Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Omar Aquino

Omar Aquino

Candidate for City Council, 36th Ward

Omar Aquino

Candidate for City Council, 36th Ward

Portrait of Omar Aquino

Education: BS Criminal Justice, Loyola University

Occupation: Not answered

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


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.

This sort of borrowing was not justified. More than that, it was fiscally irresponsible. It was simply a method of delaying the inevitable – the fact that a combination of budget cuts and tax increases had to occur. I am running on a fresh platform of new ideas to solve the city's fiscal problems. There are essential services that the city needs to provide, and we cannot continue to cut and expect to remain a world-class city. On the other hand, the city faces massive debt obligations to its pension funds that must be solved. I believe that a combination of smart budgeting and new revenues can get us out of this slump. I support exploring new revenue ideas, including the LaSalle Street Tax on large financial transactions, a Commuter Tax, TIF reform, as well as legal action to recoup some of the $800 million in losses the city and Chicago Public Schools have incurred through bad interest rate swap deals. I would even be willing to consider a city income tax on income above a certain amount – perhaps $250,000 or more – similar to the millionaires' tax that failed to pass in Springfield. However, I would want to make sure it is not so extreme a tax that it would drive large amounts of wealth out of the city limits. Additionally, I will work with the Assessor to develop ways to go after tax cheats, including those that may be fraudulently claiming vacancy relief on commercial property throughout the city. When people cheat the property tax system, honest citizens are unfairly forced to pay more. Another revenue initiative that I intend to work on is what I call a "progressive tax swap." Lately, the city has been balancing budgets on the backs of the working class and poor by adding regressive taxes and fees, such as high parking tickets, speed cameras, city stickers, cell phone taxes, etc. This unjust nickel and diming of Chicagoans hits those that can least afford it. We need greater transparency and honesty in the tax system, and we need to work to reduce the tax burden on the working and middle class. We need to more fairly spread the cost of maintaining our city and educating our children amongst all of the players involved. This "tax swap" would involve getting rid of most of these taxes and fees in exchange for raising the revenues needed through the property tax system. This would (if implemented correctly) result in an overall decrease in the tax/fee burden on the city's working class, middle, and low income homeowners and renters by more fairly and openly spreading the tax burden amongst all of the stakeholders, and still raise more revenue for the city. Exploring new ideas like these will help us start to get the city budget back on track and will free up money for restoring some of the devastating cuts to services.

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.

The workers (retired and current) did not cause the pension problem; poor decision making by politicians did. We must fix the problem and make the system solvent for the future. I am committed to working with the representatives of the public employees to develop a revenue solution to solve Chicago's unfunded pension liability. I'm interested in exploring some of the options proposed by the Progressive Caucus such as the LaSalle Street Tax, TIF reform, and other ideas mentioned in the previous question as a way to solve the problem.

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.

We absolutely need TIF reform. I think it is unconscionable to ask working and middle class taxpayers to pay more in property taxes, when we have tax dollars sitting in funds that are not being used for their intended purposes. If there are major surpluses in certain funds, we should consider reverting the money back to the school district and taxing bodies that are currently starved for funds. We need more accountability for those that receive TIF funds. For instance, we need to review the missions of our TIFs – most of the TIFs in the 36th Ward are supposed to be focused on redeveloping and reinvigorating industrial corridors. Yet most of the money collected in these TIFs has instead been spent elsewhere. If a TIF is setup for a specific purpose, we should be auditing that purpose and making sure it is achieving its goal. I do not support the $55 million allotment of TIF funds for the DePaul arena and hotel. At a time when working and middle class Chicagoans are struggling, the idea of a private school that is doing well financially getting taxpayer dollars to build a new arena is simply irresponsible. If DePaul wants to build this arena they have the means to do it on their own without our help.

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.

While all of the ideas mentioned have merit, I am particularly fond of the "Oases in the jobs desert" idea. The 36th Ward features one of the Enterprise Zones that has never lived up to its potential. I think one reason is that the incentives given were never large enough. Eliminating property taxes for a period of time for businesses to locate in these areas is a great idea. It will help particularly in attracting small manufacturers to the industrial corridors of the 36th Ward ward. This is a very important issue to me, as the working class population of the ward used to have numerous opportunities in small and medium-size manufacturing, and unfortunately most of those opportunities are gone now. I also like both the "Social investment" and "Exploring Chicago's greatest resource" ideas (even though the 36th Ward does not feature a wastewater treatment plant). Any way we can help encourage more small businesses, and particularly good-paying manufacturing jobs to locate in the city and in the 36th Ward is a good thing and will help grow the working and middle class tax base in the city. All of these ideas dovetail with an idea I intend to implement for the industrial corridors in the 36th Ward: The city has created incentives such as TIF districts, PMDs (Planned Manufacturing Districts), and Enterprise Zones, but still, there has been little progress to bring jobs back to these areas. If elected, I will commission a comprehensive study to figure out which if any of these ideas have worked, which parts should be kept, and which shouldn't. I will look to experts to recommend other ways to attract working-class manufacturing jobs to the city. And then I will formulate the results into what I would call a new industrial policy for the city – a way to rejuvenate industrial corridors throughout the city and bring back good paying working class jobs to the neighborhoods that used to depend on them. Partnerships between labor unions, government, educational institutions, and manufacturers will undoubtedly be a major component. Finally, once the policies and plans described above are formulated, I will work to make sure they are implemented – it's great to have ideas and plans, but so often they are allowed to languish without the will to see them through to completion. I will do more than just talk about these ideas if elected – I will actively advocate for their passage. I will work tirelessly to make sure things actually happen.

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.

Ethics protections are important in a city with a background like Chicago. We need a robust inspector general with powers to investigate aldermen and staff. With that said, I'm not sure that the legislative inspector general is doing the job properly. I think that we need to explore the idea of instead giving the city inspector general the power to investigate aldermen and their staff members. I am always open to other new ideas of ways to improve ethics and honesty in city government.

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?

The key to improving public education in the city is supporting reforms that are supported by the people on the front lines – teachers. That means advocating for smaller class sizes alongside the Chicago Teachers Union. It means advocating for an elected school board that will be more likely to implement reforms based on research instead of untested "reforms" that are implemented to the detriment of both teachers and students. Alongside this, I would also want to make sure that there are viable campaign finance regulations in place to make sure that certain interests and PACs cannot unduly influence the elections for school board, and that it remains a community-focused board. While I do support the longer school day and year, we also need a better school day – with less standardized tests, and more wraparound services, including counselors, nurses and other professionals to help the teachers do their job. Furthermore, I am against the expansion of charter schools. Experience has proven time and time again that they mostly do not perform better than public schools, and in fact they often perform worse. They are mainly a tax shelter for the wealthy and they are implemented to the detriment of public schools and public education. The CPS needs to work to close its budget gap with the same revenue methods that I have recommended for the city – namely TIF reforms and innovative new revenue measures that will raise more revenue without putting the burden on the working and middle class citizens of Chicago.

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 will be a major priority in the 36th Ward. I have had personal experience with economic development during my time as a legislative aide with the Illinois House of Representatives and with Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth's office, setting up meetings with local chambers of commerce and business owners to better understand their needs. The 36th Ward has long suffered with declining business strips and industrial areas. First of all, I want to commission a comprehensive needs assessment of every business district in the 36th Ward, with the help of local chambers of commerce. This will help determine what infrastructure and other improvements are necessary to help attract businesses to the ward. I will then work closely with the local chambers and other groups to try to attract and court businesses to the 36th Ward's commercial corridors, including with the use and promotion of various incentives available. I also want a full assessment of commercial TIF districts in the ward, to make sure that the money is going to the intended purposes and is spent properly. In the future, if TIF money is used to attract businesses to the ward, I want to make sure that hiring agreements are in place to make sure that ward residents are hired. I also want to work to revive the industrial corridors of the 36th Ward. The city has created incentives such as TIF districts, PMDs (Planned Manufacturing Districts), and Enterprise Zones, but still, there has been little progress to bring jobs back to these areas. If elected, I will commission a comprehensive study to figure out which if any of these ideas have worked, which parts should be kept, and which shouldn't. I will look to experts to recommend other ways to attract good paying working-class manufacturing jobs to the 36th Ward and the city as a whole. And then I will formulate the results into what I would call a new industrial policy for the city – a way to rejuvenate industrial corridors throughout the city and bring back good paying working class jobs to the neighborhoods that used to depend on them. Partnerships between labor unions, government, educational institutions, and manufacturers will undoubtedly be a major component. I will also make sure that any incentives that get passed on to new or expanded manufacturers in the 36th Ward come with an agreement to hire a certain percentage of local residents.

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.

Yes, I wholeheartedly support the increase in the minimum wage. Working class Chicagoans are suffering, and especially with the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs, many can only find work in minimum wage retail positions. Anything we can do to help low wage workers put a little more money in their pocket will not only help them, it will help our local economy and tax base as a whole, as studies have shown that the additional dollars earned are typically spent right away.

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

This is a complex issue. I am mostly opposed to the idea, as I believe in Montgomery Ward's mantra that Chicago's lakefront should be "forever clear and free." However, I like the idea of the Lucas museum coming to Chicago, including all of the tourism and attention it will bring. Perhaps we can instead bring the Lucas museum to the 36th Ward? I can think of some ideal sites for it...

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 take public safety issues very seriously. I graduated from Loyola University with a Criminal Justice degree. Due to my leadership and participation in multiple student organizations at Loyola University, I was selected to participate in a bystander intervention program called the Men's Project that trained male student leaders to become bystander intervention trainers and advocates for survivors of sexual assault. As a result I have participated in multiple Domestic Violence Prevention marches including those coordinated by the Chicago Police District 14 and District 25. During my time as an outreach coordinator for both Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth and a legislative aide in the Illinois House of Representatives, part of my job included being a liaison between various community groups and law enforcement. I also attended numerous community policing meetings and played an active role in helping to solve public safety issues. If elected, I pledge to always stand up for first responders during my tenure on the city council. I will make sure to attend CAPS meetings and work closely with the police districts that serve the 36th Ward to work together towards safer streets. Once we relieve some of the debt and budgetary pressures of the city, we need to immediately hire more front-line police officers. This is a necessity. Additionally, I support a comprehensive approach to safety, which includes implementing innovative new community policing ideas as well as improving economic opportunities for everyone. I believe we need to help residents keep their homes, attract quality employment opportunities, increase the minimum wage, and keep children stimulated in after school programming. With robust opportunities geared towards improving the quality of life for everyone, we can reduce crime. Financial institutions also need to understand the profound impact of foreclosures with abandoned homes inviting trouble in our community. I will work to hold property owners, including banks, accountable for neglected properties that have a negative impact on the surrounding community.

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

Traffic cameras are a controversial issue. They are often viewed by the residents of the 36th Ward as part of the nickel and diming of working class and middle class Chicagoans by the city. I want to see studies about their effect on increased adherence to traffic rules, but I think we at least need to explore the idea of removing some or all of the speed cameras, and potentially some of the red light cameras as well. These cameras simply breed more mistrust of city government. If we really want to enforce the traffic laws, we should hire more police officers to do so rather than using an automated system that most people see as a way for the city to add more money to its coffers at the expense of its citizens.

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

I am open to exploring a reduction in the number of city council members. However, I don't believe it would be a panacea that would save the city large amounts of money – for instance, we would still need to have nearly the same amount of staff available to deal with constituent requests. Additionally, one needn't look further than the 1980s Cutback Amendment, which reduced the size of the Illinois House to find an example of the law of unintended consequences; it seemed like a great reform measure at the time, but it ultimately resulted in the rise to power of the most powerful house Speaker in the country. Making the wards larger also might make it harder for grassroots candidates to get elected. In addition to reducing the number of aldermen, I am open to exploring other reforms of the city council– such as perhaps adding some at-large members that would be completely free to vote on issues of significance to the entire city, without reference to specific ward interests.

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

My highest priority for improving the 36th Ward relates to the greatest concern I hear from ward residents when I knock on doors: providing city services. For some time now, the areas that now make up the 36th Ward have been lacking an alderman due to the 2012 redistricting. Streets have been languishing, potholes abound everywhere, streetlights are rusting away, trees aren't trimmed, rats are everywhere, and all the while local residents have no one to call to complain about these issues. I hear this complaint again and again at the doors. I will be their voice in the city council. I will take constituent requests for city services, deal with them, and try to get funds to improve ward infrastructure as necessary. This will be the most important task I will face after taking office as alderman; the huge backlog of city service requests and infrastructure needs that must be dealt with in the ward.

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

In addition to playing organized sports with the Chicago Park District as a kid, I was also a member of a Puerto Rican folkloric and modern music dance group.