Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas

Candidate for City Council, 44th Ward

Mark Thomas

Candidate for City Council, 44th Ward

Portrait of Mark Thomas

Education: Holy Name Cathedral High School Kendall College (degree incomplete)

Occupation: Entrepreneur

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered

Website: http://www.voteformarkthomas.org

Candidates running for City Council, 44th Ward


Responses to the Chicago Tribune's questionnaire

Q: Last year, the Chicago Tribune's investigative series "Broken Bonds" reported that, since 2000, Chicago had issued long-term bonds to spend nearly $10 billion, much of it for short-term operating expenses. Hundreds of millions of dollars went to delay bond payments by refinancing old debts, a tactic known as "scoop and toss" that extends payments far into the future. Was this borrowing justified? Going forward, how should City Hall change its finances to pay down existing debts and provide services? Will you argue primarily for cuts in spending or for tax increases? Please be specific.

Chicago's bond borrowing and spending on short-term expenses does not solve the lasting financial woes of the city. Taxable bonds allow the city more flexibility in spending but, as the Tribune has reported, that flexibility has often been abused for short-term material expenditures that may even be considered frivolous. Sometimes it is necessary to borrow against the future to cover crucial short-term expenses, but this tactic must be carefully considered and used only as a last resort. It always results in future generations paying a higher cost for present expenditures. We must avoid cutting public services that impact the most vulnerable in the city and decrease our overall economic stability and quality of life. The 44th Ward, for example, has already lost more police officers than any other region in the city. However, we do face a fiscal challenge in Chicago and need to investigate different routes to increase our revenue. These options may include reducing spending by becoming a more efficient municipal government, growing more efficient at collecting existing taxes and fees, and carefully expanding the tax base. As a small business owner who is actively involved in several local chambers of commerce I am intimately familiar with the challenges that come from raising taxes. Yet budget cuts and reduced spending alone cannot solve our fiscal problems. We are forced to find new revenue models to solve our fiscal problems, which will likely include new taxes. We can also generate new revenue by implementing an aggressive plan to attract greater tourism to our city. We have many resources and world-class attractions at our disposal, and an increase in tourism will result in more money for the city budget.


Q: Chicago will face a substantial increase in contributions to its police and fire pension funds in 2016. Chicago's unfunded pension liability amounts to about $7,000 for each resident of the city. How should the city solve its pension crisis? Please be specific about pension changes, spending cuts or revenue increases you would support.

I believe that we made a promise to city workers when we said that we would fund their pensions. Cutting the pensions of city employees is unconstitutional, and as a city we need to find revenue to fulfill the obligations we have made to city workers and return pension funding levels to the amount specified by law. This is both ethical and financially smart. We have taken steps to restore funding to two of the pension funds—in the coming year we should do the same for police and fire. Pensions are an investment in our future, unlike some of the bonds we have taken out to pay short-term costs and cover budget shortfalls. To make sure we make the balloon payments, I believe bonds may be used, so long as there is a definite revenue source to pay them down and we are not stuck in a similar process of refinancing just to pay our bills later. There are considerable funds in the TIF program that are not being used for their intended purpose of development and can be released to pay down these bonds.


Q: What changes should be made in the city's use of tax increment financing? Would you support expansion or extension of TIF districts in your ward? How should excess TIF funds be spent? Do you support the $55 million allotment of TIF funds to buy land for a Marriott Hotel and DePaul basketball arena? Please explain.

Having served on the board of a Special Service Area, I have insight into city funding used for development. Tax Increment Financing helps small businesses make improvements that they would not have been able to make otherwise. It also aids in attracting large businesses to the neighborhood. If used appropriately TIF districts can be an excellent tool for encouraging economic growth in a blighted neighborhood. However, TIFs are often misused and exploited. The definition of "blighted" has been expanded beyond recognition. It is time to evaluate whether the program is being used effectively, or whether much needed revenue is being diverted for private and political gain. Excess or unnecessary TIF funds should be used to generate new revenue to help fund our pension system and public education whenever possible. Additionally, I am not supportive of TIF funds to support the Marriott Hotel or DePaul basketball arena. I am not convinced that these projects serve enough public benefit to warrant such a large expenditure of public money. Given the current fiscal woes that we face, I do not believe that we can afford to provide public funds for a private university, and that this is outside the intention of subsidized development.


Q: The Tribune Editorial Board recently offered "12 ways to heal a city" — the best ideas among more than 1,000 suggestions from readers on how to craft "A new Plan of Chicago." These proposals are available at chicagotribune.com/plan. Please tell us which ideas you would champion. We invite you to offer additional ideas for dealing with Chicago's challenges.

I believe in building a community that is safe, transparent, and economically viable. The idea "Schools as Tools," makes use of buildings and community centers that are already in existence. In many communities, including the 44th Ward, schools are a central gathering place for residents. Closing them had a profoundly detrimental effect on not only students at the schools, but also the community at large. Repurposing these closed buildings could bring some life back into the community through a variety of community and civic programs, and have the added effect of reducing neighborhood blight and city maintenance expenses. I envision schools as a central place for direct democracy and meetings, as well as education alternatives, including vocational training and mentoring and apprenticeship programs. As a small business owner who has employed thousands of people over the span of decades in business, I am also very concerned about employment. High employment rates support the economic stability of a community—and they also help drive down crime. "Kids and Careers" is an idea that makes sense and pays dividends. A lack of career opportunities, or the awareness of existing opportunities, frequently results in increased crime rates. The Tribune has found that employment programs can decrease youth arrests by over 50%, and another study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab suggests that summer jobs can decrease youth crime by as much as 43% long after the individual leaves the program. This is a program that our local Chambers of Commerce can quickly embrace and utilize to great benefit by placing young workers with local businesses. Not only do these new workers have a source of income that keeps them occupied and off the street, but this program would also help build an appreciation of the community they live in and keep jobs local.


Q: Should the City Council keep or abolish the office of legislative inspector general? Should the city inspector general be given the authority to investigate aldermen and their staff members? Do you have other ideas to improve government ethics in Chicago? Please explain.

A strong Inspector General is important to oversight and accountability. The creation of a legislative inspector general in this case was intended to detract from the powers of Inspector General Joe Ferguson. Alderman are responsible to the people they represent, and the Inspector General should be allowed to investigate them and any taxpayer funded staff on behalf of the public. The City Council should make the right decision and provide the Inspector General with the resources to do his job. Another strategy to improve government ethics in Chicago is to increase citizen participation. Accountability is promoted by scrutiny from the ground up. Programs like participatory budgeting give citizens the power to have a greater say in how their government is managed, and how their tax dollars are spent. This improves transparency and accountability, and the increased civic engagement can have benefits beyond the narrow confines of the program.


Q: The Chicago Public Schools system has seen significant improvements in freshmen on track and high school graduation rates. CPS has also closed dozens of schools, used fiscal 2016 revenue to balance its 2015 budget and faces a roughly $700 million pension payment in 2016. Please give us your assessment of the academic and financial performance of the city's public schools. What is the key to improving public education in the city? Should members of the Board of Education be elected by the public or continue to be appointed by the mayor? Do you support the longer school day and year? Should CPS expand or reduce the number of charter schools? How should CPS close its significant budget gap?

Fully funding our public schools is critical to continued improvement in Chicago education. It is unrealistic to expect students to succeed in an environment where they do not receive the up-to-date textbooks or school supplies necessary for their education; or, in some cases, even basic amenities like air conditioning. On a similar note, closing additional schools is simply not an option. Not only do closed schools still drain public funds, but many of the remaining schools are dangerously close to being overcrowded. This is not an environment that encourages academic success. My daughter is a CPS teacher, making this an issue that is very close to my heart. Unfortunately Chicago is facing a severe budget crisis that will necessitate making some hard decisions if we are to provide the public services our constituents expect of us. There are two immediate ways we can increase funding for our public schools: first by using excess TIF funds whenever possible, and second by recuperating the money that Chicago lost in the toxic interest-rate swap deals. We have lost considerable revenue to bad city deals, and we should investigate and re-negotiate these where possible. Furthermore, the School Board should be at least partially elected, if not completely. The citizens of Chicago have a right to participate in the decisions made about public education. This will increase transparency and accountability at Chicago Public Schools, and help ensure that future decisions are made with the best interests of the public in mind. Charter school expansion is another complicated issue in Chicago. Like TIF districts, charter schools can be beneficial for a community if they are applied in a responsible manner. They promote educational innovation and act as testing grounds for new pedagogical methods. However, they are also often used to privatize a public asset—our schools—and as a way to break the Chicago Teachers Union. I will consider charter school expansion on a case-by-case basis to determine if the new school is beneficial to the community, or if the need is already being met by an existing public school.


Q: How would you attract more employers to your ward? How would you encourage employers to hire local residents? What have you done to promote economic development in your ward?

Fostering economic development and building sustainable communities has been a key goal of mine for many years. As the Executive Director of the Kedzie Elston Business Industrial Council, I worked to expand industrial, retail and commercial businesses in my community by mentoring new business owners, securing infrastructure improvements, and mediating between the business community and the Chicago municipal government. One of my signature accomplishments was the passage of the Live/Work ordinance, which had the impact of helping startup businesses reduce costs while increasing revenue for the city. I also serve on several local Chambers of Commerce, was a founding member of the Central Lakeview Merchants Association, and am on the board of Local First Chicago, a nonprofit that advocates supporting local businesses over big box retailers. Small local businesses leave more money in the community and are responsible for 60% of the jobs in America. As Alderman, I will work with the residents of my ward on the development of a "One Lakeview" plan laying out the next 5-10 years of community development. We should move towards more coordination between our Chambers of Commerce to promote the community, and pool SSA and local business resources for the greater good of the ward. The combined business association can more effectively create strategies to attract tourist money in the community.


Q: Do you support or oppose the City Council vote to increase the minimum wage in several steps to $13 an hour by 2019? Please explain.

Although I have reservations about the specific language of the ordinance that was passed, I strongly support raising the minimum wage. One of the most pressing problems we face today is a widespread lack of quality middle class jobs. Low-wage entry level jobs were never meant to support entire families, yet today they often do. It was necessary to raise the wage to improve the living standards of thousands of Chicago residents, but we also need to look toward creating good paying jobs to find a sustainable solution to the problem. I am concerned about the specifics of this ordinance, however. Raising the minimum wage across the board will have a detrimental impact on small businesses, which are already struggling to survive in the slow economic recovery. I believe that the ordinance should have raised the wages of workers at companies that earn $50 million or more in profit each year before raising the wages at small businesses. This would allow more money to enter the local economy, boosting business profits and providing the cushion that the smaller companies need before their wages are also increased. But, ultimately I am glad that the City Council passed the ordinance to raise the wages.


Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.

I am excited about the benefits of building the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art on the Northside of Chicago. Many stores on the Northside are empty, and we have lost some of our draw to the strength of Millennium Park, Navy Pier and Michigan Avenue. A large tourist attraction like the Lucas Museum would allow us to draw larger crowds to patronize local businesses, having a positive effect on the local community. It is actually in the interest of tourism that I would encourage developers to build this attraction inland. Chicago's lakefront is already an unparalleled attraction. Building this museum further inland would help spread out the economic benefit and encourage growth in new regions of the city. It is worth noting the significant public outcry against this project. Although I personally encourage it, I believe that this is an example of a project that the residents of the community should be allowed to weigh in on. I have seen preferential treatment given to many development projects in my neighborhood, despite community objections, and believe it is time to change this practice. As alderman, I would encourage such a significant project decision to be passed to a referendum that includes residents that would be affected by it.


Q: How can the city improve public safety? Please address the role and performance of the Chicago Police Department and the role of neighborhood residents in crime prevention. What have you done to improve public safety in your community?

A safe community is part police, part educated residents, and part active elected officials. All of these groups must be commitment to safety. While Lakeview is a relatively safe community, crime is an increasingly relevant issue in recent years due to the loss of 135 police officers who have retired or been transferred to other parts of the city. Due to budget cuts these positions remain unfilled, despite the clear public sentiment that the ward needs more police officers. I am committed to restoring funding levels to the police department to increase police presence, and working with my local police commander to find alternative solutions to the lack of resources and manpower in the neighborhood. For example, in the 1980s I worked with the local commander to create an inventive program that used private investment to hire off-duty officers to provide extra security for the Belmont and Clark area. This unconventional project had a direct impact on crime and public safety in the region. As alderman, I will be personally involved in ensuring that our community remains a safe and secure place to live.


Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.

I am disturbed by the allegations that the program has been more about money than safety. This is a violation of voters' trust. We should demand higher accountability from the private contractor that operates the red light program, and conduct a full audit. If there are technical faults related to the private contractor, the company should reimburse the city. There is strong opposition by neighborhood residents to the program, and pending the results of an investigation I would support repealing the Red Light program.


Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?

I have been working in the Lakeview for over 30 years to promote business and the community. It is important that Alderman have the resources to respond to residents. One of the major concerns I heard when I created a community forum to help residents debate issues that affected them and propose solutions was that they felt like their voice was going unheard. Our community has seen critical cuts in police manpower that have led to higher levels crime, and development decision that many community members oppose but went forward anyway. I am worried that reducing the number of alderman could negatively impact ward administration and services further. However, there is the opportunity to save money. I would ask the community to review services and help make this important decision.


Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?

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, and we need to take steps to correct it. High crime deters business from setting up shop in the ward and takes its toll on our future plan for economic development.


Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.

I have a long history in business. I launched my first company when I was 17 years old, and I have created over 30 more businesses in the years since. I am most famous for owning The Alley Stores on the corner of Belmont and Clark in Lakeview, but I also own the Art Colony, a jewelry crafting facility, a small printing company, and several other small businesses. My father and I created a home healthcare nonprofit in Indiana, which gave me an appreciation of public service that has stayed with me ever since.