- Al Podgorski/Sun-Times
- Alderman Reilly should know by now that the mayor makes the rules.
It seems a day doesn’t pass without one alderman or another having a moment of divine revelation about the scam and sham we know as tax increment financing.
I guess having the mayor pressure you to vote for a multimillion-dollar property tax hike to bail out city pension funds will help an alderman see the world more clearly.
First there were Aldermen Will Burns (Fourth Ward) and Ameya Pawar (47th), who proposed to return some of TIF tax to the schools—as I may have suggested.
And now Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd) has proposed that we essentially meet our pension obligations by borrowing money and paying back the loan with the property taxes that would otherwise go to the TIF slush fund.
Instead of jacking up our property taxes to pay off the pensions and keep the TIF tax flowing to the slush funds, as the mayor apparently wants to do.
So first of all, allow me to say this . . .
Welcome to the TIF-bashers club, Alderman Reilly. As its host and chief proprietor, I say help yourself to the fried chicken I keep behind the bar.
Now, to the main issue—is Alderman Reilly’s plan permissible under current TIF law?
That’s a variation on a question I get asked a lot regarding what the mayor can or cannot do with TIF money. It’s kind of a funny question, because it presumes that the world of Chicago politics is an orderly universe in which rules and regulations are scrupulously maintained by rigid functionaries who are unmoved by political pressures.
Instead of patronage employees who do as they’re told!
I’m reminded of the time a few years back when some teacher activists proposed to use TIF revenues to offset Mayor Emanuel’s school cuts and closings.
Eventually, they were granted a meeting with his eminence Alderman Patrick O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s floor leader, who told them they didn’t know what they were talking about and then lectured them on the rules governimg TIFs.
Those poor little teachers got so scared that they started texting me—is what the alderman’s telling us true?
Well, yes, more or less—as these things go in Chicago.
There are, of course, rules and regulations that govern the TIF program. But they are by no means as immutable as Alderman O’Connor or Mayor Emanuel would want you to believe.
I mean, think about it, people. We’re talking about a program whose very existence sort of breaks all the rules. It’s a shadow property tax that gets funneled to a slush fund that’s supposed to be used to develop property in the poorest of the poor neigborhoods but instead winds up largely dedicated to the rich parts of town.
As a rule of thumb, the mayor or his aldermen tell you what we can’t do with TIF money when they need to come up with an excuse for not doing it.
The point is, when it comes to TIFs, there are no real rules. Other than—the mayor rules!
So could the mayor artfully use the hundreds of millions a year in TIF property taxes to pay off the pension obligation, thus protecting you from even greater tax hikes?
Of course he could.
The real issue is whether he wants to do that. And from what I can tell, he most definitely does not.
If he spends the TIF money on pensions or on schools, he won’t have it around to spend on other stuff—like the Marriot/DePaul deal in the South Loop.
Which, by the way, Aldermen Pawar, Burns, and Reilly all voted to approve.
Oh, fellas—you should know better.
Look, $450 or even $500 million a year can’t satisfy all our financial needs. But it can help. That’s for sure.