Dear members of the International Olympic Committee Evaluation Commission:
Welcome to Chicago!
I know you’re here for the next few days to check out our lovely city to determine if we—as opposed to Madrid, Tokyo, or Rio—have the best plan for hosting the 2016 Olympics.
Just so you know from the outset, I hope you don’t give us the games. I’ve been against it from the start, and I could fill a book with the reasons. But I’m not here to tell you how paying for the games would cripple my hometown—if you want that, see chicagoreader.com/2016_olympics. This letter is about your needs, not ours. I’m here to tell you some things about Chicago you’ll never hear from Mayor Daley, who’s acting like a used-car salesman, trying to sell you an old beater without letting you look under the hood.
Here’s the fundamental problem: We can’t afford the games. We’re broke—and I mean damn near destitute. The public school system is about $475 million in the red and the city’s facing its own deficit of at least $200 million. Just a few months ago Mayor Daley said he’d balanced the budget by raising fees and fines and slashing the city payroll, but already expenses have risen and revenues have dropped faster than anticipated. His aides have warned that more cuts could be on the way.
The Chicago Transit Authority, which runs our public transportation system, is busted too, in more ways than one. CTA officials are in the thick of their annual budget crisis, warning of fare hikes and service cuts that could affect traffic in every part of town. They don’t have enough money to replace the old buses or repair the tracks that are falling apart.
I know it’s not your concern if it takes ordinary Chicagoans ever more time and money to get to work, especially since the 2016 bid committee has made it clear that it won’t depend on the CTA to shuttle athletes, reporters, and spectators back and forth from hotels to venues.
But thousands of people here are quietly stewing over these budget problems, since they’re the ones who always have to fork over taxes, fees, and fines to make up the difference. Mayor Daley has acknowledged that citizens won’t stand for another property tax hike, especially with thousands of families losing their homes to foreclosure during the economic meltdown.
So instead he’s hiking fees that hit tourists as well as residents. It costs more than ever to park, go to a play or restaurant, or stay in a hotel. And he’s selling off pieces of public property, including Midway Airport and the city’s parking meters. It’s starting to sink in here. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t get a call from an outraged resident bitching and moaning about how much it costs now to park at a meter—or to pay off parking tickets.
And then there are the TIFs: $550 million a year in property taxes siphoned from the schools and parks to feed slush funds that Mayor Daley controls with virtually no oversight. At the moment, the public is conveniently in the dark about them because they’re too complicated for the mainstream press to cover and our tax bills don’t reflect how much we’re paying to keep them funded. But every year the TIF take rises and sooner or later the public will catch on. (If you’d like to bone up on the subject, see chicagoreader.com/tifarchive.)
Again, I know it’s not your problem if the city is selling off public assets or keeping two sets of books. But I do think you’ll want to keep these things in mind as you consider whether the bid committee’s financial guarantees are worth the paper they’re written on.
The committee says it can put on the Olympics here for less than $5 billion, since it won’t have to acquire a lot of land or do a lot of construction. Don’t believe it. London, the host for the 2012 games, is now expected to spend $16.5 billion, nearly twice what it first estimated. And Chicago has a fine track record of delays and cost overruns on public projects. The mayor may take you on a tour of Millennium Park while he’s here, but he probably won’t mention that it cost $475 million to build—a mere $325 million more than originally projected. You might like to take a stroll along the Chicago River, but the latest extension of the riverwalk won’t be finished until June. It’s cost taxpayers $22 million—double the original estimates.
Take a drive down State Street while you’re here and see the enormous construction zone between Randolph and Washington. Block 37, as it’s known, has taken the city more than 20 years and tens of millions of dollars to develop, and under those newly constructed buildings is an unfinished train station that’s cost $250 million so far—more than twice the initial price tag.
Chicago’s bid committee has told you that it’ll raise the money through “public-private partnership.” That is, they’ll get private donors to kick in all the cash, and if somehow they don’t, they’ll be able to dip into various rainy day funds, insurance payoffs, and $500 million in taxpayer money authorized by the Chicago City Council and another $250 million guaranteed by the state legislature.
Given our financial situation, where’s that money going to come from?
People around here are going to be very, very displeased if they’re asked to cover the mayor’s enormous bet. Think of the citizenry of Chicago as a big sleeping giant. One day that giant will be stirred from his slumber. Someday, possibly very soon, it will dawn on Chicagoans that all the meters they’ve been feeding, all the taxes they’ve been paying, all the fines and fees they’ve forked over, still can’t pay the teachers and the police and the firefighters and fill the potholes and collect the garbage and remove the snow, and wonder how it is that we can still afford two weeks of international fun and games. And they will erupt.
I know it sounds like a long shot. But I’ve seen it happen before. Back in 1979, when folks got so angry they ousted one mayor—a guy named Bilandic—in favor of a relatively unknown out-of-work city employee named Jane Byrne.
And if it happens between now and 2016, guess who the public will blame? That’s right—the Olympics will be public enemy number one around here. You might even have to hand the games off to some other city, like you did with the winter games back in 1976. I know you remember that fiasco. In 1970, you awarded the games to Denver. Two years later, Coloradans voted to deny public funding for the games and you wound up having to shuffle them to Innsbruck, Austria.
If there’s a revolt over the Olympics in Chicago, it will probably be a messy one, made toxic by matters of race. Mayor Daley has been careful to include pictures of happy children from a variety of backgrounds in the public relations packets he’s been sending you. Obama’s historic election-night celebration in Grant Park made us look like one big charming melting pot. And race relations are a lot better around here than they were in the 1980s, when white folks lost their freaking minds over the prospect of electing a black mayor.
But Chicago remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, with a nervous tension just beneath the surface that flares every now and then over issues like crime, police misconduct, or the worth of black politicians such as Senator Roland Burris or Cook County Board president Todd Stroger. Mayor Daley usually contains the animosity by plying his black political supporters with just enough patronage to keep them happy. But the Olympic plan is perceived by many as a thinly disguised urban renewal project. They worry that Olympic “improvements” will drive working-class African-Americans from the near south side.
Granted, so far there have been no large public outbursts against the Olympic bid. You can’t even find an alderman with the guts to ask routine questions before approving the mayor’s Olympic initiatives—like $86 million in public funding for the Olympic Village. If people haven’t raised a stink yet, it’s because they’re not putting two and two together yet—2016 seems so far away, and meanwhile there are parking meters to be outraged about—or they’re scared to take on the mayor.
But it’s not because they love the idea of hosting the Olympics. The mayor waves around a poll his Olympic bid committee took a year ago that found 76 percent of Chicago-area residents favor bringing the Olympics to town. But a Chicago Tribune poll taken in February found that 75 percent are against using public money to pay for them.
Several aldermen have told me that they’ve gone along with this boondoggle because they’re afraid of enraging the mayor by voting no. I know he’s probably been pretty charming to you. But you wouldn’t like Mayor Daley when he’s angry. Some aldermen—and even a few of the business leaders who’ve kicked in money to the Olympic campaign—tell me they’re hoping you’ll do the dirty work of killing the games.
So please do us all a favor: Give the games to Rio. Or Madrid. Or Tokyo. Send them anywhere but here. And let’s all pretend like this cockamamie idea of holding them in Chicago never left the confines of Mayor Daley’s skull.