Lathrop Homes will be redeveloped. Will it also be a slush fund for the mayor? Credit: Joe Cyganowski/Pioneer Press

In the long and sordid history of the city’s Tax Increment Financing program, there have been few days worth celebrating.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a fan of scams, schemes, and slush—in which case your name’s either Richie or Rahm.

But we may be approaching one such celebratory moment, if First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno gets his way.

At last Tuesday’s meeting regarding the Lathrop Homes redevelopment plan, Alderman Moreno swore up and down that he intends to create the first slushless TIF district in the history of Chicago.

It’s hard to believe Mayor Emanuel would let him get away with it, but it’s a concept worth contemplating, if only ’cause it was my idea in the first place.

As I’ve explained before—and will undoubtedly explain again, because, folks, my life really has no meaning unless I’m trying to explain how the TIF scam works—when the city creates a TIF district, it freezes the amount of property taxes that go from that district to the schools and other taxing bodies for up to 24 years. When property values rise, all the new property tax money gets sent to the TIF. And the mayor’s basically free to spend that money anyway he wants.

Think of it this way: a TIF district is essentially a bank account into which future property tax dollars get deposited. Instead of sending that money to the schools.

And when the mayor and the council approve a specific TIF deal—like the one the Lathrop developers can’t wait to sink their teeth into—they withdraw the money from the bank account.

‘Cause hey–25 percent of the little kiddies won’t amount to anything anyway, so why waste money on them? As Mayor Rahm may have told Karen Lewis.

As I explained when I last wrote about the proposed Diversey/Chicago River TIF district, it probably has Mayor Rahm salivating like Pavlov’s dog, because the property is currently tax exempt. It’s owned by the Chicago Housing Authority, which pay zero dollars in property taxes. 

Mayor Rahm wants to transfer the land at Diversey and Clybourn to a conglomerate of developers, who will build about 1,200 units of housing, along with retail. Once the land comes under their control, they’ll pay untold millions of dollars in property taxes—and all of that money will go to the TIF bank account.

That’s pure slush for the mayor.

The solution I advocated in my column was to dissolve the TIF as soon as the Lathrop developers got the money they needed to complete the project—provided they need the money at all.

Little did I think anyone in power would sign on to this suggestion.

To my amazement, Alderman Moreno did just that at Tuesday’s hearing, vowing to make sure the enabling TIF ordinance includes language that forces the city to dissolve the district as soon as it gathers the $17.5 million in property taxes the developers say they need to complete the project.

This may be the first time in Chicago history that an alderman with close ties to the mayor has ever taken my advice on anything. What’s next—Alderman Ed Burke demanding Mayor Rahm divert the TIF slush back to the schools they took it from in the first place?

It would also be the first time any TIF deal has such language—so it’s pretty radical for Chicago. Even though it’s a common-sense solution to just one of the many problems vexing this program.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting, as it was held while Mick Dumke and I were hosting a First Tuesdays shows at the Hideout.

In fact, if I were paranoid, I’d say that the mayor’s planning department bigwigs choose that time for their TIF meeting precisely because they knew I’d be at the Hideout.

But my old pal, Dave Glowacz from Inside Chicago Government, was there. Here’s his write up the meeting, complete with a choice audio soundbite.

Alderman Moreno’s promise of a slushless TIF raises two questions.

First, does anyone believe the mayor will let him get away with it?

For all I know, the mayor’s getting ready to call Moreno into his office, where he’ll deliver a lecture along the lines of:  “A slushless TIF—are you kidding me! The whole point of the program is to create slush!”

Before it’s over, I suspect the mayor and his lawyers will concoct some devious legalese that enables them to claim their reforming this TIF while wallowing in the slush.

But I just got off the phone with Alderman Moreno, who vows to fight like hell to keep Rahm from getting away with such deviousness.

So here’s the deal, Proco Joe. If the mayor agrees to set up the slushless TIF, I’ll buy you breakfast at the First Ward eatery of your choice.

But if he doesn’t, breakfast is on you.

Hey, man, it’s about time I got something out of this scam.

The second question raised by Tuesday’s meeting is whether the developers really need a handout—much less $17.5 million—to put up a project on this booming neighborhood along the Chicago River.

Good luck getting a straight answer to that.