I had one of those existential moments of doubt when I opened my morning Sun-Times on Tuesday and found myself facing the following headline: “TIF flap forgotten as mayor breaks ground on DePaul basketball arena.”
The article, written by Fran Spielman, said that DePaul’s arena, paid for with tens of millions in public dollars, has “been a symbol of what critics call the mayor’s misplaced priorities.”
And though the controversy “reached a crescendo during the mayoral campaign,” it was “temporarily forgotten in the glow of a groundbreaking ceremony.”
That’s when my crisis kicked in.
I confess—I was one of those critics.
I begged and pleaded again and again for Chicagoans to rise up angry against this deal in the long-shot hope that we the people might stop our mayor from wasting buckets of money on a vanity project.
Alas, I failed.
And now it seemed my life had no meaning as I watched Mayor Rahm and his pals bask in the glow of their triumph by repeating some of the same old prevarications that have symbolized this project from the moment it was announced back in 2013.
Like this nugget from the mayor’s speech: “Because of these investments there are new residential units going up, new restaurants, new entertainment. Exactly the vision we had.”
Oh, brother. The arena’s being built at Michigan and Cermak in the South Loop, one of the hottest neighborhoods in town. This is the last Chicago neighborhood that needs a handout to stimulate development.
And this one: “You have to always invest in the future.”
Wait, I thought our children were the future. And children will be the ones who get the shaft from this project—at least the ones who attend Chicago Public Schools.
DePaul’s basketball arena is part of larger deal that includes a Marriott hotel and will cost at least $55 million in property tax dollars taken from local TIF districts. Those are property tax dollars that would otherwise go to our cash-strapped schools. Because if you’ve forgotten, the purpose of the tax increment financing program is to subsidize development in blighted communities in order to generate more property tax dollars in the future.
In this case, the mayor’s spending TIF money to buy up tax-producing land, thus making the land tax exempt because property owned by governmental entities isn’t taxed. So the mayor is, in fact, spending millions to lose millions.
No matter how many games DePaul plays in that arena, or how many concerts get staged there, they will probably never make back the $55 million, much less all that future property tax money the land won’t generate.
And the biggest losers will be the children of Chicago, who depend on those property taxes to fund their schools.
I could go on and on, as you all know. But I’ll leave you with a glimmer of hope.
It’s not true as the headline says, that the “TIF flap” was forgotten.
Certainly the mayor remembers it. When he took office back in 2011, he viewed TIF money as confetti he was free to throw wherever he wanted, including high-rent neighborhoods.
In his first years in office he dumped millions of TIF dollars on a grocery store in Greektown, a luxury office building in River North, the Hyatt Hotel in Hyde Park, and the Marriott/DePaul monstrosity.
But since parents and teachers and students rose up angry over the DePaul/Marriott deal, he’s been a little more restrained. Apparently, he’s adopted the Greg Hinz doctrine on TIFs.
I call it that, anyway. I named it for my old poker-playing pal who writes a political column for Crain’s. It was Greg who postulated that as long as the mayor spends TIF money on public—as opposed to private—projects, who gives a shit. (Greg was far more eloquent than that. But that’s the basic point.)
I’ve since heard everyone from Mayor Rahm to budget director Alex Holt to alderman Howard Brookins articulate much the same thing.
They ought to pay you royalties, Greg.
Of course, who knows how long the mayor’s restraint will last. As I write this, he’s probably devising new schemes to waste our money on bad deals.
That’s why you have to watch these mayors—day and night.