With activists Tio Hardiman and other activists preparing to march on Lake Shore Drive toward Wrigley Field next Thursday, demanding more equity in city spending, I figure it’s as good a time as ever to make sure west- and south-siders are wise to a little scam called the tax increment financing program.
Oh, yeah, I see eyes glazing over as I write this.
That typically happens when I mention tax increment financing. The sleepier you are, the less you’re paying attention.
So, to your first question: What’s “tax increment financing?,” otherwise known as TIF(s)?
Boiled down to the basics, it’s in effect a surcharge slapped on your property tax bills that generates well over $500 million a year.
Property-tax payers think the money’s going to schools, parks, police, etc, but it really winds up in bank accounts largely controlled by the mayor. It’s his favorite source of slush.
As I may have pointed out a few times over the years.
This year, the generous property-tax payers of Chicago have funneled about $660 million to the TIF bank accounts, according to the latest report by Cook County clerk David Orr.
That’s up $99 million from the $561 million in TIF money we gave the mayor last year, and up nearly $200 million from the $461 million we gave him in 2016. All told, Mayor Rahm’s TIFs have scooped up about $1.68 billion in property taxes in the last three years, even as he was swearing up and down that there wasn’t enough money for schools or mental health clinics.
Man, you can open a lot of mental health clinics with $1.68 billion.
So your next question is: How can the mayor get away with running a slush fund of such proportions? And the answer is that a powerful mayor can get away with just about anything so long as no one’s paying close attention.
And, well, in all due respect, south- and west-siders, when it comes to TIFs, you’ve done a lousy job of paying attention.
The TIF program is intended to subsidize development in poor, blighted communities that without the sweetener of TIF assistance would find it hard to get any development at all.
Alas, instead, as you can see in Orr’s latest report, most of the TIF money goes to more upscale and rapidly gentrifying communities in and around the Loop.
It’s the poor communities TIFs are supposedly intended for—like Englewood, Roseland, Austin, and North Lawndale—that get the least amount of TIF money.
A point I recently made with regard to the 79th Street TIF, where Saint Sabina, the church of Father Michael Pfleger, is located.
How does the mayor get away with spending so much anti-poverty money in neighborhoods that aren’t poor? Like I said, folks—it pays to pay attention.
As you can see, I can go on and on about TIFs. It’s one of my favorite subjects—I’ve been writing about them for more than 30 years. I have to admit I’m impressed by the utter audacity of this mayor—and the one who went before him—for even trying to pull off such a scam.
Of course, they have many enablers—like most members of the City Council. With a few exceptions—what’s up, Alderman Scott Waguespack?—they’ll let the mayor do anything he wants with TIFs, so long as every now and then he slices them a little piece of the pie.
Though if they’re south- or west-side aldermen, it’s more like a crumb.
Can anything be done to end this scam, or at least redirect more money to the truly needy?
I suppose. But, first—you have to be paying attention.
For instance, a few years ago a group of public school parents from the Raise Your Hand Coalition learned that the mayor planned to spend $55 million in TIF dollars building a basketball arena for DePaul and a hotel for Marriott in the south loop.
They raised a ruckus, demanding that he not spend money on DePaul while he was closing public schools.
In response the mayor took away the TIF money from DePaul and Marriott.
Of course, he largely replaced it with assistance from the state. And he wound up spending the $55 million on Navy Pier, which as I never tire of mentioning, is neither poor, blighted, nor a community.
Can he get away with doing that? Well, he did. The sad news, folks, is that the biggest municipal crimes in Chicago are the ones that are apparently legal.
A final word of warning . . .
They’re betting that if they fill your ears with misinformation and doublespeak, you’ll get confused and you’ll just go away. So they can go back to taking money for the poor and giving it to the rich.
I don’t blame them for thinking this way. They’ve been getting away with it for years.
But you organizers calling for the heads of Mayor Rahm and police chief Eddie Johnson can take a tip from me: Questions about TIFs are to Rahm as water is to the Wicked Witch of the West.