By Jim Vail
Special to Mychinews.com
Chicago News spoke with Chicago Is Not Broke author Tom Tresser about why he wrote this book and what he hopes the outcome will be. The book highlights how a public bank, financial transaction tax, and a progressive income tax could provide billions of dollars to the city, while highlighting the fact that corruption, secret TIF funds and toxic swaps have cost the city billions. He told us he believes this book should be taught in all the schools so that students know where exactly our money is going and what we as citizens can do to make sure it is protected for the good of the people.
Chicago News: Can you tell us about your background? What inspired you to write this book?
Tom Tresser: I first came to Chicago from New York in 1980 and was involved in the theater world. We thought we were doing something that was so good. But what I saw was public policy was lacking. I got a certificate in non-profit management and a Masters in urban development. I was the co-founder of The Free Shakespeare Company in 1981. I joined Pegasus Players in 1985 where, in 1986 I started the Chicago Young Playwrights Festival. Over the years some 12,000 teenagers have written plays for the festival. Every year the four winners are produced and performed by professional artists. I found out Chicago is very stingy when it comes to the theater. Other cities devote much more money to the theater. At the time there was a right-wing attack on the arts from people like Reverend Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition and Senator Jesse Helms who fought funding for the arts. So we had to respond and fight back. It was because of that interest in fighting for the arts that I got involved in community organizing. What is our path to power so folks can put their hands on the steering wheel? That’s why I decided to write the book.
CN: Can you tell us about your organization the TIF Illumination Project that also led you to the book?
TT: I began by finding people to tell about their story of TIFs (tax increment financing districts that divert our taxes away from the schools into a mayoral slush fund) in their wards. We had our first TIF townhall meeting at the Chopin Theater in Feb. 2013. There were 230 people. We gave an analysis and told people to give us a call if they wanted a presentation in their community. We have had 45 meetings in 31 wards and 141 TIFs. With no budget 4700 people have attended our meetings. We simply pass the hat. Eventually we asked for an honorarium of $500 for the CivicLab.
CN: How difficult is it to work with no budget? Have you received any grant money or state support for your important work?
TT: All the city foundations like the Chicago Community Trust have refused to fund us. The national foundations have turned us down 15 times. The McCormick Foundation asked us to make special presentation
s but didn’t even let us submit a proposal for funding. The
civic players like the Metropolitan Planning Council, The Civic Federation, and
BGA (Better Government Association), try to control the dialogue.
CN: Did any of them warn about how the Olympics could have bankrupted the city?
TT: No. Our No Games Chicago had only non-paid volunteers to do the research. The more we learned the more alarmed we became. Who’s watching our back? The 2016 Olympic Committee raised $90 million by threatening groups and seducing groups. Almost every media outlet was committed to the Games. We risked our careers, but the message was you could not fight City Hall and win (Chicago lost the bid to host this summer’s Olympics in Rio). And today we have been shut out to talk about it. We tried to do a seminar one year after we lost the bid and only 20 people came. The Illinois Humanities Council did something on the Olympics in 2010 and didn’t invite us. Today the Chicago Tribune is writing how the Olympics would have been our funeral while before they were promoting it. They never mention this. They and other late comers to the No Games point of view NEVER mention us or our efforts.
CN: That is an amazing story of David vs. Goliath. How did you guys defeat Mayor Daley, the Chicago machine and his corporate empire to prevent Chicago from getting the Olympics bid?
TT: We learned that if the Games have the support of less than 50% of the people, then the bid is toast. In Feb. 2009 84% polled were in favor of Chicago hosting the Games in a Tribune poll, and then in late August it dropped to 47%. The key was the Trib. asked in the next poll the question: If there are cost overruns should the taxpayer fund the Olympics? We had a spy, an Olympic insider who gave us the email addresses of the IOC members and told us to go to Switzerland. We would disrupt meetings held in Chicago by the 2016 Committee.
CN: The Civic Federation is always promoting itself as the financial experts of the city. Are they?
TT: The city hired them to whitewash the process to get the Olympic bid. The City Council hired the Civic Federation who hired a consulting company who receives city contracts to evaluate the bid as an “independent” auditor. Their opinion was completely bogus. For example, they said the naming rights for corporate sponsors would bring in millions. However, you can’t show the sponsor’s names during the sporting events. They also estimated it would cost $1 billion to build the Olympic Village, the same cost as the one in Vancouver in the 2010 winter Olympics, even though the summer Olympics village is seven times bigger, and this cost is projected seven years into the future. They just gave the mayor what he wanted and there was nobody watching the public’s interest other than us.
CN: Have you been involved in other fights to protect the public’s interest?
TT: Yes, the private Latin School built an artificial turf soccer field in Lincoln Park and then tried to make this public park their own. So we sued them and said these are public lands open to the public. And we won. But the public lands are not just given to us, we have to fight to keep them. The Metropolitan Planning Council helped draft a bill to privatize the roads in Illinois, which was co-sponsored by State Sen. Heather Steans, whose father is a billionaire. The bill was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn and supported by the construction trades. That means any public roads built after 2010 can be funded by private dollars and the owner can charge us whatever rate they want.
CN: Is the TIF Illumination Project still alive?
TT: The No Games work led me to create the CivicLab. The think tanks are not doing their jobs. The aldermen (49-0 vote in favor of Olympic bid) are not doing their jobs. In 2013 we opened the TIF Illumination Civic Lab, and Benjamin Sugar, my partner, and I put in $12,000 for the lease and to pay operating expenses. We got a one-time grant from the Voqal Fund for expenses. We had a civic space for hacking. No one would fund us and we closed the office June 30, 2015. But it is still alive and our website and database is still alive to show how schools are being closed and millions of dollars is being showered on private developers.
CN: Can you give examples of TIF conflicts of interest where TIF owners shower local aldermen with campaign donations?
TT: Alderman Danny Solis got a $60,000 in campaign donations that were connected to a $9 million TIF project in his ward. Sy Taxman got $7 million to build a supermarket in Greek Town across the street from a supermarket built with public funds. Taxman and his partners gave $3,000 in campaign contributions to Ald. Walter Burnett and $40,500 in contributions to Ald. Ed Burke. There are many examples.
CN: What is project flipping that you mentioned in your book where TIF-funded projects are sold for millions of dollars and the owners keep the profit and TIF tax dollars?
TT: Developer (Seymour) ‘Sy’ Taxman invested $5.2 million of his own, got a $15 million loan from Wells Fargo and $7 million in TIF money to build the Mariano’s Supermarket at Halsted and Monroe across the old Dominick’s that was built the old way with no tax dollars. He then flipped it (sold it) to Jones Lang LaSalle global real estate firm for a 20–30 percent profit. So we as taxpayers acted as his banker. Sy gave $6,000 to Ald. Walter Burnett whose ward Mariano’s is located in.
CN: So city corruption tied to the TIFs is taking money from the schools to pay wealthy developers who then make money off of us?
TT: The city does it too. Chicago had a total of $1.35 billion in total TIF funds in their accounts on Jan. 1, 2016. They paid a total of $49 million to Wells Fargo Bank and the Amalgamated Bank for loans tied to the TIFs. The city’s department of planning then skimmed $8 million for TIF administrative costs. That’s over their regular city budget. Skimming the skim. No one has asked to explain this. But it’s all in our TIF Illumination Project.
CN: How have you promoted this book? Have the mainstream media commented on it?
TT: I’ve tried to get book reviews in radio and TV and sent press releases to Crain’s, Sun-Times, Chicago Tonight. I suggested Chicago Tonight do a debate between me and the city’s budget director. But nothing yet.
CN: So is Chicago broke?
TT: Under no circumstances. There is plenty of money on the table. And plenty of waste and plenty of payoffs.
CN: Who should read this book?
TT: Everyone in Chicago should read this book. It’s being translated into Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. We want people to add to the book. They can put it on our website. I especially want this as a text for the colleges, for students. Prof. Dick Simpson who wrote a chapter will introduce it as required reading in his classes at the University of Illinois Chicago.
CN: How can we order a copy?
TT: Just go to our website wearenotbroke.org and order. It’s $12 plus shipping and it supports the people!