The trust fund mayor | Politics | Chicago Reader

The trust fund mayor 

Rahm Emanuel has big plans for rebuilding Chicago's infrastructure. Wish we knew what they were.

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WHAT WE KNOW: Mayor Emanuel says the trust will let him "restore Chicago's core" with billions of dollars of projects—while somehow not raising taxes or selling off assets.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW: How it's possible to get something for nothing.

WHAT WE KNOW: The one project Emanuel has publicly put on the table is retrofitting government buildings, like the 911 center, to save energy costs. Investors would put up money to retrofit the buildings and make it back from what's saved on future energy bills.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW: What happens if retrofitting doesn't end up saving money—say, if energy costs skyrocket. Nor do we know what share of the money the investors would be entitled to. "The devil's in the details," says Ron Baiman, an economist for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a think tank. "We need to know who's assuming the risk. We won't know that until they actually sign a deal."

WHAT WE KNOW: Emanuel says he'd follow the same approach for other projects—instead of traditional interest fees he'll finance these deals by turning over the savings or revenue streams that they create. For instance, instead of selling bonds to pay for extending the Red Line, he might increase fares and turn over some of the money to the investors—which isn't that different from what Daley did with the parking meter system.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW: How Emanuel could use this scheme to raise money to construct schools, pave streets, or build anything else that doesn't immediately generate revenues—unless, of course, he's going to create new user fees.

WHAT WE KNOW: Five companies have written letters to the city indicating their interest in the trust: Citibank, which received $45 billion in federal bailout money in 2008; Citi Infrastructure Investors, which has a stake in privately run toll roads, airports, and water systems around the world; Macquarie Infrastructure, one of the firms that leased the Skyway from the city in 2005; J.P. Morgan Asset Management Infrastructure Investment Group, an investor in airport privatization; and Ullico, a financial services company operated by the AFL-CIO and other unions.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW: If they're the only firms who will get a slice of this pie. Or how they got involved the first place. The mayor's office didn't respond to our questions.

WHAT WE KNOW: The letters of interest these five companies sent to the mayor are almost word-for-word the same: "[INSERT NAME] believes a local infrastructure bank merits serious consideration . . ."

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW: If that means the mayor and/or his aides wrote them or if it's just one of those odd coincidences that happens from time to time in major city financial deals—like when the company that came up with the idea of selling the parking meter system wound up analyzing and structuring the deal as well.

WHAT WE KNOW: Mayor Emanuel wants to rush his detail-free proposal though the City Council by April 18. In fact, the mayor has already mapped out a timetable for consummating these yet-to-be-disclosed deals—his aides shared it in their closed-door presentations to aldermen. He wants the trust plan approved this month so deals can be made, paperwork completed, and projects underway, undoubtedly to great fanfare, by September.

WHAT WE STILL DON'T KNOW: What those projects and deals are.

WHAT WE KNOW: Aldermen don't know any more than we do, though that hasn't stopped many of them from voicing their support.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW: What it would take to get aldermen to say no to something—anything—that the mayor—any mayor—proposes.

WHAT WE KNOW: The trust will give Mayor Emanuel more power, more control, more publicity, and less oversight, and a potential source of campaign contributions from investors lining up to feed from the trust.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW: How much we're going to pay.

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