Alderman, SSA, Chamber Do Wrong by Residents

I am thrilled that Mayor Lightfoot has begun curbing the excesses of aldermanic privilege. Unfortunately, word that aldermen are no longer absolute bosses in their wards has not yet reached the 50th Ward. Once again Silverstein, her handpicked SSA, the Chamber of Commerce, Republic Bank of Chicago, and the Rogers Park Business Alliance (RPBA) have arranged two more noisy events in the Bank’s failed parking lot.

The events are a two-day live-music fest and a movie night. Neither event has involved resident input. Indeed, residents have been deliberately kept out of the planning process. The alderman and SSA brook no interference with their plans, including legal restrictions. The alderman and her minions are determined to make the failed parking lot into a public place of amusement, even though it lacks both zoning and licensing for such activities. I am tired of fighting about this, have consulted a lawyer, and will be filing a lawsuit. There is no other way to put an end to this.

I have in the past used FOIA to try to obtain information on the permits for these events from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. My requests always generate the same response: there are no records. In other words, Silverstein, the SSA, and the Chamber plan and execute these events while bypassing City law. No approval is needed except Silverstein’s. This has always been wrong, and everybody involved knew  it, but they went on with their activities knowing they could not be held accountable. Now, with the Lightfoot administration, they can. And I intend to see to it that they are. Festivals like this can be a good thing for the community, but not when they are planned in secrecy and held in venues not designed to accommodate them. Both events belong in a park, not a parking lot.

Republic Bank’s parking lot was built in 2012 and failed immediately because the shoppers for whom it was designed refused to pay for parking and engaged in behaviors ranging from outright vandalism (removing gates) to stealing parking services, evading payment by moving gate sensors and manipulating gate positions. The parking lot has never made a profit.

The lot is directly across the alley from multifamily housing–just ten feet–and is zoned B-1-2. The Bank lacks a PPA license and cannot get one because the distance from housing falls far short of the 125 feet required by ordinance. Such legal niceties don’t prevent the SSA from using aldermanic privilege to stage various entertainment programs and religious observances in the parking lot, all of which involve live or recorded music played at concert level (120 decibels and above). The police are unable to stop such activities because the alderman has approved them. Legal restrictions on the uses of this parking lot have been swept aside by aldermanic clout.

I find this especially egregious because Silverstein:

  •  was and remains a member of the City Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs & Special Events, which writes the rules for events of this type–rules that do not apply to events staged with her approval in this parking lot
  • called for extra police to control her drunken neighbors during Purim but sees no problem with inviting several hundred strangers to a beer-fueled music fest ten feet from my home
  • lacks any sense of decency and consideration when it comes to residents around the parking lot, treating us shabbily, something she would not do to residents in single-family housing or the pricey condos where she lives.

Among the public events Silverstein and her handpicked SSA found suitable for this parking lot are:

  • a failed community market (2013-15) that was the lowest-ranked market in the City in terms of attendance and revenue; many vendors refused to participate more than once, and some left before the day ended because of the dearth of customers; live musical performances were part of every weekly event (read my blog post here)
  • musical concerts celebrating India Day, which served food and left a mess, thus attracting rats; stages were placed at the far north end of the lot, closest to housing (read blog post here)
  • Hindu religious observances featuring loudspeakers and heavy incense
  • a failed movie night last October that attracted only two dozen people, mostly children, who were provided popcorn but no water and no access to bathroom facilities (see blog post here).

Hindu religious observance including music and dance, Fall 2018. Note the number, size, and placement of loudspeakers. Music could be heard for blocks.

Imagine such activities suddenly materializing outside your home. I spoke to the alderman during the first community market in 2013, when my TV was drowned out by the live “music.” Hostile to any criticism, she said she would tolerate such noise “for the good off the neighborhood” and I should do the same. When I suggested moving the market outside her home, she walked away.

Food trash left inside parking lot along Devon Avenue fence after India Day concert.

The India Day concerts include free food and water. Organizers left messes like this (see left) after every concert. Water bottles were tossed all over the alley, and empty boxes were left inside and outside the parking lot. Live music from tinny loudspeakers was blasted for several hours. It was impossible for nearby residents to shut out the noise.

Audience at Devon Movie Night, Republic Bank Parking Lot, October 2018.

Last Fall’s movie night attracted fewer than two dozen viewers. Moviegoers sat on the parking lot’s asphalt; one woman brought her own chair. This isn’t the case when movies are shown in the north end of the ward, where the alderman lives. Those movies are shown in Chippewa Park, a comfortable distance from housing and viewers sit on soft grass. Why aren’t residents from the south end of the ward granted such amenities?

Note how close the movie screen is to homes–just an alley’s width away. The movie has to be loud to be heard over the din of traffic on Devon Avenue. Do you believe the alderman would permit this outside her home?

Look where the screen was placed! What kind of people think this is the proper way to treat residents? RPBA  is paid nearly a quarter of the SSA’s budget (roughly $100,000) for planning expertise. Have they never heard of zoning? Licensing? Try imposing noise like this outside the merchants’ stores and see how long it takes before police are called and offenders removed. (See City Ordinance O2018-6909 passed 9/18).

Nearby residents never receive proper notice of these events but learn of them only when the blasting starts. This past weekend, this ad was hung on Republic Bank’s Devon Avenue fence. It is the only notice nearby residents have received about  the next movie night, scheduled for Sunday, June 23.

The SSA and Chamber announced at last week’s WRCO meeting that they are sponsoring a two-day live-music festival in the parking lot over the Labor Day week-end. The organizers are seeking a liquor license for the festival, which will also include “a tent city of shopping” and will close Washtenaw Avenue up to the east-west alley. No word on where the Port-a-Potties will be located.  The SSA has been planning this event for months, but has not yet advised nearby property owners or residents. It was also announced last week that marketing materials have been finalized and are ready for distribution. At no time has the community been invited to be part of the process. (See the SSA’s 2019 Minutes from January, February, March, and April. May’s minutes have not been posted at this writing.) Note that discussions of this event are classified in the Minutes as “Public Input.” This is not to be misconstrued as input from nearby residents, who have been excluded from the process. Note also that “beer sales” have been identified as one of the main funding sources. Gee, who can their target audience be? Is West Ridge ready to welcome hundreds of rowdy drunks cheering their favorite bands? Would any or the organizers do this where they live?

At no time have the residents living directly alongside the parking lot been given the legally-mandated notices of any of these events. These notices require a 30-day period during which residents may object to such activities and also require notice of street closings. All of the events staged in the parking lot are broadcast on loudspeakers at concert levels (120 decibels or higher). City law prohibits such levels in residential areas. In 2018 another law was passed regulating musical concert noise because of noise complaints from condo owners in high rises along Sheridan Road. I believe my neighbors and I are entitled to the same consideration.

Labor Day is the last holiday of summer, a time when families enjoy backyard barbeques and back-to-school parties, all of which will be impacted by the noise, crowds, and parking issues arising from the planned music festival. Festival-goers seeking parking will converge on residential streets, thus depriving residents’ friends and relatives of parking. Who gave the alderman, SSA, and Chamber the right to invite hundreds of people to drink outside our homes? There is an ongoing backlash against this kind of event wherever it is held. Such fests have been moved because of noise complaints (Riot Fest);  and there is a new controversy over the move of the Mamby Music Fest to Montrose Beach because of the impact of the noise on birds in the nearby Montrose Bird Sanctuary. I can assure you that the birds can expect to receive more consideration than the neighbors on Washtenaw and Fairfield Avenues. The alderman, the SSA, the Chamber, and the Bank have always treated us like shit on their shoes.

There are alternative sites for this event, which properly belongs in one of our many neighborhood parks. Why not Warren Park, where fest goers can visit the Pakistani stores east of Western as well as the many restaurants on Western itself? Why not Stone Park, gateway to Devon, where the fest might attract visitors from Skokie and Lincolnwood? Holding the fest in Stone Park would give visitors the opportunity to stroll the length of Devon and see for themselves all the international shopping the alderman claims is here. It might also provide some much-needed business for the few merchants west of California. There are two large adjacent parking lots on Devon & Leavitt, near the home of the Chamber’s president. Why not stage the Fest there? Or will his neighbors object to noise and crowds and drinking and parking issues? As to the movie, why not use the vacant space on the second floor of Republic Bank? That way, the kids would at least have toilet access. Maybe there will be a Porta-a-Potty in the pwrking lot. Classy.

The organizers are not interested in moving either event and are moving ahead with distributing their marketing materials. Once word gets out about the festival, it will be all but impossible to stop, another dirty trick played on unsuspecting residents by the alderman and her pals.

It isn’t surprising that the alderman and officials from the SSA, the Chamber, the Bank, and the merchants they represent feel entitled to treat the lot’s  closest neighbors with such appalling disregard and disrespect. They insist that these events are an attempt to “give back” to the community. It’s a lie. They are trying to improve their businesses while (a) keeping the problems generated by these “give-backs” away from their businesses; and (b) not making any of the retailing changes residents want. Devon is littered with empty storefronts, and business is down across the board. The recent “International Marketplace” promotional campaign failed. Shoppers know that a cucumber is a cucumber, and buying it from a Syrian, Egyptian, or Iraqi merchant doesn’t make the experience international. The new campaign, “On Devon,” promises experiences that do not yet exist. This music fest will not provide them. Neither will another movie night. The merchants represented by a tone-deaf SSA and alderman refuse to interact with or show consideration for neighborhood residents, and such communication is the only way to improve the business climate.

The lack of simple decency toward residents is astounding. The members of the SSA who conceive of these events choose to disregard the rights of those of us who live in the vicinity. The area around Devon is home mainly to an immigrant community, many of whom are in the country illegally (the Census Bureau indicates that 12-15% of the residents of the 50th Ward are undocumented). The alderman and the SSA know that these residents will not complain no matter how badly they are treated.  The few American-born residents, like me, are ignored by the powers that be, who, protected by the alderman, are used to running roughshod over residents. None of the guilty parties–Silverstein, the SSA, the Chamber, the RPBA–would dare to behave this way toward residents in the more affluent end of the ward. Don’t expect to see this behavior west of California, or anywhere on Western. The merchants have become as arrogant and unaccountable as the alderman.

I was recently told by one of the businessmen I respect that there should be harmony between the merchants and the residents. I agree. But after six years of this shit, I just don’t feel the love.

Maybe a judge can help.

 

 

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Snowstorm Updates

Ald. Joe Moore of the 49th Ward today released the following updates on this weekend’s snow.

“The National Weather Service reports a Lakefront Flood Advisory, remains in effect until 9:00 a.m. tomorrow.  Strong onshore winds are expected to produce waves of seven to ten feet, which will drive up already-above-average lake levels.

You can track the Streets & San snow plows as they move through the city in real time by clicking here.

City ordinance requires homeowners and business owners to shovel the sidewalks adjacent to their property within 24 hours after a snowfall ends.  Not only is it the neighborly thing to do, but failure to do so can result in a fine of up to $500. For more information on the City’s snow removal requirements for sidewalks, click here.”

I’m disappointed but not surprised that nobody from Silverstein’s office was assigned to monitor the storm or provide updated information to residents.

City snowplows are concerned only with plowing the streets and end up blocking intersections and bus stops with piles of snow, making it nearly impossible for pedestrians to safely cross streets or access buses. Seniors and those with disabilities are often unable to shovel their sidewalks.

During her eight years in office, Ald.  Silverstein has never organized a volunteer snow removal corps for the 50th ward. The SSA collects taxes  to pay for snow removal on Devon’s sidewalks and sidewalks on Western from Arthur to Granville;  it did not do an adequate job with the previous snowfall, and never shovels intersections  or bus stops.

Any help that you can give to shovel a sidewalk or unblock a bus stop or intersection would be greatly appreciated by your neighbors. I’ll be out tomorrow shoveling intersections, bus stops, and alley crossings, too. There’s more snow due on Tuesday.

Personally, I prefer Hollywood snow. It falls gently, looks great, and disappears on its own.

 

 

 

 

Holiday Lights?

Devon Avenue has been decorated for the holidays that dare not be named.

While commercial districts in other neighborhoods are welcoming shoppers of all faiths and decorating to celebrate the season, the overlords of Devon Avenue–our unelected SSA Commissioners–have once again opted to celebrate diversity by pointedly ignoring Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa.

The  “holiday” decorations chosen by the SSA– flashing lights of blue, red, green, and white– signify nothing, impart no holiday spirit, acknowledge no religious heritage, and do not reflect either the joy of the season or the spiritual renewal experienced by most of the ward’s residents at this time of year. Instead, they contribute additional gaudiness to a street whose storefront doors and windows are already ablaze with neon. The overall effect is that of a long, long strip mall, every intersection resembling the entrance to a gas station.

Looking eastward on Devon from Republic Bank.

The SSA seems to think that only Hindu holidays should be celebrated. This is wrong. We are a neighborhood of many faiths. Today, Roman Catholics will begin the Advent season,  a time of prayer and preparation for the birth of Christ. On Sunday evening our Jewish neighbors will begin celebrating the eight days of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. Beginning on December 26, African-Americans and African immigrants will join together for Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration of African values and culture. Many Greek, Russian, and Serbian Orthodox Christians in our ward  will observe Christmas on January 7.

This rich cultural and spiritual heritage is ignored by the SSA. The colors of the season are present but their display  signifies nothing to anyone.

The SSA plans to install mandalas at Western and Devon. Why not a community Christmas tree?  Why not a public menorah lighting? Why not a winter festival that includes the entire community? Twenty percent of this Ward is Hispanic–where’s the Posada? Faith isn’t required to appreciate pageantry.

Contrast  the 50th Ward’s approach  to this time of year with that of the 41st Ward. Alderman Napolitano invites residents to  eight non-religious holiday events occurring in December. Two of those are sponsored by the local historical society,  including a craft boutique / cafe and a holiday house tour with or without lunch. One local Chamber of Commerce sponsors both a Winter Wine Stroll and a holiday dinner as well as a rewards program for shoppers who support local businesses. Another Chamber brought the Santa Express and is holding an ugly Christmas sweater contest  as well as  a community-wide scavenger hunt  for the weekend before New Year’s. One park council has organized a  holiday bazaar. There’s also a Toys for Tots campaign that’s a joint project between a local park council and the friends of the local library.

This level of community doesn’t happen without leadership from the alderman.  It’s true that the 41st Ward doesn’t have the diversity of the 50th, but I think that just gives us greater opportunities to explore other faiths and cultures and to share the joys of America’s unique  cultural and religious heritage with our newest immigrants.

Silverstein and the SSA are not interested. Devon celebrates Diwali and nothing else. The SSA can put loudspeakers in a parking lot but not a Christmas tree, a menorah, or even a sign that reads “Season’s Greetings.”

Merry Christmas? Happy Chanukah? Habari Gani?

Bah, humbug.

Movie Night on Devon — Another Silverstein/SSA Failure

Crowd attends Devon Movie Night. It ebbed and flowed during the event, but at no time were there more than two dozen people. Don’t they look comfortable?

Movie Night on Devon, another noisemaker in a parking lot sponsored by the alderman and the Special Services Area #43 (SSA #43), attracted a crowd of two dozen people on a windy and chilly October Thursday night. Most were kids, many unattended by adults, and most were far more interested in the free popcorn than the movie. Many left before the movie ended because it was so cold and the popcorn machine shut down.

Who can blame them? What kind of organization seeks to build goodwill and increase business by inviting people to sit on asphalt on a 57-degree October night to watch an old movie?

What insensitive louts would consider placing this screen and loudspeakers alongside other people’s homes? The Devon SSA #43 and the alderman, of course.

The SSA’s characteristic lack of attention to detail was evident throughout the evening. The event, scheduled on a school night, was barely underway when the screen-loudspeaker combination blew a fuse. Near the end of the movie, the popcorn machine overheated and blew another one. Kids who had gorged on thirst-inducing popcorn were disappointed to learn that the SSA had not provided any water. There were no trash cans for the empty popcorn bags or the plastic wrappers from the giveaway plastic sunglasses, so the lot soon resembled the rest of Devon–littered with bags and food garbage. A couple of SSA big shots showed up to check on attendance.

A sharper view of the proximity to housing. The alderman wouldn’t dream of doing this where she lives, nor would the SSA members. But the impact of these events on the quality of life for residents here before the parking lot was built has never concerned them.

To his credit, Robert Taylor of Republic Bank had the excessive volume turned down, but it had to be loud to be heard over Devon’s traffic. It was a courtesy to neighbors who were largely unaware of the event because the SSA chose not to notify them, as required by law, and placed its advertising only in select businesses east of California Avenue. Oh, the alderman did announce it in her newsletter the week before, but she apparently didn’t have time to tend to the legal details or common courtesy, either. She and the SSA never do. You’d hear them screaming if something like this were scheduled outside their own residences, though.

The Shree Ganesh Temple celebrated a Hindu holiday in the parking lot, complete with loudspeaers that blasted for five hours. It also shut down Devon so dancers could march from the temple to the parking lot.

Devon shut down on Sunday, September 23, to allow 150 Hindu celebrants to march to thr parking lot from the temple. The temple’s owners have admitted that the temple exists primarily to increase business for Devon’s Indian merchants. They have voiced no concerns over its impact on non-Hindu residents.

This was a bad idea right from the start. The SSA and the alderman are determined to turn the failed parking lot into a neighborhood entertainment center. In the past six weeks, it’s been home to an India Day celebration, a political protest, a Hindu holiday celebration, and now this movie night. The lot is zoned only for parking and lacks a license for religious or entertainment events, but the SSA and the alderman don’t care. The Silverstein-selected SSA members (technically appointed by the Mayor) ignore the laws because Silverstein  encourages it. It’s paid off for her. There’s no Asian candidate for alderman this time around. There were two in 2015, and they garnered one-third of the vote.

There is no evidence that any of these loudspeaker-fueled occasions have increased business, and Devon east of California is littered with vacant stores–just like Devon west of California. The lot between Campbell and Maplewood, site of a fire during Berny Stone’s last term, is still vacant nine years later, overrun with weeds, used as a garbage dump by passers-by, and cursed with a sagging fence. A good alderman would take the owner to court on a sell-or-build lawsuit, but not Silverstein. You’d think the SSA could ask the lot’s owner to open his lot for such events. It’s right in the heart of what the SSA publicizes as Little India, and would be perfect for movie events, since there’s no nearby housing. But if your intent is to drive longtime residents out of the area, you want to stage your parties in a parking lot alongside an alley in a display of arrogance and contempt that would not be tolerated north of Devon.

It’s so hard to protest without loudspeakers. Look at this monstrosity on wheels! Naturally, this group appeared during the dinner hour.

I’ve noted before that Silverstein’s annual ward movie night, held in the north part of the ward, takes place during the summer in Chippewa Park. Why not hold Devon Movie Night in Berny Stone Park? Or is that too far from the SSA members’ businesses?

Every parking-lot event produced by Silverstein and the SSA has failed. They make a lot of noise, but they don’t build good will or business. Remember the Devon Community Market? The Family Fun Fest? What were they thinking?

I’m not opposed to movie nights. But they belong in parks. In August.

 

 

Another Jackass Idea

The jackasses who run SSA #43 have come up with yet another crackpot idea to build business in Little India. They have invited shoppers on Devon to bring blankets and lawn chairs and enjoy an evening on the asphalt watching a movie at the Republic Bank parking lot. Yes, you heard that right.

The idea is so stupid it defies logical analysis. On a Thursday night, a school night, from 8 to 10 p.m., the SSA will be showing an animated film in the parking lot. Who would want to sit on a blanket on wet asphalt to watch a movie? What kind of parents think this is a good opportunity to entertain children who have to go to school in the morning? Who wants to carry enough chairs for an entire family?

The SSA, as usual, has not bothered to inform or involve neighbors living 10 feet away from what the SSA–with Ald. Silverstein’s full cooperation–has made its private entertainment venue. I learned about this event only because I saw the poster taped to one of the store windows on Devon. I’m sure the alderman will promote it in her newsletter today, mainly because she doesn’t care what an imposition it is on residents living directly next door. As long as it doesn’t disturb her, she’s fine with it.

It’s worth noting that when there’s a movie on the north end of the ward, where the alderman lives, it’s held in a park, not a parking lot. But that end of the ward votes for her. Our precinct never has.

If there are any plans for parking, crowd control, noise abatement, or clean up, the SSA has not shared them with the people living alongside this parking lot. Given the way other events have been handled, spilled popcorn, soda, candy, and other food debris will simply be left overnight. Residents will just have to cope with the scores of rats attracted by all the goodies.

Who will handle the drunks? Will there be yet another taxpayer-funded police detail assigned to cover this private event?

Has the SSA applied for a special events permit? If so, it has failed to comply with any of the requirements imposed on it by the city. Nearby residents are supposed to get a 30-day notice that such an event is scheduled so they can object if they choose to. The SSA is also supposed to furnish detailed plans for parking, crowd and noise control, and clean up. It never does, because it does not communicate with residents.

It’s the time of year when the 2019 contract for the SSA is being negotiated. I think keeping this independent taxing body in operation should be an issue in the aldermanic campaign. This SSA has demonstrated time and time again that it has no respect for community residents or for the laws governing community events.

The SSA lacks any sense of courtesy or responsibility toward residents. Its members are arrogant, selfish, and downright mean when it comes to what they want, and they have consistently ignored the rights of nearby residents on both sides of Devon.

Ald. Silverstein attends the SSA meetings; in fact, they are held in her office. She and the Rogers Park Business Alliance, the SSA administrator, are fully aware of and complicit in this arrogant behavior. But it is she who sets the tone, she who fails to ensure that the laws she is sworn to uphold are followed.

It’s another reason to vote her out of office.

We need an alderman who understands that building a business district doesn’t start with a jackass idea.

SSA #43 Tax Levy — and a Two-Minute Meeting

SSA #43, the Special Services Area taxing district that adds an extra 1.5% property tax levy to real estate on Devon from Kedzie to Damen and on Western from Granville to Arthur, received City Council approval for its 2017 levy on November 15, 2016.

By law, there was to be a public meeting about the increase before the budget was approved, but I was unable to uncover any evidence of either the notice or the meeting so I e-mailed the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce for the meeting date and the name of the paper(s) where the notice was published. I have yet to receive a response, the Chamber no doubt busy planning its next business-building children’s event.

However, on Monday, November 28, Chamber personnel posted the “Minutes” of a purported “Community Meeting Regarding the Budget Levy Increase” allegedly held on October 27.  According to these “Minutes,” “Meeting was called to order at 6:10 p.m. No community members attended and no questions were presented. Meeting was adjourned at 6:12 p.m.”  The alderman is listed as present.

Interestingly, the Minutes of the SSA’s October 27 regular meeting were also posted on November 28. That meeting was also “called to order at 6:10 p.m.” but not adjourned until 6:56 p.m. So it appear that the two meetings were held simultaneously. I’m sure this will be corrected. The devil is always in the details.

Still no word on where the legally-required notices for the legally-required meeting  were published. This sure seems like  yet another example of the contempt the powers-that-be have for neighborhood residents and the concept of transparency in government.

The meeting was also attended by Mike Parella, who was otherwise unidentified and whose presence was unexplained.There is a Project Coordinator with the City’s Department of Planning & Development by the same name. Maybe he was there to witness the neighborhood’s indifference to the alderman’s way of doing business. Maybe the lack of community presence was taken as confidence in her vision.  Or maybe the dismal state of the neighborhood’s main shopping district has been noticed by City honchos who are finally helping the alderman with her six-years-in-the-making-and-yet-to-be-released “spirited economic development plan.” Let’s hope so. Residents have been unable to connect with her on the issue.

The SSA’s budget is stated in the ordinance (SO2016-7364), which can be found by searching the City Clerk’s Web site. It’s a lengthy document, and contains two separate applications and budgets, one for the Chamber and the other for the new “sole service provider,” the Rogers Park Business Alliance. The ordinance was amended to make the Business Alliance rather than the Chamber the service provider.

Note how the monies are budgeted.

Most of it (more than $270,000) goes to “Public Way Aesthetics,” the primary job apparently being cleaning-up after the litterers, spitters, and food-tossers who shop on Devon and don’t care about dirtying the neighborhood.

Rice Computer Services is to be paid $4,000 for repair and maintenance of the Big Belly trashcans.

“Customer attraction” is budgeted at $54,000; less than half that sum ($25,000) is earmarked for “Safety Programs,” and only $12,000 will be invested in business development. Mixed-up priorities?

“Sustainability and Public Places” gets $8,000. Perhaps that will result in an investment in signage, such as “No Spitting” or “No Parking in Bus Lanes” or “Parking in Crosswalks Prohibited.”  Perhaps the presence of uniformed police or Revenue Department personnel writing tickets would also be effective deterrents.

No 50th Ward businesses landed service contracts. Instead, two of the six subcontractors listed by the Business Alliance are from outside Chicago, and one is in Maryland. Three are from other neighborhoods. Why hire a $16,000 accountant from Skokie when there are many accountants in the Ward? No local businesses can make street banners (to be provided by a company in Blue Island at a cost of $10,000) or provide landscaping and holiday decorations ($25,000 to a business in Rockville, Maryland)?

Of course, there has to be a consultant, paid $30,000; at least the business is in the City, as is the $20,000 snow shoveler and the $4,000 auditor; the latter is located in Edgewater.

All fees are estimated.

Stealth taxes. Secret, two-minute meetings. Services from vendors outside the Ward.

The Silverstein way.

 

SSA #43: Taxation Without Representation

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of SSA #43. Maybe you’ve read about an upcoming SSA meeting in the alderman’s weekly newsletter? Maybe you’ve read about major decisions taken by its Board that determine not only Devon’s cleanliness, snow removal policies, noise level, and decorations, but also how much property owners within the SSA district will have to pony up in extra real estate taxes to pay for these services?  No?

You should know about it, because SSA #43 taxes property owners within its boundaries (Kedzie to Damen on Devon, Arthur to Granville on Western) to support its initiatives. It’s one of those anonymous, quasi-governmental bodies with taxing authority that has its hands in residents’ pockets and hides in plain sight.

[Scroll down until you get to the part about how much it costs each property in the district to pay for the SSA. Keep in mind that these are the 2013 figures.]

SSA #43 is the Special Services Area for Devon Avenue, created by the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce and the Devon merchants to boost business on Devon Avenue without having to actually address the basic problem, i.e., exclusionary retailing, or make any substantive changes that would require economic planning involving the entire West Ridge community. It’s worth noting that one of the objectives mentioned in the financial statements (Note 1) is to establish competitive commercial districts; how this can be accomplished when merchants refuse to serve most of the immediate market is not addressed.

The SSA is run by the Chamber of Commerce and the SSA Board to benefit businesses within its district, although some receive no help at all while others control the Board and the money and use it primarily to benefit merchants between Western and Washtenaw. You know—the merchants who don’t want local residents in their stores unless those residents are the right ethnicity. This used to be called discrimination, but it’s not politically correct to say that in relation to minorities. Let’s call it exclusionary retailing: by stocking merchandise that supports the culture of only one ethnic group in our diverse community, shoppers from other ethnic groups are not only excluded but also actively helped to self-select out of local stores. Because 80% of the neighborhood is not the target market, merchants must rely on shoppers from other areas and tourists to make money. And those shoppers now have better places to go.

The merchants may not want our business, but they do want our money.  What the SSA describes as “a small assessment” is largely unknown to the residents who pay it. As if that’s not bad enough, SSA #43 overlaps with a TIF district. When SSA and TIF areas overlap, an increase in taxes for one results in an increase for the other. You do remember reading that on your tax bill, or hearing about it from the alderman, right? If not, you might want to check out a 2012 report by the City’s Inspector General,

In theory, the SSA’s Board represents both business and property owners. In fact, it doesn’t. In addition to its tasks of removing snow (except on Tuesdays, when there’s no point since the stores aren’t open and who cares about pedestrians anyway?) and cleaning up the mountains of garbage left by shoppers, the SSA also helps plan and fund so-called “community” events, such as the upcoming FunFest and the Devon Community Market. These events always fail because (1) the larger community doesn’t shop on Devon and therefore doesn’t care about business-building efforts; (2) there’s no parking; and (3) the planning group lacks imagination except when it comes to reporting fantasy figures for attendance.

This year the SSA planned to spend tax dollars on street banners celebrating Indian and Pakistani Independence Days. No money was spent on banners to celebrate American Independence Day, which joins Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Easter, Purim, Labor Day, Halloween, Hanukkah, and Christmas as holidays no longer recognized or celebrated by store owners on Devon. The SSA does celebrate Hindu holidays and created an all-night Eid shopping event–wihout warning nearby residents, many kept awake by the cars, music, fireworks, screaming children, and boisterous adults celebrating the end of Ramadan. It took a 3:00 a.m. thunderstorm to get them to go home.

There was an attempt to renew the SSA for another 15 years–until 2028–but it failed to pass the City Council in May 2015. [Note that the link to the Council ordinance specifies that certain “private information has been redacted from public viewing.”] The tax increase requested by the SSA (from .40 to 1.5%) was in addition to all other property taxes levied, so I suspect the failure to pass was related to the whopping property tax increase about to be levied, but the SSA did not let the issue die.

On further checking, I found that the Council approved the money grab in December 2015 with the signing of agreements which are, not surprisingly, no longer available on the City’s Web site. Both the 2015 and 2016 agreements have vanished, although the Web site assures me that City staffers have been notified and will search for the missing documents. Imagine: public documents relating to a secretive property tax hike suddenly gone from public view. And I mean suddenly— they disappeared the day after I accessed them.

The SSA currently has three vacancies, according to the April 2016 minutes. While I strongly encourage community members to apply for appointment, be warned that the alderman makes the choices, though members are technically mayoral appointees. It’s a given that she–and they–won’t want anybody who speaks for residents or thinks independently.

The next meeting of SSA #43 is on Thursday, September 15, at 4:00 p.m. at the alderman’s office Meetings are open to the public, but don’t be surprised if you show up and the meeting is cut short, or everything under discussion is moved to executive session.

SSA #43 is yet another instance of the powers-that-be operating in secrecy. The 2013 initiative claimed public outreach, but did anyone from the community attend? Hard to tell, especially if the 2013 creation and 2015 attempt at renewal are any gudes. In 2013, only 100 copies were published of a “Special Pamphlet” describing the district and outlining its funding and its responsibilities. That isn’t enough copies to distribute to the businesses in the SSA district, let alone the residential property owners. In 2015, notice of the SSA’s request for renewal was published not in a local paper, where residents might actually see it, but in the Chicago Sun Times classifieds, where it would be easy to miss. Of course, if you don’t know there’s an SSA that’s taxing you, you wouldn’t be looking for any such announcement, would you? It wasn’t mentioned in the alderman’s newsletter, either.

In both cases, the SSA met the letter of the law—notice was given, but not its spirit—actually informing the public.

The SSA was helped in its quest for a tax hike by an expensive consulting firm, Place Consulting. Its Community Engagement page provides a blueprint for the kind of outreach this SSA needs to do if it really wants to fully engage residents in economic development. But I doubt if that’s the SSA’s goal. Levying taxes in secrecy and ignoring the community’s needs and desires suits them better.

Didn’t America’s founders fight a war against this?