During the last few weeks, I engaged in a little shuttle diplomacy with Alexandra Holt, the mayor’s budget director, and Ken Davis, host of a public access television talk show.
The topic is TIFs—what else? Specifically, that part of the TIF program where the mayor secretly makes you pay more in property taxes.
This is a particularly sensitive topic right about now, as Mayor Emanuel’s getting ready to sock you with a property tax hike of more than $600 million.
The Tax Increment Financing program adds untold millions to what we pay in property taxes, though you’ll never hear that from the mayor.
Generally, I’m the one who tells you that—again and again.
My hope is that if I continuously pound the drum, eventually I’ll be heard in every corner of the city—either that or I’ll go insane. We’ll see which one comes first.
The city’s official line toward the TIF program is that it does not raise property taxes. Instead, the city wants you to believe that the program is like some sort of amazing fertility drug that magically creates money from nothing.
Actually, that was Mayor Daley’s spin on TIFs. Mayor Emanuel’s been a little more sophisticated in his approach to this topic.
Soon after his election in 2011, he put together a blue-ribbon committee on TIFs that concluded, yes, the program raises property tax dollars, after which the mayor declared he had reformed TIFs and went about his business, rarely mentioning the matter again.
So for the last four years, Mayor Emanuel’s created this budget-time ritual, in which he praises himself for not having raised property taxes, when of course he’s raising them every year through his TIFs.
I’m not sure why the mayor keeps saying something that’s so obviously false. I mean, only a fool would believe that his property taxes haven’t gone up when every year they do.
Maybe it’s Mayor Emanuel’s way of letting taxpayers know what he really thinks of us.
A few weeks ago, the city took out a full-page ad in the Sun-Times, headlined: “Notice of Proposed Property Tax Increase.”
The city was complying with a state mandate called the “Truth-in-Taxation Law,” which requires a notice in a newspaper if a taxing body is raising the tax levy by more than 5 percent.
The ad points out that the city will be making taxpayers pay more than $362 million in property taxes next year.
The ad does not mention the extra $40 million to $50 million the city will make taxpayers pay because of the TIFs.
So, in an effort to comply with the “Truth-in-Taxation Law,” the city doesn’t tell the truth. Paging George Orwell.
I’d say the best thing to come out of the “Truth-in-Taxation Law” is that it brought in a little extra advertising cash for my beloved Bright One. Every little bit helps.
Now, about my shuttle diplomacy with budget director Alex Holt . . .
Two weeks ago, she was a guest on Chicago Newsroom, the public affairs show on CAN-TV, hosted by the aforementioned Ken Davis.
On that show, Holt conceded that, yes, the TIFs raise property taxes, but not very much.
Only $371 million last year. And $422 million the year before that. And more than $6 billion since 1990.
You know, we’re a rich city when $6 billion is not a lot of money.
After Holt’s appearance, Davis brought me in for an alternative point of view.
I think we should view Ken’s show as sort of our own version of a neutral country—think Switzerland during the Cold War—where rival factions can safely meet, though not necessarily at the same time.
Ken asked whether I’d stop pounding the drum, in the aftermath of Ms. Holt’s grudging concession on TIFs and taxes. Apparently, all that drumming is disturbing his sleep.
No way! At least, not until the mayor takes out a full-page ad in the Sun-Times to spread that news.