Activist Tom Tresser has set out to do what the city won't: tell us how much of our tax money is sitting in tax increment financing accounts.
Activist Tom Tresser has set out to do what the city won't: tell us how much of our tax money is sitting in tax increment financing accounts. Credit: Ernie Torres/Sun-Times Media

At about the same time that Tom Tresser was releasing his annual TIF-take report, I was on the phone with a south-side resident who was telling me about the city’s inability to adequately fund her child’s grammar school.

There’s a connection.

Tresser is the north-side activist who pulled together a group of tax increment financing geeks to do what the Emanuel administration won’t: tally up just how much money we have in our TIF accounts.

In case you’ve forced yourself to forget, the TIF program is the one in which the city effectively slaps a surcharge on the amount of property taxes you pay each year.

While you may think those funds are going to things like schools, parks, and the county, the TIF money—about $412 million this year—gets diverted into bank accounts largely controlled by the mayor.

By law, the TIF money is supposed to be used to eradicate blight in low-income communities. But as we also know, loopholes allow the mayor to spend TIF money pretty much wherever he wants.

That’s why Mayor Rahm Emanuel is planning to spend at least $55 million in TIF dollars to build a basketball arena for DePaul and a hotel for Marriott in a part of the South Loop that’s neither poor nor blighted.

A couple of years ago, Tresser and his allies at the Civic Lab—a think tank he founded—decided to tally up all the property taxes the mayor had collected from TIFs.

That’s not easy to do, because there is no centralized TIF budget. Instead, the city prepares annual reports for each of the 150 or so separate TIF districts. These reports are financial statements compiled by CPAs that are next to impossible for ordinary citizens to comprehend.

So much for transparency in the era of Mayor Emanuel.

When they were done tallying the reports, Tresser’s team figured that the city had about $1.7 billion in its TIF reserves.

“I don’t think it should be too burdensome to tell us how they’re spending 1.7 billion of our property tax dollars.”—activist Tom Tresser

Last year, Tresser went to communities all over the city to publicize his findings. This was right about the time the mayor was saying he had to institute massive school budget cuts because we were so broke.

The mayor found that he had a problem, as parents began to demand that he dip into the TIF reserves before making any school cuts.

In response, he came up with something of a new take on TIFs. He admitted that, yes, there was a TIF surplus. But he added that it had already been committed to various unspecified projects.

So tough luck, kiddies.

Here we are, one year later, and not much has changed. In July the city released its annual TIF reports for 2013. And in August, Tresser and his allies calculated that about $1.7 billion remains in the reserves.

Tresser says he’s going to submit a Freedom of Information Act request demanding that the city itemize each and every one of those TIF obligations. He wants to see if they’re real or historical fiction.

Good luck with that. The Chicago Teachers Union filed a similar FOIA request last year. The city responded that the request was too burdensome.

“I don’t think it should be too burdensome to tell us how they’re spending $1.7 billion of our property tax dollars,” says Tresser. “We could bring a bunch of high school kids to City Hall with calculators—future CPAs—to help them do the work.”

All of which brings me back to Jeanette Taylor, who’s a member of the local school council at Mollison Elementary, at 4415 S. King Drive.

Mollison is what the mayor calls a receiving school. It was left to the Mollisons of Chicago to take in the students displaced when the mayor closed 50 other schools.

The mayor claimed that by shuttering schools he’d have more money left over to improve education in the receiving schools.

In other words, he was closing schools to improve education for poor children. Which is a little like his program to improve mental health care by closing mental health clinics.

Alas, the school system is apparently still so broke that the mayor ordered up another round of budget cuts this summer. Mollison had about $289,000 lopped from its budget, Taylor says.

The school stands to lose at least two teachers and a counselor.

“We’re a receiving school, and that means we’re supposed to get more resources,” says Taylor. “Now we’re getting less. That’s not right.”

In July, Mollison took its case directly to the mayor, who happened to having a press conference—what else?—just up the road from the school.

Mollison’s principal, Kimberly Henderson, approached Emanuel and asked him to restore the funds.

“The mayor told Ms. Henderson that he’d talk to [schools CEO] Barbara Byrd-Bennett about it,” says Taylor.

Henderson didn’t return a call for comment. But according to a subsequent article in DNAinfo, Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell intends to see if any TIF funds could be used to help Mollison stave off the cuts.

That brings us full circle.

One of the reasons Mollison is so broke is because so much property tax money gets diverted to the TIFs.

“So far we haven’t gotten any money to offset the cuts,” says Taylor. “School starts next week. So there’s not a lot of time. I want to know where the money is.”

It’s in the bank at the moment. But if you want to know where it’s going, I suggest an all-school field trip to the corner of Michigan and 22nd, where the DePaul arena and Marriott hotel are being built.

Here’s another idea: If that project ever gets completed, DePaul and Marriott should put up a plaque thanking the kids from Mollison, who so graciously gave up a couple of teachers so that the hotel and basketball arena could be built.