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The TIF Illumination Project at Three

Fri, 2016-02-12 13:27
On February 12 of 2013, the night of the State of the Union, a town meeting was held at the Chopin Theater in Chicago's Near West Side. The subject was tax increment financing. Despite the complexity of the topic and the competition from President Obama, some 230 people packed the theater to hear a journalist, an academic and an activist discuss TIFS.

The TIF Town Meeting was the launch of the CivicLab's TIF Illumination Project.

The Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Illumination Project is an effort of a group of volunteers in Chicago to investigate and expose a decades-old municipal finance scheme that annually extracts almost 500 million dollars of local property taxes and places that money in a program controlled by the mayor. This program has dispensed billions of property tax dollars to major U.S. companies (Walmart, Target, Home Depot, UPS, Coca-Cola, United Airlines, Willis Insurance) to well-heeled developers of Loop office towers and to a collection of connected developers throughout the city.

This program has been a source of controversy here for years but is not readily understood by Chicagoans. It is decidedly not a public process and the rationale behind what projects are selected for subsidy in the name of "community development" is not apparent or available for any community to debate or participate in. Chicago has a notoriously corrupt and opaque government with numerous local councilmen having been sent to prison. The city was ruled with an iron hand for 43 years by the father and son Daleys, and the Democratic Machine had a firm lock on local government for almost one hundred years. This is a tough town for civic engagement, government transparency and grassroots urban policy planning.

A Tax Increment Finance district is created by the City's Department of Planning and Development. It is a tool to capture property taxes from all properties inside the district. A TIF is usually created to build some project in a "blighted" community that the free market won't support. The developer seeks a gift of cash and/or land to do their project because it is deemed to be a public good. A snapshot is taken of the value of the properties inside the district and how much property taxes they are paying. The TIF district captures all INCREMENT from all those properties for 23 years. The money captured by the TIF is effectively "off the books" from the annual public budgeting process.

Since TIFs first appeared in Chicago in 1986 they have captured over $7 billion in property taxes.

The TIF Program has taken on significant political and civic import because it diverts and disperses property taxes. In Chicago about 54 cents of every property tax dollar collected by the city is supposed to go to the Board of Education. Other units of government that rely on property taxes for significant parts of their budget include the public libraries, the public parks, the city colleges, the county government and the city, itself. So any entity that steps in and skims, so to speak, hundreds of millions of property tax dollars annually is a grave threat to the finances of local government. Currently Chicago has 148 TIF districts covering about 32 percent of the city. No other city in America has so many special taxing bodies.

About 32% of Chicago is in a TIF district!

The TIF Illumination Project is an exercise in civic imagination. It's about civic geography and civic mental map-mapping. We set out to answer the question of "What are TIFs doing to MY community?" If you ask a person, "How is life in the Kinzie Industrial TIF?" they will look at you blankly. But if you ask, "How is life in the 27th Ward?" then people can locate themselves and form a response based on their lived experience of that community. We are telling people what TIFs are doing to us a ward-by-ward basis.

Our volunteers have acquired eight different sets of data and using data mining, GIS coding, map making, investigatory journalism and crowd-sourced organizing, we have compiled an unprecedented picture of what TIFs are doing across the city.

We can tell you, on a ward-by-ward basis:
• How many TIFs are in the ward
• How much money they extracted from within the ward last year
• How much money was left in the TIF accounts at the start of this year
• What projects were funded by TIFs inside the ward
• How much money was transferred IN or OUT of the TIFs
• How much money the Department of Planning and Development skimmed from those TIFs (in 2014 it was a total of $8.8 million from ALL the TIFs)
• How much money was given to banks in terms of finance fees (in 2014 Amalgamated bank and Well Fargo received a total of $98.6 million from all TIFs)
• Location of public schools that have closed by the Board of Education
• Location of public schools that have received budget cuts for the current year

We produce a graphic poster showing all this against a map of the ward we are covering plus a general piece that explains what TIFs are. We do a 50-minute presentation that walks through the history and scope of the TIF program and then zooms in to reveal the details of the TIFs in the ward we are visiting.

At the TIF Town Meeting at the Chopin Theater on February 12, 2013, we asked the attendees if they found the information useful. There was a strong response from the audience that this information was a revelation. We then invited folks to return to their communities and organized public meetings -- or Illuminations -- as we call them.

People responded with enthusiasm. The first meeting was in the 6th Ward on March 9 and since then we've been to 47 meetings and have Illuminated 141 TIFs across 34 wards! Over 4,600 people have attended these meetings. In addition, we've done Illuminations in Oak Park, Woodstock and for two suburban school districts.

All the presentations are available at our TIF Data Store.

Here is the graphic produced for the TIF Illumination of the 4th Ward (Hyde Park, home of the University of Chicago and President Obama) we did on May 13, 2013.

The piece is designed for ledger size, two-sided, full color. The fold is along the left. The front follows this pattern, with a call out to the residents of the ward we are visiting. We identify the major named neighborhoods inside the ward and produce the TIF district shapes as though they are the culprits on a wanted poster. The headline is derived from looking at one or more TIFs that are entirely inside or mostly inside the ward.

The back of the piece remains the same across all our Illuminations and will be updated for meetings in 2014 to incorporate the latest data. We endeavor to explain what TIFs are using text and graphics.

The piece was produced by Tom Tresser, designed by Carlyn So and based on the data research of Cory Mollet and Bill Drew. There are many others who helped and some would prefer to keep their participation private.

Our first poster went through seven iterations and was reviewed by one of America's most experienced academics in the TIF and local government finance arena. We are constantly testing this work. Is this the best way to explain TIFs? We've translated this part of the poster into Spanish and are working to turn the poster into a comic book and animation.

This section is immediately below the map and contains the final exclusive piece of news that the TIF Illumination Project delivers to communities. We use the same data analysis that got us the basic Illumination to determine how much money was left in the TIF accounts from the in-ward TIFs at the start of the year.

This number is shown in red and asks the provocative question: "What would you do to improve the ward" if you had this money available? In the case of the 4th Ward at the start of 2012, that number was $15.3 million.

The remainder of this section of the graphic explains what the TIF Illumination Project is about and also explains that it is a project of the CivicLab, a new co-working space in the West Loop dedicated to collaboration, education and innovation around civic engagement.

We have shown folks who has gotten paid via TIFs and revealed details hitherto kept secret -- including the startling fact that the TIF accounts held $1.4 billion on January 1, 2015. That number HAD been $1.7 billion on January 1, 2014. So we also revealed a 71% increase in TIF spending over that one year time period.
This information challenges the notion that we are broke.

The net result is that people ask more questions than can be answered. They are angry. They wonder if the city is truly broke, as the mayor claims. They want to know who green-lighted the projects that received so much public dollars and why are essential city services being cut (including the closing of 49 public schools) at the same time?

We launched an online petition to put TIF data on the property tax bills that the county issues twice a year, and that reform was instituted by Cook County Clerk beginning with the bills issued in July of 2014.

We launched a second online petition demanding that the mayor account for the $1.7 billion and release those funds to the units of government that SHOULD'VE gotten those funds in the first place. Over 4,500 people have signed so far.

We have placed all our presentations online for easy access and purchase at the TIF Data Store. You can also purchase a copy of our TIF Atlas that shows ALL the TIFs in the new ward maps PLUS locations and details of all TIF funded projects up through 2010 and much more!

In October of 2014 we launched our first crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to produce a TIF training video so we could Illuminate more people more efficiently. 80 donors gave over $3,300 and the 20 minute "TIF 101" video is now available for your viewing pleasure. Please do get Illuminated.

Our thanks to Professor Rachel Weber of the University of Illinois and Cook County Clerk David Orr for appearing in the video to share their knowledge and perspectives on Tax Increment Financing.

We did a second crowdfunding campaign to fund the video "TIFs Off the Rails: Public Policy Problems With TIFs in Chicago" and 44 donors chipped in $1,160. You can see the 17 minute video here.

Thanks to Professor Richard Dye of the University of Illinois and Professor Stephanie Farmer of Roosevelt University for appearing in that video.


We are delighted that our Illuminations have shed new light on a major piece of Chicago's financial infrastructure and that our work is impacting public policy. Over 80 stories have been written on our work.

Candidates for mayor and alderman have worked with us to articulate their positions on TIFs and twelve TIF Illuminations have been sponsored by candidates running for alderman for the 2015 municipal election.

An article in the Chicago Sun-Times and an editorial in the Chicago Tribune referenced $1.7 billion in TIF funds. The only way that the editors at the Chicago Tribune (as well as the rest of the public) knew that there was $1.7 billion sitting in TIF accounts was because the volunteers of the TIF Illumination Project has been opening up all the annual reports from the TIF districts when they are released in July and manually adding up the balances! We've been doing that since 2009 (although the TIF Illumination Project formally launched in February of 2013, this work has been going on for quite a while). See our analysis for all of Chicago's TIFs for 2013 and and for 2014 at our TIF Reports web site.

The impacts our work we felt in the 2015 municipal elections and all through the debate on the 2016 budget.

Listen to this exchange from the August 31, 2015 budget forum at Malcom X College. Tom asked the Mayor and his budget director to come clean on the status of the TIF money and they ANSWERED!

We upload our presentations to SlideShare so that people can see the work we do. However, we only put the FULL presentations with WARD-SPECIFIC data online at The TIF Data Store. Since the TIF Illumination Project started in February of 2013 these presentations on SlideShare have been viewed a staggering 118,000 times!

As this update is being written TIFs are all over the news again.

State legislation has been introduced
to flush Chicago's TIF accounts in order to send a cash infusion to the public schools.

A resolution to allow Chicago aldermen to voluntarily surrender funds from TIFs in their wards failed to reach a vote in City Council on February 9 due to the preemptory ruling of committee chair Carrie Austin.

Parents from Raise Your Hand disrupted that committee meeting by shouting "Parents want a vote!" They did not get the vote. These parents are not going away.


Tom Tresser, the lead organizer of the TIF Illumination Project, was named a "Best of Chicago 2015" by NewCity Magazine for his public work.

The local papers in Chicago have covered the TIF Illumination Project very well.

However, we have failed to get coverage in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Crain's Chicago Business or on WBEZ-FM (public radio).

We thank the Voqal Fund for the operating support thy gave to the CivicLab in 2014. That money allowed us to operate and the TIF Illumination Project had a home for two years. Also, the Crossroads Fund gave us $500 in 2014 to cover the cost of printing materials distributed at TIF town meetings.

A hearty "Thank you!" to the 248 people who donated a total of $9,568 to support the work of the TIF Illumination Project and the production of our two TIF training videos.

We are thrilled to see how are work has become part of the civic landscape and dialog in Chicago.


We are building on this work by launching a crowdfunding project in March to support the publication of a book: "Chicago is Not Broke. Funding the City We Deserve." More details here.

The book is based on this Huffington Post Chicago op-ed piece.

More information on the TIF Illumination Project, including all public presentations made to date, is online at All our presentations, as well as our 50 Ward TIF Atlas can be purchased at our TIF Data Store.

If you'd like to bring the TIF Illumination Project to YOUR community, please reach out to

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Civic Federation Proposes Painful Plan To Right Illinois' Financial Ship

Fri, 2016-02-12 11:04
Tax increases, spending limits, tax on pension income among Civic Federation's recommendations

A report released today by the Civic Federation lays out a number of recommendations -- including consideration in the near future of a progressive-rate income tax -- as part of a three-year plan to address the fiscal crisis in Illinois.

The 55-page report, "State of Illinois FY2017 Budget Roadmap," warns of the looming consequences of inaction -- a $25.9 billion unpaid bill backlog by the end of fiscal year 2019 -- unless "painful but necessary spending limits and revenue enhancements" are enacted.

And even though Illinois is expected to end the current fiscal year $6.2 billion deeper in debt, which will add to the existing $7 billion bill backlog for a grand total of $10 to $12 billion in unpaid bills by June 30, Civic Federation President Laurence Msall says not all hope is lost.

"Systemic payment delays and the ongoing budget impasse in Springfield have only exacerbated our state's financial woes, and there are no more politically popular solutions left to explore," Msall said in a press release. "Despite this dire situation, our roadmap shows that with dedicated action and shared sacrifice, it is possible to enact a comprehensive plan that will get Illinois back on sound financial footing by FY2019."

From the report:

Only after the state eliminates its backlog of bills and begins to make progress toward building a rainy day fund should it explore reversing some of the tax policy changes that were necessary to end the crisis as part of a comprehensive look at the State's tax system[...]

Savings from pension reforms are no longer possible due to the Illinois State Supreme Court's ruling that the changes were unconstitutional. Only difficult choices remain for the state.

In advance of Gov. Bruce Rauner's Feb. 17 budget address, here are the report's recommendations for the governor and lawmakers to consider during upcoming budget talks.

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Watch: Small Business Advocacy Council, Reboot Illinois Hold Budget Mobilization Town Hall

Fri, 2016-02-12 10:12

"I've been to Springfield and the line they always tell me is, 'You know, small business, you guys are the backbone of our economy. You're the backbone of our state. Well, you want to know something? Your backbone's broken. And in order to stand up and fix this, you guys gotta stand up, get together and start talking..."

That statement from Victor Miceli, president of Des Plaines Office Equipment, pretty much summed up the feeling Wednesday at the Small Business Advocacy Council/Reboot Illinois mobilization town hall meeting at Roosevelt University.

For 90 minutes, business leaders, SBAC members and representatives of college student and non-profits spoke about their frustration with the current state budget impasse and, more importantly, their determination to get a message to Springfield that the budget crisis is slowly crushing small businesses and non-profits.

Notably absent from Wednesday's discussion was argument over the political issues that have kept Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic leaders of the general assembly -- House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton -- away from the bargaining table for eight months.

Instead, we heard consensus on two points:

  1. Rauner and his Democratic counterparts have deep philosophical differences on how the state should right its finances and, in turn, its economy

  2. Regardless of who may be right or wrong, they need to work something out. Now.

If you've been following the events in Springfield since May, you haven't heard those two points spoken of together.

Instead, we've heard why they never can be spoken of together.

Rauner says he won't negotiate any new taxes (which everyone in the room in Wednesday night agrees can't be avoided) until Democrats pass some items from his Turnaround Agenda. These include term limits, redistricting reform, lawsuit reform, workers' compensation reform and a freeze on property taxes.

Democrats say those items are not related to the budget. They won't debate them as conditions of working out a budget.

"This is ridiculous. Us as business owners we know," said Miceli. "We need to talk, we need to negotiate, we need to move forward. I wish our leaders in Springfield would take examples from us as business owners how to run a business and how to run a state."

Neli Vazquez Rowland, who runs the Safe Haven Foundation in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood, which helps homeless people put their lives back together, described the domino effect she sees as other non-profits cut services because the state has stopped paying for them.

Amara Enyia, executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce on Chicago's west side, said lack of state funding to non-profits and day-care providers created a ripple effect for the small businesses in the Austin neighborhood. A parent who loses affordable day care risks losing a job, which means less money to spend at local businesses.

"It's not just the small businesses," she said. "There is an ecosystem that lives around the small businesses of which they are the core."

Ideology wasn't foremost on participants' minds. A functioning government was.

SBAC President Elliot Richardson made an impassioned plea for some hint of cooperation between the two sides in Springfield. The financial problems that grip Illinois didn't develop overnight, nor will they be solved in a single legislative session. But they'll never be addressed if the two sides don't speak.

"They owe it to us and the business owners and the non-profits in this state to at least try and to realize that politics is not a game for the small business owner on Main Street. Politics closes their business. Politics is not a game for the non-profits that lose their funding. It puts them out of business," Richardson said. "And what we're going to demand and get more stringent about demanding is an end to the nonsense. We've got lots of ideas how to get that done but none of those ideas go anywhere unless you've got people who want to listen, who want to govern, compromise and lead, and it's time for that in Springfield."

As frustrating as it is that Rauner, Madigan and Cullerton have refused to move from their oft-stated positions, it's even more frustrating to consider what they must confront whenever they do get around to budget-making.

"Do not confuse the problem of not having a budget with 'The Problem,' which is that we don't have as much revenue as we have in expenses...," said Mark Glennon, managing director of Ninth Street Advisors who blogs about Illinois government and finance at "We are not remotely close to having a solution at hand... It's going to take radical changes to fix this. We fundamentally have a model of government that is broken. We are not producing the jobs, revenue, the growth that we need to meet the obligations that we've made."

Currently, Illinois is on pace to spend about $6 billion more this year than the $32 billion it is expected to bring in. And that figure does not include higher education spending, which was $2 billion in FY 2015, and various other spending that has been on hold because there is no budget to authorize it.

"This is not a problem that just happened this year in Illinois. We have structural problems in this state. But what we need to expect is for our political leaders and our politicians to try to solve them... What we want is to stop the nonsense and for our legislators to do what they were elected to do," Richardson said. "The time is now to fix Illinois. We can come back. Other states have done it. This is the time right now."

NEXT ARTICLE: 10 sad things that have happened as a result of the Illinois budget standoff

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5 Ways to Love the Great Lakes This Valentine's Day

Thu, 2016-02-11 21:00

Winters in my family are filled with outdoor activities where we embrace the cold as we clumsily skate around an ice-covered pond or sludge through heavy snow to create snow masterpieces. With this year's El Nino doing a number on our winter temperatures, it's looking like there won't be many more opportunities for ice skating this season, as lakes and ponds are taking longer to freeze over. At this point in the year, we're looking at around 8 percent ice cover all across the Great Lakes. This time last year, we were looking at 58 percent.

Graphics produced by the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory comparing ice cover on the Great Lakes in 2016 (left) and 2015 (right).

As the world's worst pond hockey player, this bodes well for my already bruised ego, as I won't have the opportunity to embarrass myself this winter. But for our Great Lakes, this doesn't bode well for all those that depend upon it, be it animals or humans.

The National Weather Service's (NWS) most recent status for the El Nino system ranked it among the three strongest episodes dating back to 1950. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted 2015 as the Earth's warmest year on record. And, studies showed dramatically warmer waters for the Great Lakes. Lake Superior, for example, warmed three times faster than the global average, despite it being the deepest and coldest.

All of this research data explains the lack of ice cover we're experiencing. While the ability to play pond hockey and go skating might seem like the only obvious deficit, there are other players involved, one being the fish that spawn during the winter months.

Lake Whitefish are one of the 3,500 species of plants and animals that call the Great Lakes home and are unique in that they depend on ice cover during their spawning season. As they lay eggs near the surface of the water in early winter, they depend on ice cover to protect them from wind and waves. Without it, their spawning successes and population are at risk.

Shedd Aquarium Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr. Solomon David holds a Lake Whitefish during a research trip on the Great Lakes.

With all of this in mind - fish, winter recreation and shipping industries at risk - it is important to send a little extra love toward the Great Lakes when they need it most. In honor of Valentine's Day, I give you - Five Ways to Love the Great Lakes This Valentine's Day.

1. Decrease your road salt output.
Whether it's an inch or a foot, the first sign of snow frequently prompts the dumping of mass amounts of road salt to proactively prevent dangerous walking and driving conditions. The problem with all this salt is that it ends up in our lakes and rivers. Too much of it upsets the balance of local wildlife and even inhibits some fish spawning. While stopping all salt usage is unrealistic, there are measures we can take to reduce our output and to make it more effective. For example, according to Friends of the Chicago River, salt has no effect on snow or ice below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, so salting under these temperatures in unnecessary.

2. Idle less.
Though we're experiencing a mild winter courtesy of the El Nino, getting in your car in the morning is always quite the temperature shock. While idling your car does make the drive to work less painful, it's also burning through precious fuel and contributing to carbon dioxide pollution, which is the biggest contributor to global warming. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, you can prevent one pound of carbon dioxide emission for every ten minutes your engine is off. In fact, the best way to warm up your car in the morning is by driving it. The EDF cites that vehicles actually warm up twice as fast while driving, versus idling.

3. Conserve energy.
During the winter months, what was once a bearable 65-degree indoor temperature might seem like arctic tundra when it's 20 degrees outside. Before you turn up your thermostats, keep in mind that conserving energy in the winter is important because it's most likely burning through non-renewable energy, which is energy that comes from fossil fuels and coal, resources that can "run out".

The Department of Energy provides a variety of ways to conserve energy in the winter, including taking advantage of the heat from the sun to warm up your home, covering drafty windows and making sure your fireplace flue damper is sealed shut. All of these methods can lower fossil fuel consumption and thus prevent increased air pollution during the winter months.

4. Eat the enemy.
As mentioned, Lake Whitefish are one of the many species of fish that reside in the Great Lakes. Important to the fishing industry, over-consumption of whitefish can lead to deficits in their population that are hard to come back from. Eating sustainably can do the Great Lakes fish population a service, as it can lessen invasive species populations and help replenish the natives.

One fish I encourage you to try is Asian carp. The invasive fish have made their way up the Mississippi to the Great Lakes, growing their populations dramatically and threatening native species survival. As their populations continue to grow and inhabit more of our lakes and rivers, the best way to lessen their impact is to eat them. There are a variety of recipes for Asian carp and also a few restaurants that serve up Asian carp in the form of burgers. One of our Shedd Aquarium partners, BareItAll Petfoods, has even introduced dog treats made from Asian carp.

Some of the Asian carp you can see at Shedd Aquarium.

5. Start reading labels of your bath products.
In December of 2015, President Obama signed into law a bill that will dramatically improve the health of our lakes and rivers by decreasing plastic pollution. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 bans plastic microbeads in soaps, body washes and other bath products. While this is incredible news, the complete ban won't go into effect until 2019. In the meantime, we encourage you to ban microbeads in your own home by simply reading labels.

It's pretty common to see the word "microbeads" listed on the packaging of facial scrubs and other bath products. You can also take a deeper look at the ingredients label for any plastics, such as nylon, or avoid anything that starts with "poly." For example, polypropylene and polyethylene are both forms of plastics. There's even an app for that - just scan in the barcode and find out if the product contains microplastics. Electing not to purchase these means one less bottle's worth of microbeads entering local rivers and lakes.

In sum, there are a variety of ways to keep the lakes great this winter, even when our climate is changing. In addition to these five ways to help protect the Great Lakes, show some love to the essential fish and animal species that make up the lakes with these downloadable Valentines.

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America’s Water Infrastructure Is In Absolutely Terrible Shape

Thu, 2016-02-11 16:45

As the residents of Flint, Michigan, continue to grapple with their toxic drinking water, a disaster that will continue to be felt for decades, we are understanding more and more that Flint is not as much of an aberration as we'd like to think.

One of the key factors contributing to the crisis in Flint, the city’s decaying water infrastructure, is not unique. The nation's water infrastructure needs exceed $600 billion, and the funding is not there to meet those needs, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

That fact has not been lost on prominent people like activist Erin Brokovich, actor Mark Ruffalo and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, all of whom have pointed to examples of other communities in states other than Michigan, including New York, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania that have also dealt in recent years with elevated levels of chemical contaminants, like lead, in their drinking water.

Exactly how big is the problem beyond these headline-grabbing catastrophes? It’s hard to say. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases annual reports detailing outbreaks where biological contaminants -- like E. Coli or Legionella -- impacted a community’s drinking water, such data is more difficult to come by when it comes to man-made crises like Flint.

To get an idea of why that is, The Huffington Post recently spoke with David Zetland, a water policy expert and professor of economics at Leiden University College in Den Haag, the Netherlands. In 2014, Zetland published Living With Water Scarcity, a book examining questions of water safety and access.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Given what's unfolding in Flint, a number of prominent voices have pointed out that many of that city's water issues are not unique, but we're not seeing data backing it up. Why are we relying on isolated examples with such an important issue? Shouldn't we know more?

I think the way to approach that question is to consider how water is usually managed. In most instances, drinking water is provided by some kind of public or private entity with the support of the government. It’s a natural monopoly and you are told what to do. If you’re told you need to measure the amount of lead or chlorine in the water or deliver Game Boys to every household, they’ll do it. Their job is to follow these commands. If you compare that kind of system to a more consumer-driven industry, the metrics of success and performance evolve essentially according to whatever customers are looking for. 

I’m not calling for water to go to the market, but if I’m suggesting ways to improve this, one way is more responsiveness to what consumers are interested in. It’s not necessarily just a dialogue between the regulator and the water utility. The nitrates in the groundwater in the eastern U.S., as far as I can understand, are a time bomb waiting to explode. And we pretty much know people consuming well water near farms are already getting too many nitrates in their water. There are a lot of these kinds of contaminants out there and there’s got to be a fine line between testing for everything and regulating everything out of the water because, quite frankly, what you can detect is not necessarily unhealthy for you and removing the contaminants from water is costly.

Most people want them removed but don’t want to pay for it. And this is the narrative you could almost copy and paste onto any water quality story that’s happening right now.

"There’s a whole change of institutions and management every one of these cities is going to have to go through if they plan to remain inhabitable in the next 150 or 200 years."
David Zetland, water policy expert

You study water policy throughout the world. How much is this a uniquely American problem vs. something other places are also struggling with?

I wouldn’t say there’s anything unique to us. What tends to happen is people in developing countries have poor water quality from the beginning and usually are going to suffer from bacterial contaminations. They literally have a boil order on their water 365 days a year to make sure it doesn’t kill them. With different building codes in different countries, the lead pipe issue might predate water systems in their countries, so they won’t be exposed.

There is a very significant difference between the U.S. and a lot of European countries. I live in the Netherlands where the infrastructure is 150 percent intact. They over-maintain the network. That’s the problem Flint would like to have. And I think one of the reasons this shows up in the Netherlands is they’ve been crazy about water since forever, otherwise we’d be washed away.

But a more interesting way to talk about it is the question of how many renewal cycles your city has gone through. Many water systems in the U.S. are still on their first infrastructure. If you look at cities like Phoenix or others that have grown recently, they put in the pipes in 1900 or 1950 and haven’t gone through the whole 50-100 year cycle, so they’re not used to renewal. Other systems are past the first cycle.

Are there some American water systems that are approaching this in a more effective way?

[Washington] D.C. is a place where they had a system in very bad condition. Their new manager [George Hawkins] basically said, “You’re going to have to pay more for water and we’re going to do everything we have to do. Sorry, the water bill is going up.” And the likelihood of a Flint disaster is going to be lower. Some of these cities have gotten used to the idea that we have to renew the system and are on system 1.5 or 2.5. The Dutch might be on their fourth renewal. They have the technology in place to inspect pipes, crews that are used to doing this and the building permits to make it happen. There’s a whole change of institutions and management that every one of these cities is going to have to go through if they plan to remain inhabitable in the next 150 or 200 years.

This is an urgent issue but many Americans are still unaware or uninterested. How do you make them care? How do you make water sexy?

The main thing is that these water managers and water professionals are sometimes doing a great job and sometimes not and it’s not obvious to the water consumers what’s going on. I’m a big fan of benchmarking the water utilities against each other. A lot of them don’t want to be compared to each other, but that’s something regulators can order and we know how to do it. There’s a World Bank initiative called IBNET that does benchmark utilities around the world, but most U.S. utilities are not in that database.

I’m also a big fan of water quality testing at the tap. What you have going on right now in the U.S. is people are basically either too afraid to ask the question of “Should I be drinking my water?” so they're drinking it or showering with it or, instead, they’re buying bottled water because they don’t trust their tap water. If I was going to address that head on, I would say the utility should have a program that’s maybe subsidized and maybe randomized that would not only test tap water at peoples’ taps, but publish those results and geocode it on the web. Then you could go on Google Maps and, say, 14 houses within one block of your house were tested for water quality and 12 of 14 passed all the standards. It’d be like having maps for sex offenders. We need a drinking water quality test failure map or success map.

Obviously, that costs money, but I would pay money to do that. And at a certain point, 1 house tested per 50, the data starts to get pretty good and that information allows people to trust the system.

So it all comes back to money -- why is it such a challenge to shore up the funding to make improvements that are essential? 

Water pricing is very politicized even though the water itself is a very obvious commodity that should be delivered through a good quality system. It’s necessary for a sufficient level of civilization, and you can’t be a developed and civilized country without it.

But both public and private water providers are regulated either by the other city employees -- which creates a conflict of interest -- or a statutory regulator, and they’re all under pressure to keep prices down. A politician can’t allow a price increase, so they put downward pressure on water prices since they can’t do that on cable bills or hot dog prices or Super Bowl tickets. Everyone thinks they’re a hero until that pressure results in no water at all. And usually those politicians are retired by then.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email

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#IdeasDay Was Our Great Idea, Celebrate by Sharing Yours!

Thu, 2016-02-11 08:43
Three years ago, Chicago Ideas had epiphany. With holidays for saints, parents, pizza and meteorologically-gifted groundhogs, somehow no one had dedicated a day to ideas. A light bulb lit up and we celebrated the first Ideas Day on Thomas Edison's February 11 birthday.

Although Congress hasn't made it official yet and no one's getting the day off, we're spending the day celebrating the sharing of ideas by connecting the curious thinkers everywhere and our past speakers with lively Twitter chats and social sharing. We're inviting everyone to join the festivities using the #IdeasDay hashtag on social media to share favorite Chicago Ideas videos, engage in lively Twitter Q&As and to share their own bright ideas with us.

Hosting chats for Ideas Day 2016 are three exceptional thinkers, united in their passion for innovation and belief in giving back. We're kicking off the festivities by sharing three videos featuring our Ideas Day Twitter chat co-hosts.

Kay Koplovitz: Nothing but Possibility from Chicago Ideas Week on Vimeo.

Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Networks and the ScyFy Channel, co-hosts the #IdeasDay Twitter chat: Entrepreneurship without Limits: Does Curiosity Create Success? 10-11am CST. Last October, Koplovitz she shared her infectious entrepreneurial spirit and inspired audience at her Chicago Ideas Week Talk.

Food as Medicine from Chicago Ideas Week on Vimeo.

Three-time James Beard Foundation Award-winner and founder and CEO of Wholesome Wave, Michel Nischan, co-hosts the Twitter chat: Affordable Produce for Public Health 1-2pm CST. Last year, he brought his innovative ideas to the table at our food focused Conversation.

Nancy Lublin & Patty Morrissey: Saving Lives, One Text at a Time from Chicago Ideas Week on Vimeo.

Crisis Text Line has revolutionized crisis-intervention through their life-saving 24/7 text hotline. This Ideas Day, they co-host the Twitter chat: Using Tech to Improve Crisis-Intervention for the Deaf Community 3-4pm CST. Watch Crisis Text Line's CEO, Nancy Lublin, in her unforgettable Talk.

Happy birthday to Mr. Edison! Happy Ideas Day to us!

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Top 10 Most Common Crimes Committed By Illinois' Inmates

Wed, 2016-02-10 10:35

The Illinois Department of Corrections houses more than 45,000 inmates in 25 correctional facilities throughout the state.

In Illinois, felonies, except for first-degree murder, are designated by class, ranging from Class 1 to Class 4 and Class X felonies, with the latter being the most serious. Those serving sentences for Class X felonies account for 25.4 percent of the state's prison population, according to the department of correction's most recent annual report.

Offenses are broken down into 28 broad categories, including robbery, burglary, homicide, weapons and assaultive. Using the latest available statistics, the 10 crimes listed below are the most common in the state's correctional system. We also have included the number of offenders who are imprisoned for those crimes and a brief explanation of the offense category from and

10. Robbery

Many states define robbery as theft/larceny of property or money through the offender's use of physical force or fear against a victim. Where a deadly weapon such as a gun is used or the victim suffers injury, the robbery may be charged as "armed" or "aggravated." Unlike burglary, the crime of robbery almost always requires the presence of a victim who suffers actual injury or is threatened with harm.

Number: 1,616

Percent: 3.3%

9. DUI

The threshold for driving under the influence of alcohol in illinois is a blood alcohol content of .08 percent. Despite widespread ad campaigns warning of the dangers and legal penalties for drunken driving, it remains one of the most common violations in Illinois.

Number: 1,651

Percent: 3.4%

8. Residential Burglary

Illinois law defines residential burglary when a person "knowingly and without authority enters or knowingly and without authority remains within the dwelling place of another, or any part thereof, with the intent to commit therein a felony or theft."

Number: 2,110

Percent: 4.3%

7. Armed Robbery

Many states define robbery as theft/larceny of property or money through the offender's use of physical force or fear against a victim. Where a deadly weapon such as a gun is used or the victim suffers injury, the robbery may be charged as "armed" or "aggravated." Unlike burglary, the crime of robbery almost always requires the presence of a victim who suffers actual injury, or is threatened with harm.

Number: 2,754

Percent: 5.6%

6. Burglary

Burglary is typically defined as the unlawful entry into almost any structure (not just a home or business) with the intent to commit any crime inside (not just theft/larceny). No physical breaking and entering is required; the offender may simply trespass through an open door. Unlike robbery, which involves use of force or fear to obtain another person's property, there is usually no victim present during a burglary.

Number: 2,865

Percent: 5.9%

You can see the Top 5 most common crimes committed by the state's inmates at

NEXT ARTICLE: How dependent is Illinois on the gun industry?

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Existence of Illinois Public Colleges at Stake, Warns Moody's

Wed, 2016-02-10 10:15

Reports from credit ratings agencies on local governments don't normally make for thrilling reading, but a Feb. 5 report from Moody's Investors Service on Illinois' public colleges has the makings of a real-life cliffhanger.

Though it contains the standard jargon you expect in a Moody's publication, the new report is noteworthy because it forecasts trouble not just for Illinois' public universities' finances in the short-term, but for their very existence going forward:

Beyond the current financial challenges, the state budget crisis will have negative longer term effects on Illinois pubic universities' credit quality, impairing reputation and competitiveness as students make enrollment decisions. Several public universities were already confronting enrollment declines based purely on lower numbers of graduating Illinois high school students. These declines will be exacerbated as some students increasingly consider more financially stable universities, either private colleges in state or alternative out of state options.

The Moody's report arrived just after Chicago State University last week declared a state of financial emergency, which will allow it to take extraordinary cost-saving measures like laying off tenured faculty. Chicago State, which has 4,500 students, earlier had warned that it would have to close, possibly next month, because the state budget impasse has left it with no state funding since July 1.

It was the kind of move ratings agencies usually love because it means an entity is getting serious about fixing its finances and meeting its credit obligations. But Moody's sees no such silver lining here. As long as the state budget standoff starves public colleges of state funding, the pressure that forced Chicago State's emergency declaration will only increase and, inevitably, spread to other schools. From the report:

The longer the budget crisis continues, the greater the likelihood that additional Illinois public universities will declare financial exigency to address costs.

All of which comes back to the damage, mentioned in the earlier quote, to the universities' "reputation and competitiveness"as prospective students weigh their college options.

Also damaging on that front, Moody's notes, is a Feb. 4 letter from the Higher Learning Commission, the regional accrediting agency for Illinois public universities, to Gov. Bruce Rauner and members of the General Assembly...

Continue reading on

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A Museum Recreated Van Gogh's Bedroom And Now You Can Rent It On Airbnb

Wed, 2016-02-10 09:58

Looking for an Airbnb to rent in the Chicago area? Great. Ignore all those spacious one-bedrooms on the shores of Lake Michigan and head straight for this beauty: a full-size recreation of Vincent van Gogh’s painting "The Bedroom."

Yes, that's right. You can live out your art history dreams and fall asleep atop van Gogh's golden bed frame, set against iconic powder blue walls. The lonely towel, the wobbly chairs, the vaguely green-streaked wood floors -- it's all there! And we have the Art Institute of Chicago to thank for what is undoubtedly one of the most highbrow Airbnb rentals out there.

The very real listing -- I cannot emphasize this enough, YOU CAN STAY IN VAN GOGH'S ROOM -- is meant to stir up excitement for the museum's exhibition “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” which showcases three paintings of domestic spaces completed by van Gogh between 1888 and 1889. It'll be the first time the trio of paintings have appeared together in North America. The museum gives a tease of the show on its website:

Van Gogh painted his first Bedroom just after moving into his beloved “Yellow House” in Arles, France, in 1888. He was so enamored with the work, now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, that after water damage threatened its stability, he became determined to preserve the composition by painting a second version while at an asylum in Saint-Rémy in 1889. Identical in scale and yet distinct from the original, that second work is now one of the icons of the Art Institute’s permanent collection. Van Gogh created a smaller third version, now at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, as a gift for his mother and sister a few weeks after making the second. While the three paintings at first appear almost identical, when examined closely, each reveals distinct and unique details.

The Airbnb bedroom is mean to mimic the piece of van Gogh’s Yellow House we're most familiar with. It's located in a larger apartment on the museum's campus in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. The host is listed on the website as Vincent, which is adorable. "I'm charging $10 for no other reason than that I need to buy paint," the listing reads. "However, I will be happy to provide you with tickets to my exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago."

A one-night stay (it accommodates two people) will only cost you $14 total, so expect the dates to fill up fast. 

And don't forget to stop by "Van Gogh's Bedrooms" and see the entire collection of 36 works on view until May 10, 2016. Bonus: here are some of van Gogh's best self-portraits to get you in the mood.

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With No State Budget, Community Mental Health in Crisis

Tue, 2016-02-09 13:35
Co-authored by Ann Fisher Raney, AM, LCSW, chief executive officer at Turning Point, Skokie, IL and Mona Shattell, PhD, RN, FAAN, member of the Board of Directors at Turning Point; and professor and chairperson of the department of community, systems, and mental health nursing at Rush University, Chicago, IL.

No one disputes the danger of texting while driving. In a very short time, we've grasped the undeniable truth of this claim.

Here's another claim, equally true and equally undeniable: quality behavioral health care (mental health and substance abuse services), especially for low-income individuals and families, is in a state of crisis so dire that we may be on the brink of catastrophe. Without an Illinois State budget to fund community mental health grants, with managed care plans that restrict sessions of care for those with severe mental illness (many of whom depend upon their long-established relationships with providers), and with the dramatically decreased access to care created by losses of funding, the health and stability of our community is in jeopardy. Several days ago, Lutheran Social Services announced a decision to lay off 750 staff, directly because of the lack of State funding, seriously weakening one of the very strong members of our provider community.

For example, our agency's award-winning psychiatric respite program, The Living Room, has lost one hundred percent of its State funding. Since its inception in 2011, The Living Room has saved the State of Illinois more than $2,000,000 by deflecting persons who would otherwise go to emergency departments to our most cost effective and hospitable alternative. Our success rate is 98 percent. Not funding The Living Room and other programs like it results in higher costs. It's as simple as that. We know the inestimable value of the program, so we are scrambling to save it. This is an exceptionally difficult burden for an organization already stretching to follow its mission to serve our low income clients.

What will it take to convince the legislators and other decision-makers that this is a true and dangerous reality? That this is intolerable.

Community mental health rests on the capacity of all citizens to access and utilize treatment that allows them to live full and productive lives. When this happens, adults are able to work, to vote, to care for their families, send children to school, and participate in the civic lives of their communities. When access to care is limited, serious harm results that begins with the individual in need. If individual suffering isn't enough (although we believe that it is), lawmakers should know and remember that untreated emotional distress and mental illness can quickly escalate to criminal acts and dangerous behaviors.

Without a State budget, behavioral health services can't be provided and needs cannot be met. Providers and clients in community-based settings see this clearly. What will it take to convince members of our broader communities, including the IL State governor and other lawmakers?

How do we articulate these concerns so that funding can be restored? It's a sad yet indisputable fact that individuals who benefit from State-funded behavioral health care have very little influence when most budget conversations take place. Their lack of socioeconomic power, coupled with the stigma of mental illness, creates a deafening and dreadful silence.

Community mental health is in serious trouble. Many state agencies have closed because they cannot afford to continue to operate without State funding for programs that serve low-income clients. Other agencies are restricting services, not taking new clients, laying off staff, shuttering satellite locations, as our colleagues at Lutheran Social Services have been forced to do. Because there are fewer and fewer agencies and services, those that remain are inundated with requests for care that often come from people at high risk for suicide, homicide, and homelessness who deserve immediate, life-saving care.

The lack of basic funding for essential services has created a catastrophe for the citizens of Illinois. It is not just those of us who have lost services who are suffering; it is also the families, the employers, the schools and churches and wider communities. The fabric of our community is being torn apart because we are not supporting those with fewest resources and, often, greatest need.

Texting while driving may result in death. We understand this and most of us grasp it well enough to curtail our own behavior. Lack of funding for behavioral health is equally perilous.

We must see these realities clearly. There is still time to restore at least a measure of life-saving services that will allow all of our citizens to access expert care that can result in lives of recovery, enriching the health of all of our communities.

It's not too late. But we don't have time to waste.

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Report: Illinois Ended 2015 With a Shrinking Economy

Tue, 2016-02-09 10:05
While most states capped off last year with growing economies, Illinois was one of seven that likely had its economy shrink during the last quarter of 2015, according to an analysis of the latest employment data.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia identifies trends and summarizes economic conditions in each state by combining four indicators -- nonfarm payroll employment, average hours worked in manufacturing, the unemployment rate, and wage and salary disbursements deflated by the Consumer Price Index -- into a single statistic called the state coincident index.

From the Philadelphia Fed on its state coincident index:

The trend for each state's index is set to the trend of its gross domestic product (GDP), so long-term growth in the state's index matches long-term growth in its GDP... The model and the input variables are consistent across the 50 states, so the state indexes are comparable to one another.

Here's a map that shows the percent change in the fourth quarter state coincident index over the previous quarter.

States colored green have economies that are growing; states shown in pink or red have economies that are shrinking. The darker the shade, the higher the growth or contraction in that state's economy.

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How Obama, Rauner and Madigan Have More In Common Than You Think

Tue, 2016-02-09 09:24
Column by Reboot Illinois' Madeleine Doubek

President Obama, Gov. Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan. Three peas in a pod. Don't snort. They have more in common than you might realize.

Obama returns home to Springfield Wednesday, nine years to the day he launched his White House bid from the steps of the Old State Capitol. In the current state Capitol, where little progress ever is made anymore, he will speak to Illinois lawmakers about "what we can do, together, to build a better politics - one that reflects our better selves," according to the White House.

If he can somehow manage to prompt Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael J. Madigan to kiss and make up, or just shake and compromise, well then, he'll have succeeded where he failed himself in Washington, D.C.

After years of failing to get a Tea Party-controlled Congress to deal with him on many things, Obama shifted his approach and began issuing executive orders whenever he thought he could to get around Congress. Rauner seems to be following a bit in Obama's footsteps.

Last week, Rauner issued an executive order creating a public-private corporation called the Illinois Business and Economic Development Corporation, a private, non-profit body that will attempt to attract new jobs and business here. A few weeks earlier, Rauner signed an executive order creating, of all things, a new bureaucracy, the Department of Innovation and Technology. He said that department will revamp and update the state's dinosaur-era information technology department.

Rauner also isn't letting his budget impasse with Madigan stop him from suggesting the state should take over Chicago Public Schools, or get going on a pension compromise framework long offered by Illinois Senate President John Cullerton.

Like Obama, Rauner wants to appear active, engaged and getting things done, despite his failed relationship with majority lawmakers in the opposing party. So, this year, he's taken to near daily press conferences to announce orders or plans for legislation on non-budget topics.

Obama's visit here, though, could serve only to emphasize, for both Illinois and a national audience, just how stuck both he and Rauner have been.

Give the president credit, at least, for being willing to admit one of his failings and regrets. In his final State of the Union address, Obama said, "Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn't matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now. It's one of the few regrets of my presidency -- that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better."

Too many Illinoisans feel that way right now. Madigan has too much power. Rauner has too much money. Rauner and Madigan both are operating in much the same way, as obstinate dictators who demand their parties' independence be stifled and checked at the Capitol doors as they play for controlling power in the next election without regard for who or what falls by the wayside in the eight months without a budget.

"Instead of having a patronage army, he's got a fistful of wire transfers, or a big bank account," Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said of Rauner. "The leverage is different, but the goal is the same, to override the natural checks and balances built into our system.

"I don't think exchanging a legislator who's a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mike Madigan for a legislator who's a wholly owned subsidiary of Bruce Rauner is improving the process," Redfield added.

Of course, Rauner and Madigan aren't entirely alike. They are, after all, each other's nemeses. Still, Rauner campaigned on being a different kind of governor, one who would shake up Springfield. Yet, he's waving his campaign funds like a hammer at any Republican who thinks of straying from the Rauner line.

That Madigan and Rauner both wield their political power in this same way might be why we don't have a budget eight months into the fiscal year.

State Rep. Sam Yingling, a Round Lake Park Democrat, sees the paralysis.

"I have personally seen how Republican members of the Legislature have become terrified of the governor and that's lending to an ongoing dysfunctionality," he said. "Democrats have to do what they think is right and go against their leadership when they think it's right and Republicans have to do what they think is right and go against their leadership when they think it's right."

Maybe Wednesday, President Obama can somehow manage to get Rauner and Madigan to quit acting so much alike. Maybe he can persuade them. Or maybe he can persuade a few legislators sitting before him to embrace independence, cooperation and compromise. Wouldn't that be something?

NEXT ARTICLE: New bill would make Obama's birthday a state holiday

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4 Pet Myths That Nearly Everyone Believes

Tue, 2016-02-09 09:17

Even the most experienced, well-intentioned pet owners can get it wrong sometimes.

According to veterinarian Barbara Royal, there are several pet-related misconceptions that far too many of us tend to believe. She calls these misguided ideas "mythconceptions," and says that there are four commonlyheld myths in particular that it's high time we bust. 

MYTH: Dry kibble chips off tartar.

Actually, the opposite is true, says Dr. Royal. "That sticks to your teeth," she explains. "It's actually making your teeth more likely to have tartar and problems."

MYTH: Animals see in black-and-white.

We've all heard this age-old adage, but it isn't accurate. "They don't see all of the colors that we see, but they can actually distinguish between colors," Dr. Royal says.

MYTH: Animals may limp to get attention.

Don't dismiss it when your animal limps, Dr. Royal says. "They are limping because there probably is something wrong," she points out. "You do need to find out what that is about."

MYTH: Animals can eat cooked bones.

"You should definitely be careful if they eat any kind of cooked bones -- they splinter in very sharp, splintery ways inside of the intestines," Dr. Royal says. "They can eat raw bones. Raw bones are great… They help clean teeth [and] they're good for mental capacity, just to chew through a nice raw bone. That can be fun."

Related: Stop feeding your pet peanut butter (and these other common treats)

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