Candidate for City Council, 19th Ward
Education: B.A. Political Science - St. Mary's University, Winona
Occupation: Alderman, 19th Ward
Age: Not answered
Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered
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.
In 2011, the administration and freshmen aldermen inherited a City of broken finances. Borrowing for short-term operating expenses is irresponsible fiscal policy. In the past many of our operating costs, garbage carts for example, were categorized as "working capital" to justify financing them with bond funds. Under this administration, these "working capital" expenses have been shifted to operating funds. During my first term, we have reduced our structural deficit from $635 million when I took office to $297 million today. We have cut $500 million from the budget since 2011. While there is more to be done, our structural deficit, debt legacy and pension crisis did not develop over night; it will take time to fully address them. Moving forward, we must re-examine the services we provide for new efficiencies. For example, the City currently spends $12 million annually on credit card processing fees; the bulk of which comes from suburban towns using municipal credit cards to purchase our water. Working with a group of residents and several City Departments, we explored several more cost effective options. As a result, in 2015, the City will begin offering automatic checking account withdrawls, and electronic check payments for various taxes and fee collections. In 2016, we hope to pass on credit card transaction fees to customers as an incentive to use the less costly checking account options. The Department of Revenue projects nearly $10 million in annual savings from this move. In a June 23, 2014 report, Inspector General Joe Ferguson outlined a provision of the city code that allows approximately 1839 multi-unit residential buildings on a "grandfather list" to receive free garbage service. That report found that as many as 794 of those buildings are no longer entitled to this free service. Servicing the "grandfather list" costs the city over $3.2 million annually; a stronger monitoring system must be enacted to ensure that we are not providing free services needlessly. In the report, Ferguson explored the many non-profits throughout the City that also benefit from free garbage collection. The "non-profit" list includes 28 current or former aldermanic offices. While I do support this service for non-profits, extending it to aldermanic offices, which often share space with political organizations, is inappropriate and should stop. I am also exploring the concept of charging owners of rental properties for certain City services. Garbage and recycling collection is to me, the most logical place to start. To begin this conversation, I recently introduced an ordinance that would require all non-owner occupied single-family homes to register with the City and pay an annual fee to offset the expenses of maintaining the registry. Finally, in terms of new revenue I support a progressive state income tax, provided that municipalities benefit from additional revenue generated. I am open to the extension of the sales tax to certain luxury services, and I continue to support a locally owned Casino with profits benefitting first responder pension funds.
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.
New revenue is needed to stabilize our municipal pension funds. I support a progressive income tax and extending the sales tax to certain luxury services. These new revenue changes should place the additional burden is placed on the wealthy, not the middle class. I also support a Chicago owned casino with revenue directly benefiting our pension funds. Currently, police officers and firefighters outside the City of Chicago receive pensions that include an annual 3% compounding cost of living adjustment, while their counterparts in Chicago receive a 1.5 percent non-compounding adjustment. I see no reason why first responders outside Chicago deserve more lucrative retirement benefits than those working in the City. I support creating statewide police and fire pension funds with each participant receiving Chicago level benefits.
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.
Excess TIF dollars should be returned to the original taxing bodies on an annual basis through a surplus declaration based on existing and projected commitments. I would not support TIF expansion or extension without a specific project in place. While TIFs are a useful tool to spark economic development, in these challenging financial times, it would be irresponsible to extend or expand a TIF on the chance that a project may come together. However, if a significant development project hinged on assistance from an expiring TIF, I would advocate for its extension. I do support the use of TIF funds for the Marriott Hotel development; this will be a major economic engine in that area of Chicago and generate significant sales and property tax revenue for the City. Although much focus has been placed on DePaul's role in the arena, it should be noted that the new stadium will also provide new exhibition space for conventions and create a new indoor concert venue that could help McPier recover some costs.
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 chicagotribune.com/plan. Please tell us which ideas you would champion. We invite you to offer additional ideas for dealing with Chicago's challenges.
The Chicago Tribune's Plan for Chicago introduced a variety of creative ideas to address the issues facing our City. Currently, I am aggressively pursuing the expansion of dual-enrollment opportunities like those DeVry Advantage Academy. Too many children are born into abject poverty; as they grow up, they live in a world that expects the worst of them. These expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to a life of helplessness, neglect and/or violence. Education breaks this cycle – but it can only work when kids believe they can achieve. Too many CPS students have difficulty even imagining themselves in a college atmosphere; what should be a goal becomes an impossibility. These dual enrollment programs give kids the self-confidence to try. While the DeVry model is terrific, it is limited to the students who enroll in the academy. That action itself demonstrates a desire to succeed. Our students are better served by pairing individual high schools with Universities for enrichment programs at all grade levels. I forged such a relationship between Morgan Park High School (MPHS) and Saint Xavier University (SXU). This robust partnership allows high performing students to attend classes and earn college credit at SXU, offers pedagogical and content based teacher development, and provides assistance for students who perform below grade level. Moreover, Saint Xavier provides assistance with things like college applications and essays, financial aid and scholarship information, and preparing for the college transition. Having a respected University interact with the students throughout four years of high school, creates an expectation that students will go to college and they will succeed. I also worked with Saint Xavier and CPS to apply for a major grant from the Illinois State Board of Education to help fund this partnership. This grant will allow Saint Xavier to extend many of these services, specifically professional development and support for students performing below grade level, to Barnard Elementary, a MPHS feeder. We are all very excited about the possible impact of this partnership on our students. With so many major universities, colleges, and even junior colleges in Chicago, we should pursue more dual enrollment options and extended University/High School partnerships. Individual Alderman are uniquely positioned to recognize not only the needs of specific schools, but also the willingness and capacity of local universities. Currently, I am exploring possible University partners for my second public high school, the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.
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.
The City Council should not be exempt from oversight. I support abolishing the office of legislative inspector general and give the city inspector general the authority to investigate aldermen and their staff. This expansion of authority should include a funding floor as a percentage of the overall budget. There are a number of simple steps the City Council can take to improve government ethics in Chicago. I support electronic timekeeping for aldermanic staff, as well as a prohibition on Aldermen hiring relatives for their staff. Currently, both aldermanic staff and city council committee staff positions are Shakman exempt. I believe that city council committee staff positions should be covered by the Shakman decree and that knowledge of the committee's subject area should be strongly considered in filling these positions.
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?
Early childhood education is they key to long-term educational success. While I support investments in such programs, we cannot ignore the needs of existing elementary and high school students. More needs to be done to close the learning gaps of our students. Closing that gap was what led me to approach Saint Xavier University for help some of our local schools. The end result of those conversations is the partnership described above. Through that collaboration, we were able to secure $675,000 in new funding for two of our struggling schools. Those resources will have a major impact on school performance. Struggling schools will not improve by themselves. Local elected officials must insert themselves in process and fight for additional resources. I maintain a close working relationship with the current school board and find them to be very open and responsive to the needs of our schools. I am concerned that an elected school board would further politicize public education and increase administrative costs. Should the general assembly create an elected school board, I would work closely with whoever is elected to improve our schools. I support the longer school day and school year, and would not support a charter school in my ward. CPS's budget problems must be addressed in Springfield. I support a progressive income tax to help fund education. The Chicago Teachers Union has also outlined a series of potential corporate tax loophole closures that should be explored. Obviously, pension reform is the largest driver of this conversation. It is fundamentally unfair that Chicagoans fund the pensions of both our own teachers, and those throughout Illinois. Teachers' pensions should be funded locally.
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?
Economic development is especially challenging in border wards like mine. Businesses can operate just outside the City limits with far fewer regulations and taxes while still attracting Chicago customers. As Alderman, I have invested in our infrastructure and public spaces in an effort to draw businesses to our commercial strips. During my first term, I have aggressively marketed vacant, city owned land in my ward. As a result, Optimo Hats now manufacturers their products in a former Chicago Fire Station on 95th St. This project not only added this building to the property tax rolls, but also created new jobs and introduced manufacturing to what has traditionally been a retail strip. Currently, we are in negotiations to transfer a vacant library and an underutilized city parking lot to a family owned business. I have also marketed small business tax incentives to help several new businesses open including Horse Thief Hollow Brewpub, Janson's Drive-In, and Pizzeria Deepo, and prevent existing successful businesses from relocating to the suburbs. I have also been a strong advocate for business friendly policies and regulations. I worked with the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to reduce the number of business licenses making it easier for businesses to open. I also voted to eliminate the head tax, negotiated an exemption for small businesses in the City's plastic bag ban, and was one of the most vocal opponents of the Chicago-only minimum wage hike. Hiring community residents is the key to success in a community like ours. When neighbors recognize each other in local businesses they feel more comfortable, and more attached to the business. I stress this to every business owner I come into contact with. I have used my office and my social media presence to advertise local job opportunities and connected business owners with our local high schools and our local university for hiring purposes.
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.
I strongly oppose the $13 minimum wage. This increase will have a far greater impact on Chicago's job market than the head tax ever did. This increase, now done absent any state action, sets the stage for a startling wage disparity between Chicago and our neighboring suburbs. As is often the case when the City adopts anti-business measures like the bottled water tax, plastic bag ban, and now the minimum wage increase, the impact is felt in border wards like mine first, and hardest.
Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.
I support the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and its proposed location. It will be a unique attraction, tourist destination, and economic engine for the City. Residents' design concerns should be heard, respected, and addressed through the open community process that would typically accompany development projects at this level. That being said, I would suggest that planners consider moving the museum just a few hundred yards west and building it above the IC/Metra Electric tracks. Such a plan would keep the new construction west of Lake Shore Drive, keep it on the Museum Campus, and cover what is essentially now an eyesore.
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?
It would be very easy to suggest hiring of more police to increase public safety in Chicago. That is certainly true, and once our pension crisis has been addressed, I would support any efforts to increase Chicago Police staffing levels. However, more police offers would treat the symptom while ignoring the cause. The City needs to reverse cuts made to mental health services and in fact expand on previously offered services. The City should look to partner with other units in government to provide these services as mental health problems plague both state and county governments too. Improving our public schools and graduation rates will also create more opportunities for our youth who may otherwise turn to a life of crime. Unfortunately, many communities in Chicago have a distrust of law enforcement. The police can only be successful with strong support from the community. In my ward, I host quarterly meetings with residents and our 22nd District Police Commander. In between these meetings, I host seminars with the police to educate residents on a variety of public safety topics including: Tips for Calling 9-1-1, Burglary Prevention Ideas from Convicted Burglars, Identity Theft, Internet Safety for Families. I try to educate the public on how best to assist the police, what types of information is most important, and what things a 9-1-1 call taker will want to know when you call. We have established phone trees for 9-1-1 calls on high crime blocks. The foreclosure crisis has also created new public safety problem. I aggressively pursue problem homes through building and demolition court. At any time, my staff and I are tracking 10-12 problem homes. During the past two years we have secured several demolition orders for homes or garages that were known staging areas for drug sales. As Alderman, I have always maintained a strong working relationship with the police. I speak with my local commander several times a day. I routinely participate in ride-alongs with officers, my commander, or the police chaplain. Supporting the police is very important to me; I am an active member of the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation's Board of Directors and the Chicago Police Chaplain's Foundation's Advisory Board. Since I took office in 2011, crime in the 22nd District has dropped significantly.
Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.
I support Chicago's traffic light program. Inspector General Ferguson and the Chicago Tribune have raised very valid concerns about this program. The Department of Transportation should conduct regular audits to ensure that the technology is working correctly, cameras are placed fairly, and that interaction between the City and any vendors is appropriate. If CDOT is not willing or able to conduct these audits internally, the Inspector General should continue to monitor the program until issues have been addressed. Red light cameras are a revenue stream for the City. They also increase driver compliance with red lights. Camera locations should be shifted regularly as the issuance of tickets drops at any given location.
Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?
No. Residents in my community deserve a strong voice in local and citywide policies. Reducing the number of aldermen would increase ward size and dilute the impact of each resident. I work diligently each day to be responsive to the needs of my residents. Significantly increasing the number of residents in each ward would reduce the level of service we can offer each resident.
Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?
Public safety will always be my top priority. Moving forward, I will continue to work closely with the police to ensure the safety of the communities of Beverly, Morgan Park, and Mount Greenwood. Educating the public on ways they can assist the police is an unending task. Keeping our communities safe requires residents to work cooperatively with the Police. Lack of high quality retail development is the most common concern voiced by residents of my community. There are a number of challenges that impede commercial development in the 19th Ward. While we have attracted several new, high quality businesses to the area during my first term, there is still much work to be done.
Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.
I was once in the seminary and am a former Chicago Tribune paperboy.