More than a decade ago, demographic projections signaled an important reversal for Chicago Public Schools: Enrollment was about to shrink dramatically. Yet CPS leaders appointed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley issued billions of dollars in bonds to repair, expand or replace the vast majority of the district’s schools regardless of future needs and without voter input, a Tribune investigation found. In total, CPS officials have borrowed more than $10 billion in general obligation bonds since 1996 to fund school construction projects, debt that has contributed to the system’s current financial crisis. Officials poured $1.5 billion of that money into schools that today are less than 60 percent full. Along the way, CPS invested $100 million in schools it closed this year, in part, because they were underused. About half of that spending came after demographic projections predicted districtwide enrollment drops.
Two former Crestwood officials who helped hide the village’s use of a polluted well were sentenced to probation Thursday as federal prosecutors lamented that they could not go after the man they believe masterminded the money-saving scheme. In handing down the sentences, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall agreed that mental health issues prevented the government from prosecuting former Mayor Chester Stranczek, whom she described as the “evil genius” behind an elaborate plot that made him look like a good steward of taxpayer dollars. By secretly drawing water from a tainted community well, Crestwood officials saved $380,000 a year that otherwise would have been spent fixing a leaky water system, according to court documents. They also avoided routine testing that would have alerted authorities to toxic chemicals in the village’s drinking water.
For decades, U.S. manufacturers have filled upholstered furniture with pounds of toxic chemicals to comply with a flammability standard set by a single state, California. The obscure rule, known as Technical Bulletin 117, brought flame retardants into homes across the country. American babies came to be born with the highest recorded average concentrations of the chemicals among any infants in the world. But on Thursday, California threw out the 38-year-old rule and approved a new one that furniture manufacturers can meet without using flame retardants. The updated rule does not ban the chemicals. However, manufacturers have said they expect to stop adding them to furniture foam, holding out hope that consumers soon can start shopping for couches and other upholstered furniture free of flame retardants linked to cancer, developmental problems, reduced IQ and impaired fertility.
Once the hub of the maternity floor, transitional or well-baby nurseries are now rarely used in some hospitals because of the rising popularity of rooming in. Some research suggests that constant skin-to-skin contact in the first 48 hours following birth can be beneficial for moms and babies, even for women who do not nurse. But the shift away from nursery care has sparked a backlash among some mothers who don’t plan to breast-feed or simply want some time to rest after the trauma of childbirth and before taking up the responsibilities of child care.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration faces serious financial challenges: mounting pension liabilities, massive structural budget deficits, eroding infrastructure and depressed revenues. The mayor has launched initiatives, like the speed cameras, that will bring in new money. He has cut spending by consolidating city services and laying off employees, among other measures. One tactic has gotten less attention: the aggressive use of taxable bonds. The cash from these bonds helps Emanuel’s team fill budget holes and make debt payments without raising property taxes. But this short-term relief comes with huge long-term costs that will make it more difficult to chip away at the city’s debt burden in the years ahead. Why? Taxable bonds are very expensive.
The city of Chicago took control of three hulking warehouses on West Pershing Road for $1. But it was hardly a bargain. Over the last nine years the city has used more than $41 million in borrowed money to repair and retrofit the behemoths — even after a top official warned they were a “financial sinkhole.” Today much of the space isn’t being used, and there is no end in sight to the repairs. The buildings, with their shattered windows and leaky roofs, stand as a decrepit monument to Chicago officials’ indiscriminate borrowing and spending. In analyzing the city’s capital expenditures from general obligation bonds, the Tribune uncovered speculative purchases, shortsighted building projects, puzzling choices and massive overspending. And because Chicago is not required to put referendums before voters before issuing bonds, political leaders rarely pay a price for their poor choices. After all, they can always just borrow more money.
Between 2000 and 2012, Chicago spent $9.8 billion in general obligation bond proceeds with few restrictions and virtually no oversight. In a first-ever accounting, the Tribune found that nearly half of the money went to paper over Chicago’s growing budget problems. The city spent millions in bond funds on short-lived equipment such as Palm Pilot software, spare vehicle parts and items you might find on a weekend shopping list: trash bins, flowers, even bags for dog waste. That’s equivalent to taking out a 30-year mortgage to buy a car and making your children — or grandchildren — pay it off, with interest.
One after another, teenage girls or their mothers approached their prominent West Side minister and accused the music director at his rapidly growing church of rape and molestation. Instead of alerting police, Apostle John Abercrombie in three instances confronted the frightened girls in his church office with the music director present, according to interviews with the alleged victims and their families, as well as police reports and other government documents obtained by the Tribune. In 2009, a church member brought Abercrombie a recorded cellphone conversation in which the 40-year-old music director, David Gardner, allegedly invited her 15-year-old daughter on a shopping trip to New York and told the girl not to tell her family. Only then — a decade after the first girl came forward — did Abercrombie call police, records and interviews show.
West Side pastor John Abercrombie says his mission is to lift a struggling community and serve its most vulnerable residents. In addition to tending his church flock, he has made himself a key player in City Hall’s planning and development efforts in the South Austin neighborhood. City, state and federal agencies have poured millions of dollars into several projects in which Abercrombie played a leading role. Yet a Tribune investigation found that Abercrombie has at best a mixed record of success as a developer and landlord, mirroring city officials’ haphazard efforts to assist one of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods. The fast-food restaurant he built went out of business. He has racked up government liens for unpaid tax and water bills. And while Abercrombie lives in a suburban mansion and drives luxury vehicles, some tenants in his string of apartment buildings have endured substandard conditions and gone without heat.
As political debate continues to rage over President Barack Obama ‘s signature health care overhaul, the law already is reshaping health care in the most troubled communities in Chicago and its suburbs. Since 2010, Illinois health clinics have received more than $50 million in development grants under the Affordable Care Act to build new facilities, expand operations, modernize equipment and improve the overall quality of care for the state’s poor and uninsured. The money has sparked a building boom for health centers across the region and is ushering in a new era of competition to care for the growing pool of insured Americans. Supporters say this competition will drive down costs for patients and expand their options, allowing them to shop around for the best care and not just the most affordable. But competition is a new challenge for small community health clinics that operate on shoestring budgets. As treating the poor becomes more profitable, bigger and better-funded medical centers are expected to seek a larger share of the marketplace.