Collateral damage: Rahm put lights, heating in city buildings on lien for project that wasted millions

A city-backed nonprofit heralded by former President Bill Clinton and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as an innovative way to fund infrastructure projects used outlandish financing methods and wasted millions of dollars in the name of energy efficiency, according to a new investigation from watchdog group Project Six.

In 2012, Emanuel established the Chicago Infrastructure Trust as a private nonprofit funded partially by city tax dollars. Its first project, “Retrofit One,” was supposed to bring in more than $200 million in private funding to make energy efficiency upgrades in more than 1,000 city-owned buildings.

Instead, the trust installed less than $10 million worth of upgrades in 60 buildings, and they used a potentially disastrous financing scheme to fund the project, according to Project Six.

Retrofit One was funded by a $13.5 million loan from Bank of America. In securing the loan, the Infrastructure Trust used all the new equipment installed under the program as collateral.

While a March 6 investigation from the Better Government Association claimed officials used mechanical systems in just eight city-owned buildings as collateral, loan documents obtained by Project Six reveal the Infrastructure Trust used 60 systems in city-owned buildings as collateral.

That included a new water chilling system for City Hall; the heating, ventilation and air condition system within Harold Washington Library; and lighting at the Chicago Cultural Center.

That means if the city was at some point not able to allocate funds toward the loan payment – not an absurd possibility given the state of city finances – the bank could walk into city buildings and repossess the systems.

Financing the upgrades in a more traditional manner – such as issuing a bond or using money from the city’s general fund – would have likely saved millions of dollars, according to Project Six. The group’s investigation also points to questionably high overhead costs for lightbulb installation and weatherstripping by private contractors, while existing city employees would have been well-equipped to do similar work.

There’s no doubt the formation of the Infrastructure Trust provided plenty of positive press for the mayor. But its flagship project – putting millions of dollars worth of city infrastructure on lien – appears to be a raw deal for residents.

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