Neighborhood advocacy group's shutdown leaves void

The closing in February of a citywide advocacy group has left many grassroots community organizations without a vehicle to navigate the often-complicated worlds of tax increment financing, public transportation and school construction and repair.

The Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, until grant money from foundations ran out, specialized in tracking government spending and organizing public participation to demand accountability for that spending.

The absence is sorely felt.

"WBEZ called me the day that CTA President Frank Kruesi resigned saying, 'Jackie, we really didn't know who else to call,'" said Jackie Leavy, former executive director of the NCBG. "Clearly there is a vacuum, otherwise, why would so many journalists, students and community groups still be trying to track me down after nearly four months?"

One of the group's focal points was monitoring TIFs, which involves capturing all new property tax revenues from a specific area and re-investing them in that area to spur growth. 

NCBG led the fight for TIF money to be allocated to all neighborhoods in the city, not just to already-affluent areas like the Loop, as they had in the past.

Cook County Board Commissioner Mike Quigley's report on reinventing tax increment financing, released two months after the group went out of existence, includes a foreward about the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group's contribution to the plan.

"They've been a critical resource for us," Quigley said. "They were the sole voice on this issue when we first got started."
 
 Leavy said, "Various individuals and community organizations continue to request information [and] research on tax increment financing; particularly, tracking which properties and developers are getting TIF subsidies from City Hall." 

Joe Ann Bradley, executive director of the Community Action Group in North Lawndale, also feels the loss.

"You are talking," she said, "about an organization that provided services free of charge to the communities across this great city, that if they were being paid what they truly deserved, would cost tens of thousands of dollars -- and that is for the research alone! And if you think that's a stretch, just look at how much money the city of Chicago paid to create the proposal for any TIF you could name."

Valencia Rias, senior leadership development associate for Designs for Change, an education group that works with local school councils, said Chicago Public Schools has also suffered from the loss.

"Without a doubt there is a void. No one is continuing the work of assisting schools with their capital improvement needs," she said.

Rias said one major contribution was the group's development of an entire facilities management plan that may prevent school districts from investing millions of dollars into a building, only to close it a year later.

"They were the lone voices in the wilderness crying out to the CPS to adopt a facilities management plan," Rias said. "Not only were they well-researched, they offered a solution."

The plan was put together and presented to the CPS, but has yet to be adopted since the group disbanded.

Mildred Wiley, former president of Bethel New Life Inc., a community development arm of the Lutheran Church, said the NCBG was instrumental in "helping us do research and craft the message that we did not have the funding or manpower to do."

She added that the group also increased the visibility of announcements of public meetings and events. 

"That's not to say the government agencies don't put these announcements in the paper, but things get lost in the paper," Wiley said. 

"People need someone to remind them that if they want to save their neighborhood school or have their streets fixed, they need to be at this meeting and be there with a group," she said.

According to Leavy, NCBG's closing is the result of a shift in targeted funding of foundation grants that has taken money away from broader geographic-based organizations like NCBG and given it to more specific neighborhood projects.

"It's more satisfying to foundation boards to see concrete results -- pun intended - they can point to specific redevelopment projects," she said

She added, "More and more, foundations are giving grants to local government, not only here but around the nation. These local governments have taxing powers, yet these 'charitable' foundations are giving them even more money."

She explained that because foundation dollars come from family endowments and corporations but are run by board executives, they are often unaccountable for how that money is spent.

"Foundations are also very trendy - every few years someone at the top changes his or her mind about the latest, greatest theory for social change and engineering of 'poverty reduction' or urban school reform - often disconnected with what really goes on on the ground in low-income communities of color."

She ultimately attributes this to the idea that foundations all want to frame public policy debates and influence them.

Bradley said, "As far as I'm concerned, when it came to research and looking after the public interest, NCBG was the only game in town. Any funder in the Chicagoland area that claims to have the public interest at heart -- especially people who are most vulnerable and disenfranchised, and knows of NCBG -- should hold their head in shame for allowing an organization like this one to get away."

Leavy said she still gets a barrage of information requests from various government committees, community groups and state legislators who don't know where else to turn.

And while there are a few dedicated groups and individuals left to continue the work, many don't have the organizing power NCBG had.

"Currently, the transit accountability bills that are being sponsored by Rep. [Marlow] Colvin [D-Chicago] and Rep. [Julie] Hamos [D-Evanston] will sorely lack the community support generated by NCBG on these issues," said Les Kniskern, president of the Greater Rockwell Organization, a group on the Northwest Side.

"Jackie Leavy remains a die-hard activist and sends out updates as she can, but with no staff or structure, these issues will fall far from the community light shed by NCBG," Kniskern said.

But Alice Spears, executive director of the Business  Economic Revitalization Association, believes it is now the job of the various small community groups to step up and fill the void.

"Now it's our responsibility to carry on the work," she said. "We can show their effectiveness by being good at what they taught us to do."

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