Thursday, May 31, 2012

The case of the nebulous NATO grant funds

Posted By on 05.31.12 at 10:08 AM

The money for NATO must be out there somewhere
We're still waiting for that NATO money to materialize.

Aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel have repeatedly said they’ve procured tens of millions of dollars in federal funding to cover security costs for the NATO summit—essentially an assurance that Chicagoans won’t be the only taxpayers who have to pony up for Emanuel’s idea of hosting the international meeting.

But it turns out that city officials haven’t even asked the feds for that much money yet. And so far Chicago hasn’t received a dollar from them to cover the NATO security bill, which is almost certain to grow over the coming months.

As the old saying goes, if this seems confusing, that’s because it is. Actually, I’m not sure that is an old saying, but it should be, because it’s one of the fundamental rules of Chicago politics—along with “Follow the money” and “Never believe an alderman who says he’s going to vote no.”

To recap the case at hand:

Last fall city officials said they’d received $55 million in federal grants that would help them prepare for the summit. But eventually it became evident that those funds were really designated for the city’s everyday emergency management budget.

Then, in March, officials announced that a different $19 million in federal grants had been “made available” for “eligible security related expenses.” Though worded as openly as possible, the declaration still wasn’t within $11 million of being true. The city had only requested $7.5 million, since that’s all the federal government had available. And none of that reduced amount had been handed over either.

At the same time, officials said they’d raised more than $36 million from private donors to pay for the costs of hosting and entertaining international visitors. They provided the names of the TIF recipients, city contractors, mayoral supporters, and other corporations that kicked in—but they didn't disclose the amounts.

They didn’t provide any kind of NATO summit budget either, making it unclear how much would be enough to cover expenses.

In the weeks before the summit, the city purchased new equipment and the host committee gave an unspecified, no-bid consulting contract to the security firm Hillard Heintze, cofounded by former police chief Terry Hillard. In the days before and during the event, Chicago police were switched to 12-hour shifts. Nobody got days off, and some cops worked six or seven days in a row. Dozens of others were brought in from Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and the state police force. It’s a safe bet that all of them expected to be compensated for their work.

But officials say the city still hasn’t received any federal grant money to cover these costs.

After I asked to see the city’s application for additional funds, officials told me this week that the city “does not possess any records that are responsive to your FOIA request, aside from the documents previously provided to you.”

In other words, they’ve only applied for $7.5 million so far, none of it’s been awarded yet, and receiving anything beyond that depends on budget politics in Congress.

John Boehner is sure to come through, right?

Plus, the tab for the NATO weekend is still open. A few protesters who scuffled with cops have promised to sue for damages. The police union is battling with Emanuel over pay for summit coverage. And the company that owns the parking meter system wants to be reimbursed for street closures ... and possibly for your mother giving birth to such a beautiful child all those years ago. Hey, there's a chance that's in the fine print of the meter deal too.

Officials say they’ll cover the latest meter bill out of the fund from private donors. In fact, they continue to insist that taxpayers won’t be on the hook for any of the NATO expenses.

But they aren’t planning to release any details about the private donations for at least a few more weeks. And it’s not clear if they’ll ever release a full accounting of spending for the summit, since the mayor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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