1) City Pensions

Q: Chicago's fire and police pensions are greatly underfunded, and the city is required by the state to make a $550 million payment into the pension funds by the end of 2015. Do you support restructuring the pension systems, inevitably reducing benefits, to put the funds on sound financial footing?

Yes or No: No

Please Explain:
Chicago is facing a steep pension deficit, particularly with the pensions for police and firefighters. There is no denying that this is a drastic situation that will require making hard choices to solve. However, retired public employees depend on their pensions. They do not qualify for the same Social Security benefits that private sector employees can rely on when they retire. Pensions are their retirement security after a lifetime spent in service to the public. Honoring those pensions and maintaining them for future generations of first responders is not about pandering or protecting union interests, it is sound business policy. Those benefits help attract qualified and trustworthy employees who will provide our city with good public service. If we downgrade the compensation and benefits that our public servants receive we will see a parallel drop in the quality of applicants for those positions. Simply put, these are not the public services where Chicago can afford to see a drop in performance. I want my local police officers and firefighters to be thinking about protecting my community, not worrying about how they will make ends meet or thinking about moving to the private sector to receive better compensation.

Q: Chicago's pension systems for municipal workers and laborers already have been restructured, reducing benefits, but the city has yet to identify where it will find the revenue to sufficiently fund those systems. Under what circumstances would you support a property tax increase to raise the needed revenue for the fire and police pensions and/or the municipal workers and laborers pensions?

A: Chicago needs to raise new revenues to help pay our pension obligations and other public debt, but I believe that there are steps we can take before raising property taxes. In particular, nearly $2 billion of property tax dollars are being held in TIF districts around the city. This is unused money that has been diverted from paying other obligations, such as our pension deficit, and should be considered before we decide to raise those taxes even further. This is particularly true when considering that 14% of the TIF districts in Chicago now divert more than 90% of the property taxes collected within their borders. We need to appropriately spend the property tax dollars that we already collect before we consider increasing the taxes further. I will vote to raise property taxes to pay our debt obligations if it is necessary, but not until we have expended every other option.

2) Chicago Public Schools pensions

Q: Large and growing payments required to keep the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund solvent are squeezing CPS' budget, forcing cuts elsewhere and limiting investment. The Chicago Board of Education has increased property taxes, but it is not enough to keep up with the high annual costs. What measures do you support to ensure a solvent retirement system and to improve the district's finances?

One of the first steps I would take as Alderman is to advocate for legislation that requires the City to make all pension payments at a level that is adequate to keep the pensions fully funded. The pension holiday from 2011 to 2013 cost the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund an estimated $1.2 billion in funding. A large part of our current pension troubles result from either missing payments or not paying enough money into the fund to keep it solvent, and this strategy of passing the buck to future generations has left us in a tight spot that requires tough decisions. Another major problem faced by Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund is a lack of adequate revenue to pay the bills. Hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes are diverted into TIF funds each year, sometimes including as much as 90% or more of all property taxes within the district. This is money that should go toward funding our schools, not sitting in a shadowy slush fund. The City and Chicago Public Schools also lost several hundred million dollars more in toxic interstate swap deals to banks that misrepresented the risks of the agreements. We need to recoup the money lost in these toxic deals.

3) Revenue

Q: In light of the financial issues discussed above, do you support any or all of the following measures, each of which would require, at a minimum, approval by the Illinois Legislature?
* A statewide expansion of the sales tax base to include more consumer services
Yes or No:
* A tax on non-Chicago residents who work in the city
Yes or No:
* A tax on electronic financial transactions on Chicago’s trading exchanges, known as the “LaSalle Street tax”
Yes or No:
Please explain your views, if you wish, on any of these three revenue-generating

Each of these three revenue-generating ideas has its merits, and I would strongly consider them. The commuter tax, in particular, should be implemented immediately; on the other hand, a financial transaction tax could encourage a major Chicago employer to leave the city. I am hesitant to implement all of these strategies together. Chicago is heavily taxed and located near several other municipalities with lower taxes and fees, providing affluent businesses and residents with the opportunity to move to a more affordable location while continuing to enjoy the benefits of the Chicago economy. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has already threatened to leave the city, and it has the resources and ability to follow through. We need to strike a careful balance between generating new revenue, growing more efficient at collecting the taxes and fees already on the books, and trimming down the costs of running our municipal government. The City has leaned toward cutting or privatizing services for years, leading to a lack of qualified mental health facilities, closing dozens of schools, and the parking meter disaster. Cuts alone are not the solution. But new revenue needs to be pursued carefully to avoid having a similar detrimental impact on our local economy.

4) Crime

Q: Do you support hiring more police officers to combat crime and gun violence in

Yes or No:Yes

Please explain:
First responders should be among the last services cut by a desperate municipality. We have reduced the number of officers on the streets by neglecting to fill empty positions at the same time that the city has faced an epidemic of gun violence and related crimes. Even our most affluent neighborhoods are facing violence and crime—Mayor Emanuel's own son was the victim of an assault and robbery near the family home in the wealthy Ravenswood Manor neighborhood. I understand the logic behind shifting police officers from relatively safe neighborhoods to areas that are facing more severe problems with crime, but a better solution would be to hire enough police officers to ensure that every community is safe. What legislation in Springfield would you support to try to stem the flow of illegal guns into Chicago? As an Alderman in Chicago I would have a limited ability to impact statewide legislation about gun control. However, I do believe that it is necessary to take steps to address “straw gun” purchases in the communities surrounding Chicago and Cook County. It is extremely challenging to reduce the flow of illegal guns into the city when any resident can take a short drive across the Indiana or Wisconsin borders to purchase guns in a state that is not impacted by laws passed in Illinois.
Ultimately the best way to reduce the flow of illegal guns and the violence that has  been plaguing our city is by addressing the root causes of violent crime. We need to increase the opportunities for employment in economically depressed neighborhoods to provide an alternative to black market criminal jobs. A recent University of Chicago Crime Lab study showed that when teenagers attending high schools in high-crime neighborhoods were provided with summer jobs they were much less likely to participate in violent crime. Students who participated in the program had 43 percent fewer violent crime arrests than students in the control group. This is an issue that I can help address as an Alderman in Chicago. Economic development in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods that creates good jobs and opportunities for the residents can have a major impact on reducing violent crime, and thus the demand for guns. Public schools can be utilized to provide more internships and summer employment for young people, keeping them off of the streets and helping to make the schools the center of the community again. I will support statewide legislation that addresses the symptoms of gun violence and crime, such as enforcing more strict penalties for straw gun purchases and requiring a firearm safety exam to receive a firearm owners identification card. However, I will make it a priority to decrease violent crime and the demand for illegal guns by addressing the root causes of the issue.

5) Elected school board

Q: An advisory referendum on switching Chicago to an elected school board, rather than an appointed board, is expected to be on the ballot in more than 30 wards on Feb. 24. Currently, the mayor appoints all seven board members and the Schools CEO. Do you support a change to an elected school board?

Yes or No:Yes

Please explain:  I believe in greater representation and accountability in our municipal government. The people of Chicago should have more say in how their public schools are operated, which is why I support an elected representative school board. I do differ from the prevailing proposal for an elected school board in several important ways. I am concerned that this would become a low information election where political partisanship and personal wealth could have too much influence on the outcome of the race, similar to the situation faced in many judicial campaigns around Cook County. That is why I believe that the final proposal should include a combination of elected and appointed representatives on the school board. I believe that the size of the board should be expanded, and that it be split between appointed members and elected members. Two seats should be held by principals in public schools, two held by representatives from labor unions, and two high school seniors should sit on the board. The remaining seats should be elected from the community, like the model used by Local School Councils. This would give all of the stakeholders in CPS a seat at the table, and a say on the important decisions that impact their constituents. This mixed board should then have the power to hire the CEO of Chicago Public Schools,
just as the boards of nonprofit organizations around the nation hire their executive

6) Tax-increment financing districts

Q: TIFs are the primary economic development tool of the city. In a TIF district, taxes from the growth in property values are set aside for 23 years to be used for public projects and private development. Do you support increasing the annual TIF surplus that the mayor and the City Council have declared in each of the last few years, money that goes to the schools and other city agencies?

Yes or No:Yes

What reforms would you propose for the city's TIF program?

TIF districts can be a powerful tool to encourage growth and good jobs in a blighted community—if they are used appropriately. The public has lost faith in TIF districts due to years of misuse. TIF money is more often used as a slush fund that benefits politically connected developers rather than an engine for economic growth. One of the first steps that the City Council can take to rebuild public trust in TIF districts is actually enforcing the regulation that new districts be created in blighted areas. The LaSalle Street banking district TIF is a blatant example of how this program is being misused. Districts that have been created in areas that clearly do not fit the mold for a “blighted” region should be closed down, and the money in those funds should go back to our schools or help plug the budget deficit. Secondly, the City Council should take steps to improve the transparency of how these districts are implemented and where the money goes. The nonprofit TIF Illumination Project reports that, after all TIF transfers have been counted, over $8 million of taxpayer money is left unaccounted for. That is simply unacceptable. Increasing transparency and accountability will go a long way toward demonstrating that this program really is being used for the public benefit.
Last, the TIF surplus funds should be returned to the schools or used to help pay down the public debt that decades of financial mismanagement have incurred. We have started the process of reintegrating surplus TIF funds already but have not gone far enough. It does not make sense to cut public services and close local schools when $1.7 billion in property tax dollars are left over in the TIF accounts at the start of the year.

7) Neighborhood economic development

Q: What would you do as alderman to boost economic development in your ward, and bring jobs to your community? 

The 44th Ward has a wealth of vibrant chambers of commerce and civic organizations dedicated to promoting growth in the community. At the same time many local businesses are closing their doors, and business owners have confided to me that they are worried about their companies and the future of the neighborhood. As an entrepreneur and an active member of many local chambers of commerce I have a strong background in economic development to bring to the table. I know what it takes to start a business and grow it into a thriving company. To that end I have worked with elected officials to pass a city ordinance to allow live/work environments, which make it easier to launch small businesses. If I am elected to office I will use my experience and the resources of our community to help boost economic development by making smart investments in the community, which will be guided by input from both the residents and the business owners of the 44th Ward. One of my first acts after assuming office will be to convene a series of community meetings to discuss developing a future vision plan for the 44th Ward, a guiding plan to determine how the community wants to see their neighborhood grow. I will work with the residents and the chambers of commerce to implement this plan, and to provide the support that small businesses need to get off the ground and prosper in the ward.

8) Size of the Chicago City Council

Q: The City Council has 50 members, but civic groups and other regularly argue for reducing the size of the Council. What should the size of the Council be? Please provide a specific number. And why? 

I do not support reducing the size of the Chicago City Council. I understand that a smaller City Council could save the City millions of dollars annually, but I also know that it would reduce the representation that each neighborhood and each resident receives.
Aldermen are already responsible for approximately 50,000 constituents in their wards, with some wards reaching much higher numbers. Should they be responsible for 75,000 constituents? More?
Another impact of a smaller City Council will be more expensive election campaigns.
Candidates will be pushed to court developers, wealthy constituents and special interest groups even more than they already do in order to raise the money necessary to run a competitive campaign. This will make it much more difficult to challenge entrenched incumbent politicians, no matter of how well or how badly that politician is serving their district.

9) A Chicago casino

Q: Do you support, in general concept, establishing a gambling casino in Chicago?

Yes or No: Yes

Please explain:
The residents of Chicago already have easy access to casinos that are located just outside of the city limits. Preventing further casinos from being built within the city limits simply deprives the City from the additional revenue and jobs that the casinos would generate while doing little to prevent gambling or other drawbacks. Also, by not having a casino within the city limits we are depriving ourselves of the educational revenue that gambling establishments contribute to the state and city.
I am open to considering the construction of casinos within the city limits, but I have concerns that would cause me to carefully weigh any proposal on a case-by-case basis before making a decision. Casinos have a strong negative reputation that is worth considering, and they can drain money out of communities that are already struggling.
As such, any casino that is built within the city limits needs to be carefully regulated and placed in a well chosen location. If the construction of a new casino is handled carefully it could have a positive impact on the city; if it is handled poorly it could be detrimental to our community.

10) Red light and speed cameras

Q: Does the city have an acceptable number of red light and speed cameras currently, and are they properly employed?

Yes or No:No

Please explain:
The City is using red light cameras as a way to squeeze more revenue from private citizens. Red light and speed cameras could be used to promote public safety, but the City is abusing them by placing them in certain areas of the city while simultaneously reducing the time of yellow traffic lights in order to write more tickets. I was in favor of of more red light cameras when it appeared to be a way to prevent accidents, but I cannot support the way they are currently being employed.

11) Ward issues

Q: What are the top three issues in your ward — the ones you talk about most on the campaign trail?

Crime & Quality of Life – My first priority as Alderman will be to address the crime that has been plaguing the Lakeview and Wrigleyville neighborhoods. The residents of my ward are very concerned about the robberies and muggings, attacks on LGBTQ victims, and increasingly bold prostitution. This situation has been compounded by a lack of police officers; our police district lost more officers to layoffs and hiring freezes than any other district in the city. The remaining officers are expected to do more with less resources and manpower. This is simply unacceptable. Participatory Democracy – One of my most important goals is empowering residents toparticipate in the governance of their ward. As Alderman I will enact a participatory budgeting program to give all of the residents of the 44th Ward the opportunity to decide how their tax dollars will be spent in the community. I will also allocate a portion of my menu budget to videotape the community meetings of local civic groups and stream them from my website to ensure that working families can stay informed about what is happening in the neighborhood. Encourage Small Business Growth – I have long been an advocate for small businesses, which are the true job creators in America. I opposed the incumbent Alderman when he helped bring Walmart into the community, and instead I support a greater focus on helping small businesses launch and stay afloat. This can be accomplished through uniting the small business associations to create strategies to compete for tourist money in the community, and by creating a public bank that generates revenue by providing lowinterest loans to small businesses.

Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board questionnaire responses

Mark Thomas

Office running for: Alderman, 44th Ward

Political/civic background:  I serve as a board member of Local First
Chicago, Executive Director of the Kedzie Elston Business Industrial Council and invited
volunteer member of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank board of industry leaders
advising on economic conditions. I have been involved in numerous local chambers of
commerce, including as a founding member of the Central Lakeview Merchants
Association and Special Service Area #17.

Occupation: Entrepreneur. Owner of The Alley Stores.

Education: Self-educated

Campaign website:www.voteformarkthomas.org