Education: Master of Public Administration, Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, 2007 (Studied on a full-tuition scholarship as a Presidential Scholar/Public Service Fellow and received upon graduation the Littaeur Fellowship Award for Public Service, Academic Excellence, and Potential for Leadership)

Occupation: Statewide Housing Coordinator for Long-Term Care Reform, Office of the Governor, State of Illinois

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


Candidates running for City Council, 26th Ward

Responses to the Chicago Tribune's questionnaire

Q: Last year, the Chicago Tribune's investigative series "Broken Bonds" reported that, since 2000, Chicago had issued long-term bonds to spend nearly $10 billion, much of it for short-term operating expenses. Hundreds of millions of dollars went to delay bond payments by refinancing old debts, a tactic known as "scoop and toss" that extends payments far into the future. Was this borrowing justified? Going forward, how should City Hall change its finances to pay down existing debts and provide services? Will you argue primarily for cuts in spending or for tax increases? Please be specific.

Long-term borrowing to pay for short-term operating expenses is obviously a less than ideal practice. To avoid this, there needs to be a balance between increasing revenue and reducing spending in areas that doesn't sacrifice the City of Chicago's ability to assist resident meet their basic human needs. However, in the midst of very complex and deep municipal budget challenges that will not serve up easy solutions, I want to help use this election to send the message that it is not okay simply to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the middle-class through budget cuts and fee increases. I would support responsibly increasing revenue on those individuals and corporations who can afford to pay more in taxes, reducing spending on non-basic human needs and other strategies before supporting cuts to future public and private sector pensions and effective social programs. Two revenue increases I support are modernizing the sales tax to include certain services and and instituting a sales tax on large-scale financial transactions. If I had been in office in 2013, I would have voted in favor of an ordinance declaring a larger surplus in Tax Increment Finance (TIF) districts that would have returned more money to the operating budgets of taxing districts. Unfortunately, that ordinance failed. Overall, I would only support specific revenue enhancements that could be accomplished in way that increases the progressiveness, and did not increase the regressiveness, of the current tax system. Regarding the City of Chicago budget process, we need to end the system where the mayor's office introduces a budget and the City Council approves it with seemingly little dialogue, negotiation or public input. I am very troubled by the lack of progress at creating the new Office of Financial Analysis, a proposal that was supported by the Civic Federation, that was approved in 2013. Until we change the dynamic of creating the city budget, I am concerned that we will not realize all the improvement we can in Chicago's fiscal health.

Q: Chicago will face a substantial increase in contributions to its police and fire pension funds in 2016. Chicago's unfunded pension liability amounts to about $7,000 for each resident of the city. How should the city solve its pension crisis? Please be specific about pension changes, spending cuts or revenue increases you would support.

I do not believe that Chicago can with integrity regularly subsidize wealthy corporations while asking working people to forfeit pension benefits. I believe that current commitments to pensions must be honored. Other ways to deal with the pension crisis that I would support are: Re-amortization of the debt currently owed using a flat level dollar, rather than level percent of payroll, amortization schedule. As I understand it, this will require a somewhat higher payment the first few years, but over time the payment required will remain flat rather than escalate. Renegotiating or terminating City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools bond swap contracts. As I understand it, cancelling the contracts might cost more in the short term, but save many millions of dollars in the long-term. The threat of cancellation could be used to renegotiate the contracts to more favorable terms.

Q: What changes should be made in the city's use of tax increment financing? Would you support expansion or extension of TIF districts in your ward? How should excess TIF funds be spent? Do you support the $55 million allotment of TIF funds to buy land for a Marriott Hotel and DePaul basketball arena? Please explain.

Had I been in office when the City Council approved the $55 million allotment, I would have voted against it. I share the concerns detailed in Alderman Scott Waguespack's analysis of the plan for DePaul Arena and McCormick Place Entertainment District. TIFs can be a useful tool, as they provide direct funding for public works projects and they provide subsidies to encourage private development. However, without adequate oversight TIFs can also have negative impacts: Divert revenue from other taxing districts, such as municipalities, public schools and libraries. Increase property tax bills when taxing districts have to increase their tax rate due to the freeze on assessments. Waste subsidies in areas where growth would happen even without a TIF district. At a time when Chicago is facing massive budget shortfalls to pay for basic services, it's past time for TIF reform. I believe we need comprehensive TIF reform at the state and local level to make creation and management of TIF districts more transparent, so that the public and elected officials can make informed decisions about taxing and spending in their communities. The reforms would also allow, under certain circumstances, overlapping taxing districts, particularly school districts, to benefit from some of the increase in property values over time that currently solely go to TIF—and/or opt out of TIFs altogether. Revise the definition of blighted areas, so that future TIF districts can only be created in districts where development would not happen "but for" the TIF. Within a municipality limit the land area and/or value of the tax base that can be included in a TIF. Require TIF districts to have more explicit purpose and goal statements at the outset to help evaluate the TIFs progress over time. Define a process through which TIFs that have fully met their goals, and therefore are no longer necessary to promote development, can be phased out prior to the originally planned date. Slow down the TIF approval process to allow more time for community evaluation and input. Require that the governing authorities of the overlapping taxing districts approve participation in a TIF by a majority vote of their governing board. Explicitly define a process to allow taxing districts to sign inter-governmental agreements with municipalities that allow them to share in the new property tax wealth available in TIF districts. Define a process through which individuals taxing districts can opt-out or limit their participation in a TIF. Index the Initial Equalized Assessed Value for properties in TIF districts to inflation, or some other measure, to allow taxing districts to benefit from some of the increase in property values over time. Have a clearer and more transparent process for identifying surplus TIF funds to be returned to overlapping taxing districts. Require that the portion of an individual's tax payment being sent to TIF districts be made available to them. Define procurement standards for spending TIF funds. Have a well-defined and transparent process for determining when TIF funds can be ported from one TIF district to another.

Q: The Tribune Editorial Board recently offered "12 ways to heal a city" — the best ideas among more than 1,000 suggestions from readers on how to craft "A new Plan of Chicago." These proposals are available at Please tell us which ideas you would champion. We invite you to offer additional ideas for dealing with Chicago's challenges.

Mutual of Chicago would be the idea that I would champion. I would want to especially help direct such investments in local businesses toward the West Humboldt Park and Hermosa areas of the ward, and possibly toward the Kinzie Industrial Corridor area (in coordination with the 27th ward alderman). There are several existing Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) in Chicago with the expertise to evaluate and make loans that could help and develop and implement such programs.

Q: Should the City Council keep or abolish the office of legislative inspector general? Should the city inspector general be given the authority to investigate aldermen and their staff members? Do you have other ideas to improve government ethics in Chicago? Please explain.

I support increasing the powers of an inspector general to investigate aldermen and their staff members. I am less concerned whether the legislative inspector general is in a stand alone office or part of the City's inspector general's office, the important question is whether there are the powers and resources to do the job. I would have voted against the ordinance passed by the City Council in August by vote of 42-6 that the limits the already weak powers of the legislative inspector general by transferring the power to investigate campaign donations to Aldermen to the Board of Ethics. I support the recommendations made by public interest groups, such by Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) and the Better Government Association, that would give the legislative inspector General and the City inspector general more powers in the areas of investigations, independence and enforcement. I think it's also worth revisiting whether it makes sense for Chicago to create a centralized inspector general office, like what exists in New York, that would consolidate the inspector generals for the City of Chicago, City Council, Chicago City Colleges, the Chicago Housing Authority the Public Building Commission, and the Chicago Transit Authority into a single office with uniform powers.

Q: The Chicago Public Schools system has seen significant improvements in freshmen on track and high school graduation rates. CPS has also closed dozens of schools, used fiscal 2016 revenue to balance its 2015 budget and faces a roughly $700 million pension payment in 2016. Please give us your assessment of the academic and financial performance of the city's public schools. What is the key to improving public education in the city? Should members of the Board of Education be elected by the public or continue to be appointed by the mayor? Do you support the longer school day and year? Should CPS expand or reduce the number of charter schools? How should CPS close its significant budget gap?

I reviewed the Advance Illinois report on the status of schools. I am pleased that CPS has made progress raising achievement at the elementary school level. HS graduation rates have increased over the past ten years through initiatives like Freshman on Track, which provides support to ninth graders at-risk of dropping out. I think the most important thing we can do that is not revenue related to benefit the education of children is work to create more successful partnerships, and less divisiveness, between the Mayor's office, City Council, CPS leadership, the Teacher's Union, and parent groups. A report on partnerships between unions and management released by The Center for American Progress found that formal partnerships help improve student performance, and was a significant predictor of student performance, as well as performance improvement, after poverty and school type are taken into account. Much of my work and volunteer experienced has been on developing and implementing collaborations, so I am well prepared to part of this dialogue as Alderman. I support an elected School Board. An elected board would be accountable to the community as well as teachers, parents, students, and would be more diverse, reflecting the people it serves. Election requirements could mandate specific qualifications and cap campaign expenditures, thus reducing the influence of money and politics on education. I don't have enough information to evaluate what the impact of a longer school day and year have been. I support a moratorium on the creation of any new charter schools. I believe we shouldn't take money out of the system that serves the majority of children in order to create a separate set of schools that are less-accountable and often claim success while turning away the children that present the most challenges. We need to invest in neighborhood schools for every community, not only for the sake of proximity, excellent education for the children but also for the sake of community connectedness through parent engagement and other programs that can be centered at the local school. I also don't believe that public tax dollars meant to support the system should be diverted through vouchers to private schools, whether for-profit or non-profit. In terms of the budget, a very longstanding issue that we need to continue to work on is underfunding by the State of Illinois, which has often ranked last among all states in the percentage of education expenditures provided by the state, requiring local tax revenues to provide the majority of revenue. According to the state's own standard for General State Aid, CPS should have received $1 billion more in General State Aid in FY14. At the state level, I support maintaining the current income tax, to maintain current funding. Long-term, I support changing the Illinois Constitution to allow for a graduated income tax. These type of revenue increases are more sustainable than the approved plan to borrow $17 million from private investors to expand early childhood education programs that will end up costing taxpayers perhaps twice that considering interest.

Q: How would you attract more employers to your ward? How would you encourage employers to hire local residents? What have you done to promote economic development in your ward?

I previously served on the Steering Committee of Humboldt Park Empowerment Partnership (HPEP), which promoted economic development and workforce development through collaborative action teams working across various local non-profits and local businesses. Although HPEP no longer exists, I think it still provides a good model for neighborhood development. Through HPEP, I was part of efforts in the 26th Ward under the previous alderman, Billy Ocasio, to ensure that local residents receive training and prioritization for new jobs created by commercial and residential development in the ward. At HPEP I also helped guide the development of the Carreras en Salud program to create a pipeline between Spanish-speaking workers in health care industry receiving job training and local hospitals. While employed at The Chicago Community Trust, I also worked with several workforce development organizations, including Greater West Town Community Development. As Alderman, I would work hard to strengthen connections between workforce development programs and local employers, like those in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor, which is across the street from the 26th ward on Grand Avenue. I would also work collaboratively with the 27th Ward alderman to attract more businesses there. Another priority would be to better promote Paseo Boricua (on Division Street, west of Western Avenue) as a thriving cultural and commercial strip, building on the Puerto Rican culture that has long been a centerpiece of the neighborhood. To do this requires a strong Division Street Business Development Association to provide more effective technical assistance to existing and potential businesses. I would work to attract appropriate developments and businesses to this strip.

Q: Do you support or oppose the City Council vote to increase the minimum wage in several steps to $13 an hour by 2019? Please explain.

As I testified during the City of Chicago's public hearing process for a minimum wage increase, I support increasing the minimum wage to $15 in the City of Chicago. Businesses need customers who can afford to patronize local businesses. With the high housing prices in our community, families can barely afford their housing, let alone have disposable income available to support local businesses.

Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.

No. As Friends of the Parks argues, this museum should not be located on land that has been set aside by law to be preserved for public space. Also, while some claim that the Lucas Museum will be paid for solely with private investment, in projects like this there is also generally lots of investment in transportation and other infrastructure improvements that I don't think the City of Chicago can afford at present.

Q: How can the city improve public safety? Please address the role and performance of the Chicago Police Department and the role of neighborhood residents in crime prevention. What have you done to improve public safety in your community?

I am a former board member of the Community Renewal Society and strongly support the Reclaim Campaign to reduce violence by moving limited financial resources away from overly punitive criminal justice systems into community-based restorative justice, mental health, and substance abuse alternatives that rehabilitate lives and make our communities safer. However, I also believe the Chicago Police Department needs more front line officers. We have too few police and they are overworked and tired. In the era of Ferguson and other such challenges, we need our police to be at their best in order to appropriately address, without overreaching, perceived or real threats on the streets that we need them to patrol. In my community, the closure of the 13th District police station has negatively impacted police service in the part of the 26th Ward that is now served by the 12th district, located all the way in Pilsen. Community policing needs to be revamped and relaunched. Serious engagement between police and the community, especially youth, is necessary. My experience as associate director of a local community development corporation that develops and manages affordable housing leads me to believe that the police often bring negative stereotypes about residents of affordable housing that they can only come to change if the police themselves work closely with the residents who are working hard to rid their own neighborhoods of gang and drug crime.

Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.

I support initiatives to increase safety for automobile drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and others. However, from the beginning the traffic light camera program has been been plagued by mismanagement, corruption and understandable perceptions that the main goal of the program is to generate revenue. I would join alderman who have supported an ordinance to have the City Council hold hearings looking comprehensively at the traffic light camera program so that recommendations for reforming the program can be developed.

Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?

This is another issue where I can see both sides of the argument, but on balance I would say no. The financial savings of reducing the number of alderman would probably be minimal and not impact our budget problems. Efforts to change the number of City Council members could well be likely be tied up in the courts and divert a lot of time and energy from more important issues. Our neighborhoods need representatives that are closely connected to the realities of the communities If our districts are too large, representation will be less effective.

Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?

Based on a years of working with community groups and neighbors in the 26th Ward and a listening tour I conducted priorities to announcing my campaign, these are my highest priorities. Independence and Accountability: I will make decisions after listening to community desires, not what donors or other elected officials ask her to do. Strengthening Our Schools: I will fight to make sure that neighborhood schools stay open and have the resources they need to help our children succeed. Keeping Our Neighborhoods Safe: I will work to strengthen partnerships between community groups and the police to reduce crime and violence. Creating Jobs And Strengthening the Community: I will support businesses that pay living wage jobs, increasing the minimum wage, preserving affordable housing and other community development efforts that build on the current diversity of the ward.

Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.

Despite standing only 4'10 3⁄4", I lettered as a varsity volleyball player in High School.