With every cab ride to and from a Chicago airport, 25 cents of the fare goes to a tiny suburb renowned for insider dealing and outsize clout.
Those coins add up to millions a year for the suburb — Rosemont — and help fuel a political machine that thrives under Illinois' mix of lax borrowing, spending and ethics rules.
Rosemont contractors, meanwhile, keep the Stephenses powerful by pouring money into political funds controlled by the family — nearly $2 million in the last five years. The campaign cash frequently ends up with top state politicians and in the pockets of family members.
In Illinois, all of this is as legal as the tax that lawmakers levied on cab riders to aid Rosemont.
An investigation by the Chicago Tribune in conjunction with Northwestern University's Medill Watchdog has documented how Rosemont officials pay out government cash to friends and family while extending their power across Illinois. It is a story of big building and big contracts fostered by big borrowing — one that stretches back decades and continues today as Rosemont launches yet another round of taxpayer-backed expansion.
The recession has sapped Rosemont's village-run businesses, creating multimillion-dollar general fund shortfalls. Still, the suburb is digging itself deeper into debt to subsidize a new bar district, professional softball stadium and outlet mall. With $370 million in taxpayer-backed loans outstanding, Rosemont has one of the top debt loads in the Chicago region.
Bradley Stephens, a son of the suburb's founder and the only other mayor Rosemont has had, said his village is on a profitable path.
Stephens makes no apology for his family, their friends and longtime business associates landing high-paying jobs or getting cuts of the multimillion-dollar government contracts he helps control.
And, like his father before him, Stephens said Rosemont's model is a win for everyone. The state gets payroll and sales taxes. Many of the 4,200 local residents live in a gated community, pocket thousands of dollars in annual cash grants and work out in a subsidized gym. Seniors and town workers get a rent break on village-owned apartments.
"There is nothing to be ashamed of," Stephens said. "I would stand up like a peacock and bellow how wonderful (Rosemont) is."
Yet others are paying a price. Those subsidizing the machine include local businesses, hotel guests, concertgoers or anyone taking a cab to or from O'Hare or Midway airports. Those costs are mostly borne by people who don't live in Rosemont.
"They could be suburbanites or people from Carbondale or Calcutta for that matter," said John Jackson, political science professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
"They are doing so at probably inflated prices, because ultimately you can't keep the prices under control with this type of system."
To understand how Rosemont works, imagine getting the Stephens family together in one room.
In that room would be four of the village's top officials, paid a combined $666,000 last year.
In the family-filled room would be co-owners or shareholders of firms that have landed nearly $40 million in payments for village work over the past five years.
And in the room would be people who have collected money and benefited from the Stephenses' political funds.
As big building and big contracts continue, it pays to be connected to the village's ruling family
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