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Latest micro-grant plans show Chicago councilors are exploring more private security and, in one case, funding for Catholic schools

The $100,000 sweetener that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot offered every city councilor under her 2022 budget — to spend with ample leeway in their wards — has so far sparked plans ranging from after-school programs for youth to more private security patrols.

In the 45th Ward on the Far Northwest Side, up to half of that scholarship could go to private Catholic elementary schools. ald. Jim Gardiner filed two applications indicating he wanted to use the city funds to support Trinity’s St. Constance and St. Elizabeth schools, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act petition.

The mayor’s $5 million “micro-grant fund” across its 50 departments was billed as a flexible “tool” to tailor public investment in a diverse city to the needs of individual communities. Lightfoot often brags that it doesn’t buy votes, but the program was also seen as a bargaining chip for councilor support for the $16.7 billion budget that was eventually passed.

“You know this, that a good councilor has the heartbeat of the ward, knows residents’ pain points, and we want to further equip each of you with the tools to help meet the needs of your residents,” Lightfoot said at the unveiling of its 2022 budget plan a year ago.

The mayor will unveil her 2023 budget plan Monday and, heading into her reelection year with an already crowded field of opponents, Lightfoot announced a different kind of sweetener last week: She won’t ask for a property tax hike to fund it. It is unclear whether alderman micro-subsidy will be extended.

Gardiner’s office listed St. Constance School, in the Jefferson Park neighborhood, as an expected recipient of up to $25,000 of his district’s microgrant by 2022, according to a city document. He wrote that the money would go towards the maintenance of the school’s comprehensive daycare program, including the cost of extracurricular and tutoring supplies, and cited pressure on local parents to find childcare facilities.

“This will ensure the well-being of Department 45 by ensuring that the program remains in place and maintains the highest optimum level of quality that the children of this Department deserve,” Gardiner’s office wrote in the proposal submission application.

Gardiner and St. Constance administrators did not respond to questions about the daycare program, including whether children must be enrolled in the school to qualify.

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Gardiner also indicated that he wants to donate up to $25,000 to another private Catholic school, St. Elizabeth in Gladstone Park, to run a recycling program. His office described an initiative where students would meet to learn about recycling, go on a field trip to a recycling center, help recycle at school, and plant trees, shrubs, or flowers nearby.

ald.  Jim Gardiner, 45th, attends a Chicago city council meeting on May 29, 2019.

“This would be a program that would not only benefit St. Elizabeth’s staff and students, but the community as a whole can learn from the students and see the beautification of Ward 45,” Gardiner’s office wrote.

Gardiner also plans to spend up to $25,000 each on food pantry and counseling programs, respectively, according to city documents.

Earlier this year, 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea decided to use his micro grant to support the hiring of unarmed private security guards to patrol corporate corridors in Beverly, Mount Greenwood and Morgan Park. Since then, at least two additional councilors have expressed an interest in the same idea.

In the 4th ward, Ald. Sophia King, who is running for mayor, indicated in a city document that she hopes to sign a $50,000 contract with Halo Security Group to provide foot and vehicle patrols in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood Thursday through Sunday.

“Over the past two years, the Grand Boulevard area … has seen an increase in violent crime,” King’s office wrote. “Given the limited capacity of our various security stakeholders such as the 2nd District of the Chicago Police Department and the private security contractors of the Chicago Housing Authority, we wanted to provide additional support to mitigate these public safety concerns.”

ald.  Sophia King talks to Mayor Lori Lightfoot during a city council meeting at City Hall on Feb. 23, 2022.

A Halo Security Group representative who declined to share her name said the company has both armed and unarmed security guards but that it “does not intend” to send armed patrols for King’s program.

Asked about the patrols, King sent out a statement characterizing the guards as “unarmed ‘ambassadors’”, modeled on the University of Chicago’s own private security program in Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods, to “patrol the streets for an additional few eyes. “

Center Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42, echoed a similar concern that police resources were not enough. He filed a plan indicating that he would work with the Magnificent Mile Association to allocate $50,000 to “add on to safety programs, especially safety patrol services.”

“Large group activities downtown often start as loud dance parties on the sidewalk and quickly escalate into violent fighting and shootings,” Reilly’s office wrote in the city document. “While the Chicago 1st and 18th District Police Department is doing an exemplary job, the allocation of nighttime police resources is not enough to curb this activity in our tourism and hospitality districts.”

Many stores along the Magnificent Mile hire their own private security, and the Chicago Loop Alliance — an organization of downtown businesses — also hires unarmed security patrols.

The Magnificent Mile Association, the intended recipient of Reilly’s microgrant, is conducting an unarmed ambassador program along the business corridor and soliciting bids for off-duty police patrols, CEO Kimberly Bares said. Proposals for the latter include both armed and unarmed guards, she said.

In a statement, Reilly said the association and his office are “still working out details” about the scope of the microgrant program and whether the guards will be armed. But he indicated that the goal was to protect the Magnificent Mile corridor.

While the Lightfoot administration must approve the microgrant contracts, it has spoken out against at least one of its uses: private security. At an unrelated press conference in late August, the mayor expressed “great concern” about the concept.

“I don’t know enough details about what Councilor O’Shea has done, but it’s not an answer, especially if you don’t act in concert with the police, because the only people authorized by state law to patrol our streets are Chicago cops,” said Lightfoot. “Nobody else.”

O’Shea previously told residents that the program — designed to “provide a visible security presence and extra eyes and ears in the community” — was developed with input from the Chicago Police Department, security experts and industry.

Other notable planned uses of the $100,000 microgrants include:

  • $2,500 from 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale goes shopping in Roseland to create a “peace bloc” along the business aisle with a curbside sale
  • $10,000 from 10th Ward Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza to fund neighborhood news
  • Sixteen scholarships of at least $6,000 from 13th Ward Ald. Marty Quinn for each public school in his district to spend on mentoring, after-school programming, arts and extracurricular activities
  • Up to $50,000 from 33rd Ward Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez to HANA Center for a monetary assistance program for families with members living in the country without legal authorization
  • $50,000 from 36th Ward Ald. Gilbert Villegas gives up to $5,000 grants and technical assistance to small businesses
  • $50,000 from the former 43rd Ald. Michele Smith to fill educational gaps in Lincoln Park High School’s enrollment area by providing “intensive” standardized test prep for approximately 190 up-and-coming juniors, especially those with lower incomes
  • $80,000 from 50th Ward Ald. Debra Silverstein supports minimum $4,000 scholarships to any school, public or private, in her district for youth enrichment programs

Gregory Pratt of Tribune contributed.

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