When Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot rolled out her 2022 budget, she offered each alderman a $100,000 sweetener to spend in their wards virtually however they please.
Nine months into the year, some of their priorities are coming to light: Emergency shelter for people without housing, private security to augment police, voter “mobilization,” a new ward website, youth mentoring, trees and outreach to residents on “what makes them feel safe and unsafe” are among areas where the money is going.
Freshman North Side Ald. Andre Vasquez is spending $23,000 for a new 40th Ward website. He also paid $15,000 to an advocacy group to engage residents about their perceptions of how safe they are and “think through” public safety solutions that don’t involve policing.
On the other side of the city, 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea is hiring private, unarmed security to patrol business corridors in the Beverly area.
His $100,000 microgrant will be split three ways among Beverly-area business associations that will hire private, unarmed security groups from Moore Security, Security Logistics Group and Law Dogs, according to records and his ward office.
O’Shea stressed in a June newsletter to constituents that the program — to “provide a visible security presence as well as additional eyes and ears in the community” — was developed with input of the Chicago Police Department, security experts and the business community. But the guards are wholly different from Chicago police officers and will only report suspicious behavior and remain on scene until cops arrive.
“In the face of troubling CPD staff shortages, we as a community must do all we can to support, appreciate and respect the profession if we expect people to seek the job‚” O’Shea wrote. “In the meantime, we must also explore other opportunities to promote public safety in our community.”
Ald. James Cappleman, who has announced he won’t seek reelection next year in the Uptown-based 46th Ward, is spending much of his grant on housing homeless people in hotels and motels.
Cappleman allocated $7,000 to Cornerstone Community Outreach to assist Heartland Alliance Health with providing vital supplies such as phones and Ventra cards for a pilot program to give shelter to homeless people, according to the contract. Another $48,000 will go toward fellow nonprofit organization Trilogy, mostly to find emergency housing for more than 50 homeless people at motels and hotels, running about $100 per night, the contract says. The remaining $45,000 was awarded to Heartland Alliance Health to assist people living outside with temporary housing.
Cappleman’s office aimed to put the microgrant money toward long-term “outcomes-oriented pilot programs to reduce chronic homelessness” that could be duplicated elsewhere in the city, a staff member said.
It’s not clear how all the aldermen plan to spend the money. The city budget office only released information on some of the projects and said more records weren’t immediately available. The Tribune has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all existing contracts.
The $5 million “microgrant fund,” split among the 50 wards, was billed by the mayor as a flexible “tool” to tailor investments across a diverse city to individual communities’ needs. Lightfoot often boasts that she doesn’t buy votes, but the program was also seen as a bargaining chip for aldermanic support for the $16.7 billion budget that ultimately passed.
“You know this, that a good alderman has the pulse of the ward, knows the pain points of residents, and we want to further equip each of you with the tools to help address your residents’ needs,” Lightfoot said when unveiling her fiscal plan last September.
In Vasquez’s ward, the biggest use so far has been a project dubbed “A Better Website for the 40th Ward,” according to the city’s database of contracts and awards. The business tapped to design the $23,000 website before the end of the year is the Ravenswood-based Eat Paint Studio, registered under the company SuperVoid.
According to a form filled out by Vasquez’s office, $1,831 is needed for city-mandated insurance and a subscription to a user testing service, and $21,169 will go toward making the website. The designer requires at least 50 to 80 hours per month for at least seven months, starting in June, to complete the website, the form says. That averages out to about $60 an hour, assuming it takes only 50 hours per month for seven months, though the alderman’s office notes in the budget form that the designer usually charges $95 an hour.
The website “will be rebuilt using WordPress with an aim toward creating an accessible, maintainable web presence that is a hub of current and future information for community members of the 40th Ward in Chicago,” the form reads. “The current website is not accessible, not kept up to date, and difficult to use and maintain.”
Vasquez told the Tribune that only two bids were submitted for the project, and he opted for the pricier one because “it would provide the most accessibility to the most amount of people.” But he said he found the $23,000 cost to be fair.
“We were asking around, right?” Vasquez said. “Prior to getting the bids, we kind of were fielding it out, putting it out there to anybody that does websites. And that (price) is kind of what we were getting back, or at least out of the ones that submitted bids, that’s what we got.”
When asked what makes his current website not accessible, Vasquez said it’s confusing to reach certain parts of the website and the whole design must be reformatted.
“It’s not as easy for people to get to certain parts of the website,” Vasquez said. “As far as specifics, the website designers would know way more about that than I would.”
The other organization Vasquez contracted with, Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality (ONE) Northside, is a progressive advocacy group that will receive $15,000, most it going to personnel costs for door-knockers to canvass neighborhoods until September. In total, one paid full-time organizer, four volunteer leaders and four additional paid canvassers will do 16 three-hour shifts every week for 12 weeks, the budget form says.
Vasquez’s office said on the city budget form that the purpose of the canvassing will be to “engage 40th Ward constituents on what makes them feel safe and unsafe,” and that the door-knocking will target low-income renters and immigrants, as well as young people. The form also promotes thinking of solutions to crime beyond law enforcement.
“We are eager to think through public safety resources and new solutions with neighbors so that we can move beyond punitive, harmful ways of policing,” the program description says.
When asked about the purpose of the program, Vasquez said the dialogues aren’t intended to ask residents for support for political issues but to give them information and learn about how they define safety.
“There are a lot of different ways people measure public safety, right?” Vasquez said. “The ability to have mental health resources, the ability to have substance use help for those that need it, right? They (ONE Northside) wanted to get a sense of like, one, what are the different concerns that people have on the ground, and two, do people know what their resources are?”
Vasquez said he also allocated $15,000 each on community groups Centro Romero and Indo American Center for similar door-knocking but specifically for Latino and South Asian communities, respectively. And he’s directing $12,000 to HMF Communications, a consulting firm founded by Hannah Fierle, a former spokeswoman for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, to create a handbook on “all the things that the ward office can do, has done and ways to reach the ward office.”
Other uses of the microgrants include:
Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st: $50,000 for an anti-violence program in Logan Square, $25,000 to run a forestry program and $25,000 for a health and wellness program.
Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd: $16,000 for a street outreach program.
Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd: $50,000 on youth mentorship and education.
Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th: $5,000 on “voter education and mobilization” within the South Asian community and $5,000 on a food pantry service.
“We are looking to empower the South Asian community to advocate for change that directly impacts them, reallocating and building power in this community,” said records filed with the city on the 49th Ward contract, noting language barriers often leave South Asian immigrants “without information and opportunity or misinformed.”
In some cases, the programs have outside funds to supplement the microgrant use.
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