Chicago residents are on the frontlines of a dangerous new trend – the privatization of their shared resources orchestrated through “private/public partnerships” and the new mayor, Rahm Emanuel. Already Chicago has sold off the Skyway Bridge connecting Chicago to Indiana, and it has sold off downtown parking garages to private owners. It has sold off the management of parking meters to a private company, which has resulted in higher rates, worse service and public outrage. The City of Chicago has even attempted to sell Midway Airport, and it is now pushing privatization of schools and the water system.
Chicago educator, organizer and activist Tom Tresser is trying to mount a concerted citizen response. His new project, Public Assets, is trying to recruit people to step up and become “public defenders” of the commons. Tresser was the Green Party candidate for Cook County Board President in 2010. The year before, he was a co-leader of No Games Chicago, which successfully opposed the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.
Tresser got wind of the city's new ambitions to privatize even more city assets when he attended a June 2011 conference called “It’s Not Privatization: Implementing Partnerships in Illinois.” Organized by The National Council for Public-Private Partnerships and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce with assistance from the Metropolitan Planning Council, the event revealed an emerging collusion among the city government, corporations, labor and mainstream citizen organizations to accelerate privatization and "re-brand” it because of its negative public image.
Besides the usual privatization targets, Tresser has raised alarms over “tax increment financing,” a clevler way to quietly siphon away tax dollars for private purposes. Writing at Onthecommons.org, Tresser notes:
Mayor Daley was a master of tax increment finance districts (TIFs). Chicago has 160 of them and in 2009 they siphoned $519 million in property taxes away from the units of government that rely on them for operation. TIFs are supposed to be used to jump start development in “blighted” communities. But in Chicago they constitute a giant slush fund controlled by the Mayor and a few powerful aldermen. Public dollars from the TIF program have gone to such corporate giants as United Airlines, MillerCoors, Quaker Oats, Willis Insurance and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed to private developers with no oversight, accountability or citizen input.
Tresser notes, “The Powers That Be have the money and means to frame these [privatization] scams to their advantage. They are already re-writing history and calling the parking meter fiasco an unappreciated master stroke that is simply the victim of bad publicity. No one at the [It’s Not Privatization] conference revealed the profit margins on these deals. No one talked about the stories of privatization gone sour across America and the world elsewhere. No one asked where the line should be drawn in parceling out public assets, public services and public infrastructure to private investors.”
He concluded: “We are going to have get organized to stop the pawning of our public assets to private interests for a song. Defenders of the commons – unite!”
That’s what Tresser and a number of Chicago citizens are trying to do through a new organization, Public Assets. The group is currently is seeking allies, board members and investors. It expects it will become a 501(c)(4) organization that is legally capable of lobbying and undertaking political action.
A September 12 organizing meeting is planned -- so if you live in or near Chicago, contact Tom Tresser and Public Assets at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call 773-770-5714. Public Assets is still in its embryonic stages, but it needs your imagination, energy and contributions. In the meantime, you can sign an online petition opposing the privatization of Chicago’s great common wealth.