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The [Infrastructure Bank] Papers (Or, Smells Like Teen Parking Meters)

The city council is poised to do what it always does: Roll over for a mayor they are afraid of and pass a controversial plan that even the smart ones don't quite understand.

"This might be the greatest idea on earth," downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly said before voting against the plan at Monday's finance committee meeting. "I just have so many questions, I haven't been able to figure out if it is."

Reilly was joined by six other dissenting colleagues, but somehow 11 aldermen less brainy than Reilly pretended they knew how Rahm's bank will work and voted to send it to the full council today.

"I'd like to find a way to support . . . this incredibly bold plan," downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly said during hearings on Monday. "But I have almost as many questions as when I walked in here this morning . . . You're asking us to take a leap of faith."

Oy.

*

Reilly is right. This might be a great idea. I'm not automatically against it. But as currently structured it sounds like an awful idea - a notion that is only reinforced by Rahm's rush to push it through in the face of so many outstanding legitimate questions coupled with a degree of arrogance and dismissiveness that won't change but will only grow in his management of the trust that signals major problems on the horizon.

It's not as if, say, a 30-delay will result in the city's bridges falling down.

And if you think it's bad now, wait until the bank is up and running. It's only going to get worse. Who thinks the administration will be more forthcoming once the bank is codified than it was during a public five-hour hearing before the city's (pretend) legislative body?

"At least investigative reporters and federal grand juries will be busy," Tribune columnist John Kass writes. "I've got a feeling that this plan is really The Investigative Reporter Stimulus Act to keep reporters and columnists busy for years."

Funny, but also sad. The last thing our transparency mayor wants to do is cooperate with reporters.

"What you guys love to do," Rahm said at a press conference on Tuesday, "is, 'Here's a problem, nobody's offering solutions. We offer solutions, here's the problem with the solution.' I don't have that luxury. I don't. I gotta do something. I'm not in the position of analysis, I'm in the position of getting things done. So these businesses can grow, with ease. I'm in the solution business. You have the good fortune of analyzing problems, I have the fortune of solving them. That's a difference."

Wow. What a royal prick.

Let's unpack that.

1. The question was about giving aldermen more time to digest the plan and get a better understanding of how it would work. Rahm turned it into an attack on the media.

2. It's not just the media raising questions - though I wonder how he thinks reporters should do their job. This is the guy, after all, who made his bones in large part by seeding media narratives that raised questions about every move Republicans made. Most of the media's questions, though, were really questions raised by aldermen. Should reporters just ignore them? And who represents citizens/taxpayers? Are their questions to trifling for Rahm to answer?

3. Rahm presumes his solution is, in fact, a solution. And yet he claims that he hasn't arrived at that solution through analysis. If he has, he refuses to show his work for the benefit of everyone else. If he hasn't, he's malfeasant.

4. Asking questions is not an attack; it's part of the democratic process by which we arrive at solutions that have been vetted by all interested parties. A real leader helps ensure that process is done fairly.

Rahm isn't interested in that, however. That would require, among other things, honest.

"Despite lingering questions from aldermen, Mayor Rahm Emanuel dismissed their request to delay a Wednesday vote on his controversial plan to attract private companies to pay for public works projects, saying the issue has been debated long enough," the Tribune reports.

"For 30 years, we have discussed the crumbling infrastructure of the city of Chicago," Rahm said. "Everybody's talked about it, now the difference is we're going to do something about it."

Wow. Really? Nobody's done anything about infrastructure for 30 years? Since 1982? None of those miles upon miles of street pavings that Richard M. Daley bragged about were real? The CTA station upgrades? The beautification projects? The bridges? The airports, for godsakes? Billions of dollars!

"We've debated this long enough," Emanuel said.

Apparently for 30 years!

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

Then why didn't Rahm propose it during his campaign and get it up and running on day one?

As today's Tribune report says, "it was only last month that the rookie mayor offered up what he called a /breakthrough' way to help get those big-ticket projects built."

But now that he has, his plan must be passed immediately or sinkholes will swallow your car.

*

The most basic question about the proposed trust remains unanswered: Why do we need it?

"A top mayoral aide on Wednesday offered a compelling reason why five financing giants are being asked to put up $1.7 billion to rebuild Chicago's crumbling infrastructure: The city is drowning in debt," the Sun-Times has reported.

1. Compelling if you're Fran Spielman and buying everything the city tells you.

2. Didn't the city issue that debt to . . . finance infrastructure?

3. Has there ever been a time when our infrastructure hasn't been crumbling? It's infrastructure. That's what it does.

4. Is there something about the city's credit rating and debt we don't know about? Or is this about how the city's debt would otherwise prevent Rahm from being a builder - of both infrastructure and his resume?

5. Wasn't a lot of the city's borrowing and spending over the last 10 years done to finance . . . infrastructure?

"We have a major challenge, which is a 30-year to 40-year deficit [in financing infrastructure projects]. What we're doing is now trying to address that deficit in creative ways," the mayor said.

I'm not sure what that means; we have such a debt load that we can't possibly finance new infrastructure for 40 years?

*

"The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that the proposed Infrastructure Trust is running into opposition from aldermen concerned about 'hidden fees,' long-term leasing of city assets, minority participation and the selection of city projects by a five-member board that includes no aldermanic representation."

Rahm has since agreed to include one alderman on his five-member board, but I don't understand why city council members thinks that's meaningful in any way. Rahm will obviously appoint one of his lackeys and that will be that.

More important is adequate city council oversight. Unanswered: Why these projects can't just go through the traditional council process. That should be good enough for Rahm!

But even a feckless council is a hindrance to the mayor.

And so is the public.

"Another repeated question was whether the ordinance as now written would guarantee open-meeting and FOIA coverage," Crain's reports.

"Ms. Scott and city attorneys said the trust would be covered by those state laws. But Better Government Association policy and government affairs director Emily Miller said there would be no way to enforce that, since Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan would have no legal authority to probe the not-for-profit trust.

"Ms. Miller also underlined that the Chicago inspector general would not have legal authority over the trust, though the IG could review city involvement with the unit, which would be run by a five-member board appointed by the mayor.

"Further questions from Aldermen including Pat Dowell (3rd), Scott Waguespack (32nd) and others covered whether ethics provisions are sufficient; whether independent, outside review should be required of any proposed deal, and whether not only city projects but also transit, park and school projects should have to be approved by the City Council."

*

The city's track record with these kinds of public-private projects is not good - and it's not just the parking meters.

The track record elsewhere also is not encouraging.

"Mayor Rahm Emanuel is giving the hard sell on his innovative yet little-tested plan to cut deals with private investors to build big-ticket public infrastructure projects, but skeptics need only look to the West," the Tribune reports.

"A new toll road in San Diego required a government bailout after drivers shunned it. A transit project in Denver needs another cash infusion from taxpayers following cost overruns and overly optimistic revenue projections. And California is trying a rent-to-own plan to get a new courthouse built in Long Beach: no money down, but higher interest rates on payments that will stretch more than three decades.

"The examples illustrate the cautionary notes sounded by experts on public-private financing: A handful of projects undertaken have been plagued by problems, and taxpayers likely will pay significantly more for them in the long run."

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on April 18, 2012


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