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BOMA/Chicago’s State of the City Aldermanic Discussion and Luncheon

BOMA/Chicago was pleased to host some of Chicago’s most esteemed aldermen earlier this month for our annual mid-year luncheon, held at Prime & Provisions in River North. Our City and County Legislative Consultant, Mary Kay Minaghan, moderated the engaging panel discussion focused on the “state of the city” – policy and politics here in Chicago.

Our aldermanic panel included:

  • Alderman Carrie M. Austin (34th Ward) – Chairman of the Budget and Government Operations Committee
  • Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) – Vice Mayor of Chicago representing Chicago’s Downtown
  • Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) – Newly Elected Alderman representing North Michigan Avenue and River North
  • Alderman Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward) – Chairman of the Public Safety Committee

These aldermen’s ideas and viewpoints were as diverse as the constituents they represent – all the way from the far South Side to the Northwest side to Chicago’s Central Business District. The following Q&A, edited for length, includes excerpts from the lively discussion.

Let’s talk about the city’s current fiscal situation and existing pension issues. Specifically, the municipal employee pension fund and the teachers’ pension fund still require funding solutions. Do you think agreements can be reached with these two pension funds, and if so, will Springfield or Chicagoans be tasked with footing the bill?

Austin: I believe the municipal employee pension fund issue will be resolved thanks to an agreement we’re working on with the local labor unions. For the teachers’ pension fund, I’ll continue to pray. We need Springfield legislators to step up and support Chicago teachers like they do teachers downstate. Overall, I’m optimistic. I’ve discussed the pension issue with our budget director, and I believe that by 2029, all of Chicago’s pension funds will be solvent.

Reboyras: The last thing we want is to raise taxes on the city of Chicago. The problem is we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel in Springfield. We’re hoping the teachers’ pension issue will be resolved. But the unfortunate fact is the teachers’ pension here in Chicago is paying for the teachers’ pension in Southern Illinois as well. There’s something wrong with that formula, and that’s what we have to fix.

Reilly: There is a real inequity on how public schools are funded in Illinois. The poorest districts receive the least support in the state. Spending per student is terribly low. The debate over funding formulas has been raging for years, but the truth is, Chicago taxpayers are at an extreme disadvantage. Downstate pensions are paid for with Chicago income taxes, but the state does not support Chicago’s pensions, and it’s not fair. Realistically, I think progress is more likely to be made in the fall. The bottom line is we need a budget passed, and the longer Springfield puts off that decision, the more it’s going to cost us. Despite the fiscal disaster Mayor Emanuel inherited when he was elected, he’s doing a lot to try to restructure pension agreements, in partnership with the labor unions. Hopefully we’ll see significant progress over the summer.

Hopkins: We’re not asking for a bailout – we’re asking for fairness. One of the great conundrums of Springfield politics is the perception that Chicago receives an unfair amount of state resources. That’s just not true. In fact, Chicago subsidizes the rest of the state. All taxes we pay are subsidizing the rest of Illinois, from school funding to road construction and countless other examples. When we ask for equality and fairness, we’re told that we’re greedy and asking for a bailout. This region is the economic engine and driver of the state. We’re in a crisis now, we need help, and we have every reason to expect it from Springfield.

Another big issue in Chicago is the spike of violent crime in recent years. What needs to be done to reduce violence in Chicago? Can the new superintendent accomplish that task?

Reboyras: I firmly believe new superintendent Eddie Johnson is the right person for the job. For years, the Chicago Police Department has had an outsider at the helm. Eddie Johnson is already familiar with the department and the local communities he’ll be tasked with protecting. He’s extremely qualified and passionate about turning things around in Chicago. In terms of the larger violent crime issue facing the city – we are working to overcome some major challenges. However, we’ve already made meaningful progress. For example, everyone in the department is issued a Taser to encourage a “gun last” approach to conflicts. We’re ramping up crisis intervention training for officers. We’re also engaging in regular meetings with the Department of Justice and implementing many of their recommendations. We won’t be able to turn things around completely overnight, but we are taking the necessary steps to move forward.

Reilly: The current state of Chicago public safety is unacceptable. Crime statistics are horrendous for many reasons – some of which are outside our control. Surrounding states hand out guns like party favors, and many Chicago shootings are related to that. That said, we also have a resource issue. Relying so heavily on overtime to address areas of the city that need extra help is a mistake. Over time, we should find a way to make it a priority to build new officers into the budget. That means not just keeping up with turnover, but increasing the force. Regarding new leadership, I’m very impressed with the new police superintendent. His honesty is refreshing. But he faces a difficult task. The most important, pressing need the city has to address right now is security.

Hopkins: I support our new superintendent. He’s a cop’s cop, so he’s done a lot to improve department morale. He’s also local and truly understands the community. I also firmly believe we need more police officers. We’re currently spending more than $100 million in police overtime payments. It may be easier to pay overtime than to hire new officers, but it’s not better in the long run. We can’t replace officers who are retiring at the rate they’re leaving. That’s one thing we as aldermen have some control over. We can allocate more resources towards the police force, and I’ll be fighting for that.

Austin: Eddie Johnson has been a good friend of mine for years. I don’t think we (Chicago) could have gotten any better, because he’s home grown. His plans for the city are a breath of fresh air. The overtime police payments are a difficult issue, since my ward on the South Side benefits greatly from officers receiving overtime pay. However, I do understand that overtime payments are not sustainable. I believe Eddie Johnson will commit to hiring more police officers, which we desperately need.

The relationship between Chicago neighborhoods and downtown can sometimes be described as “us vs. them.” Just last month, the Council approved Mayor Emanuel’s ordinance on neighborhood development, which eliminates the density bonus for developers that currently exists. Instead, it encourages contributions to a neighborhood development fund, which would then be allocated to underserved Chicago neighborhoods. Why did you vote for or against this ordinance?

Reilly: I voted against it, but not because I didn’t agree with the concept. I think it was a good idea to eliminate self-serving design bonuses that most self-respecting architects already put into buildings. The Mayor considered this ordinance an opportunity to provide gap financing to struggling neighborhoods and incentivize retailers to open up in new communities. Where I had an issue was how that fund was governed, how it would be administered, etc. I would have liked to see an independent review of the grant requests to vet them and make sure they were good investments with a concrete ROI. But I do give the Mayor great credit for coming up with the idea. I think the ordinance was well-intended and will do some good, and I hope it’s successful.

Hopkins: I agree with Alderman Reilly, despite the fact that I voted for the ordinance. Within the city of Chicago, we’re often divided among neighborhoods. This was an attempt to unify us, and to spread resources around to struggling neighborhoods and communities.

Austin: My ward will benefit greatly from this ordinance, and we are glad to take advantage of all the resources provided to us.

Reboyras: The problems we have with crime are all tied to poverty and a lack of job opportunities. This ordinance would help alleviate some of those problems. It won’t fix everything, but it will make a dent.

BOMA/Chicago has worked closely with the Department of Buildings on various code issues, and we’ve seen iterations of the building code rewritten over the past 30 years. But Chicago remains the only major U.S. city that hasn’t adopted the international building code, despite the fact that Cook County did so about a year ago. Do you think it’s time for Chicago to consider adopting this code?

Austin: I do believe it’s time Chicago considered adopting the international building code. It will help us stay competitive and keep up with other U.S. cities.

Reboyras: There are things in Chicago’s zoning book that are already obsolete, despite the fact that it was updated five years ago. I agree that we need to adopt the international building code. There’s significant room for change and improvement.

Reilly: We’re competing for investment dollars against other cities across the country. We shouldn’t be putting up extra obstacles or burdens for developers. Rather, we should be doing whatever we can to make it easier to do business in Chicago. There’s no reason developers should have to custom tailor a project to Chicago’s standards. We should adopt the international code as our policy here.

Hopkins: For years, Chicago’s building code has been written by politicians, not engineers and architects. I think it’s time to change that. I recognize the value of international standards vetted by career professionals who know about best practices nationwide.

What are your thoughts on the status of the Wrigley Field development project?

Hopkins: Boston is an interesting case study. Development around Fenway Park has resulted in a major tourism boost. I think the Wrigley Field development is a great opportunity, but I also respect aldermanic privilege. I’m going to offer the local alderman, Tom Tunney, my support based on his decision. I do understand his attempts to limit the use of the Wrigley Field plaza to game days and special events. There is no shortage of places to drink beer or people who want to drink beer in Wrigleyville.

Austin: I also rely on Alderman Tunney for decisions in Wrigleyville unless I feel very strongly about an issue.

Reboyras: As a former peddler at Wrigley Field, I’ll support Tunney. I’m business-oriented. The last thing I want to see is the sports bars in the Wrigley area close. I want the Ricketts to profit, but I also want the local businesses to stay intact. Hopefully we can find a mutually beneficial solution.

Reilly: I have a conflict of interest, as I’m a Cubs season ticket holder. I agree with all of my colleagues. I support my fellow aldermen when they make decisions in their own wards. Knowing Alderman Tunney, he’ll do his very best to strike a balanced deal. The Ricketts shouldn’t be penalized for the great investment they’ve made in the Cubs. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of the local business owners. Tunney has an obligation to them as well.