Thursday, October 19, 2006

Hypocrisies of the new Lincoln Avenue tax hike

The Lincoln Avenue tax commission (SSA) wants to spend ill-gained residential tax dollars on the very same aesthetic amenities that even experts are saying don't bring commercial economic improvement (see MCIC study). They want those expensive hanging flower baskets on the street light poles. Eace priced at about $500 annually to maintain, they'll need about 100 of them ($50,000). "We're getting a discount on them," they told me. These were the the first items that people raised a big stink about at the beginning of this process, and now it's a priority for this commission. "Your concerns are all water under the bridge," they tell me. Lincoln Avenue, it's your money they're being so cavalier about.

I've been trying to persuade them that a more immediate and justifiable need is to fix the half-dozen smashed store windows on the 2200 block of Lincoln Avenue. Aslam Virani, of the Lincoln Mini-Mart at 2228 N. Lincoln, simply does not have the money to fix his window and replace the neon. Rioting drunken crowds on that block are one reason this tax was proposed. While I strongly disagree that residents should be paying a majority of this chamber of commerce tax, they now have a bank account that has $130,000 of your money. They can't allocate a measly few hundred dollars to help Mr. Virani with a real problem, yet they're sitting around seriously mulling a $50,000 annual disbursement for flowerpots that many of us have already told them we don't want. It's going to cost each and every homeowner, renter, and small business on Lincoln Avenue between $100 and $200 a year.

"If you think the neighbors want Mr. Virani's window fixed, why not ask each of them to chip in a few bucks apiece?" That's what they told me, in the same patronizing tone they used when I last appeared before them. But then, why doesn't the commission take up a collection for the planters? Why don't they ring every doorbell in the neighborhood and ask each resident and small business for $150 to pay for this year's planters? Why don't they do that? Because surreptitiously hiking our taxes was much easier.

Last night, I attended the Wicker Park-Bucktown SSA commissioner meeting. That commission voted to reimburse the chamber of commerce only half of the $57,000 it spent in researching their SSA. Commissioners say they are somewhat baffled by the high price tag and never authorized the work; they've called for an investigation into the remaining amount. They are also concerned that the data was inaccurate.

Last month, the same reimbursement proposition was unanimously rubber-stamped for approval by our Lincoln Avenue commission. The very same consultant had done very similar work for the Wicker SSA as for ours, and the commission knew it. As a result, the chamber, the aldermen, and the Department of Planning and Development pushed through a pricey new property and rental tax that to this day few on the street are even aware they're paying. Of those few on the street who have heard of the tax, the only people I've met who are not skeptical are either the ones who instigated it or the ones who were bought out as commissioners and now support it wholeheartedly. It's a cabal of about 10 people out of a couple of thousand stakeholders.

At today's meeting, I was vocal about these problems. They responded by delving into my personal life and calling into question my authority to speak on behalf of residents on Lincoln Avenue - even on my own family's behalf. On the defensive, they began asking whether I really reside here, whether I am registered to vote here, the status of the ALARM organization which was formed as a direct response to this mess.

Cornered by appeals to reason, they attempted to sow doubt and resort to personal invective, violating their own rules of conduct. But nobody in that room could claim they had nearly the experience with the residents that I have, particularly on this Lincoln Avenue tax. Nobody in that room was ever on the ground, talking to residents, asking the tough questions. Not one of them has walked the street and surveyed buildings one by one, as I have. Not the commissioners, not the program manager, not the alderman, nobody. And even I don't know nearly enough.

They have plenty of power but lack the true understanding of the issue that can confer real moral authority on their actions. This is very different from the debates in Wicker Park.

What these five people are doing makes me very angry. Drunk with their new power, itching to spend a big pile of our money, they invite costly vendors to parade in front of them, seducing them with their wares. The same thing has been happening on Clark Street and throughout the city. I aim to amend these taxes so that commerce pays most or all of it. I aim to change state law so that these taxes are harder to sneak past a poorly informed public. And we need more sunshine on this entire process.


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