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The New Wall Street Racket Looting Your City, One Block at a Time

New schemes hold the public hostage to private finance.
 
 
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When Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced a “new and innovative” financing tool last month to help Chicago renovate failing infrastructure without precipitating another budget crisis, many in the city were understandably critical.

Chicagoans have already endured the notorious 75-year lease of their parking meters to a consortium headed by Morgan Stanley. That sale promulgated a system wherein the public is held hostage by private finance, due largely to the inclusion of arcane legal stipulations like “non-compete clauses” and “compensation events” in the language of the contract.

Ellen Danin, writing in the Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy relates that: “Chicagoans learned about compensation events when CBS reported that the city’s parking meter contract required reimbursement for events like repairing streets. Public records showed that in the first quarter of 2009, the city was liable to the parking meter contractor for more than $106,000 in lost income during the slow months for street repair and street closings for festivals, parades, and holidays, as well as repairs and maintenance. At that rate, it is not unreasonable to predict that Chicago will owe roughly $500,000 a year to the private contractor.”

The city essentially acts as an insurer for the meter merchants, with the return being a one-time injection of roughly a billion dollars that the previous mayor, Daley the Second, haphazardly exhausted on closing budget deficits in the waning years of his two-decade tour at the helm.

With the current infrastructure deal, Emanuel has repeatedly claimed that this is not privatization: This is not like the parking meter deal. Can the public believe him?

Here is how the “infrastructure trust” works: the city pays for upgrades to its roads, rail or schools with dollars pooled by Emanuel’s friends from the banking and investment world. Meanwhile, the city retains “ownership” of the infrastructure, though this comes at the cost of having to ensure a revenue stream for the fund. Emanuel’s favorite example is his $225 million pet project to green-retrofit some of the city’s older buildings. The savings on energy usage stemming from the renovations are then extracted and used to pay off investors. Of course, the city could also sell municipal bonds to raise necessary funds, and then use the savings in energy costs to pay the loan back at a much lower cost to taxpayers. But then Emanuel’s friends (and campaign donors) would not be the richer for it.

While the mayor bills his plan as “bold” and “innovative,” the reality could not be further from the truth. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) have been around for decades in various forms and their track record is replete with delays, cost overruns and prolonged legal battles. What’s more, the beneficiaries of these investment mechanisms are the same rapacious Morgan Stanleys and Goldman Sachs that gave us the mortgage-backed securities scandal and the ensuing recession. Using the economic malaise they created as cause, they have ratcheted up their advocacy of PPPs as a means of helping cash-starved public entities finance capital-intensive projects.

The upshot is that they are holding us hostage all over again. They are using infrastructure built over decades with public monies as collateral to extract profit off of the back of taxpayers. A cursory look at some past projects of this nature demonstrates that PPPs are often inefficient, overly costly and inherently unjust.

The London Tube Nightmare

The granddaddy of all PPP debacles is the London Underground. Metronet PPP is the brainchild of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The contract design kept London Underground in public hands while privatizing the renovation and renewal elements to the system. As with the Chicago parking meter deal, the contract was replete with virtually unintelligible legalese designed to give the private partners an advantage in court, while also rendering public scrutiny of the contract exceedingly difficult. Bureaucratic costs related to drawing up contracts with external bidders ultimately surpassed 500 million pounds.

 
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