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Finance Committee OKs Mayor's Infrastructure Trust Plan

Updated 04/16/12 - 5:41 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel's controversial plan to fund $1.7 billion worth of public construction projects with private money cleared a major hurdle Monday, after a City Council panel endorsed the plan, following five hours of debate and a mini-revolt from aldermen concerned about a lack of City Council oversight.

Community and labor groups urged aldermen to reject the mayor's "Chicago Infrastructure Trust" plan during a City Hall protest before the City Council Finance Committee meeting on Monday, but the panel later signed off on an 11-7 vote.

WBBM Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports the plan would have five major banks lead an effort to invest $1.7 billion in private financing to upgrade city infrastructure.

A board of five people appointed by the mayor would be empowered to decide how the majority of the money is spent. The City Council would only have oversight when city assets, properties or money are involved. Projects involving public schools, parks, or public transit would be exempt from City Council approval.

That proved to be a major sticking point for the aldermen who ultimately voted against the plan, especially coming after announcements by Emanuel in recent months that he wants to build dozens of new parks and playgrounds, renovate 100 CTA stations, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on public school buildings -- all likely through the infrastructure trust, and all without aldermen having a say, should the City Council approve the plan as it stands now.

A lack of details about how the money would be spent ignited a mini-revolt from aldermen during the, but the mayor got the votes he needed to send the plan to the full City Council, which will consider the measure on Wednesday.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said, "It's also something we need to proceed with caution, because this could … benefit us, but it also can backfire."

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said, "Do you want to take it just because you have your votes and … run it down our throats?"

Emanuel's chief financial officer, Lois Scott, said "To be blunt, here in Chicago, we cannot afford to wait. Mayor Emanuel has been very clear, on behalf of Chicagoans, he will not wait. Our crumbling infrastructure needs are too great."

The aldermen who voted against the plan cited a lack of faith in how the infrastructure trust would be managed, in the wake of the parking meter lease deal that blew up in their faces.

The lease of the parking meters to a private company has been criticized from the very beginning, after many parking meters malfunctioned after they were privatized, and then motorists were hit with steep parking rate hikes in every year since the deal went into place in 2009.

The committee's vote to approve the mayor's plan came hours after a coalition of community groups, union members and others gathered at City Hall to urge the committee to reject the plan, chanting "Chicago's not for sale."

They said the proposal would give the mayor too much power in deciding which construction projects get funded, without sufficient oversight from the City Council.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports


Although some aldermen have also voiced concerns about the plan, Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative – a coalition of community groups – said she isn't sure there's enough resistance from the aldermen to slow down Emanuel's plan.

"There are voices out that are concerned. Are there enough is the real question. We don't know, but we want to make sure that every alderman knows that we're watching and we're keeping track," she said. "Just like people are keeping track of who voted on the parking meters, this is a real critical vote for us as well."

Patel said it's troubling that a board appointed by the mayor would decide which infrastructure projects would get funding, rather than the City Council.

"Checks and balances? Sounds like the mayor is checking and balancing himself," she said.

The administration has said such trust funds are used around the world, but Roosevelt University sociologist Stephanie Farmer said that's not comforting.

"If you look at the history of infrastructure funds across the globe, what you find is the tendency to cherry pick those infrastructure projects that are the most profitable," she said.

Farmer said Chicago is building an exclusive city and not helping communities in need as much as it should

Farmer said the Infrastructure Trust Fund is reminiscent of Tax Increment Financing, which many critics have said is not being used to revitalize blighted communities, as originally intended.

"What we were told, were promised, 30 years ago when they implemented the TIF … program was that it was gonna go to economically starved communities that are suffering from blight," she said. "Thirty years down the road, what we see is 50 percent of the TIF funds being used to fund downtown development projects."

Patel said the mayor's infrastructure plan is reminiscent of the parking meter lease deal, when former Mayor Richard M. Daley pushed aldermen to vote quickly on a controversial deal that contained many pitfalls and ultimately proved extremely unpopular with Chicago residents.

Critics also blasted the Emanuel's proposal because it would bar the city's inspector general from investigating the trust fund.

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