Reforming the cost part of the TIF program is like “reforming” a game of three-card monte. Credit: Julius Drost / unsplash

Almost as if preordained, the first installment of my property tax bill arrived a few days before Mayor Lightfoot announced her TIF reform plan.

There’s a correlation, as longtime readers know from past columns—not that you’d ever hear anyone from the city mention it.

No, the city’s official policy regarding the property tax burden created by the tax increment financing program is that there is none.

This has been the policy since Mayor Daley invented Chicago’s beastly spin on TIFs way back in the 90s.

For the record, my annual tax bill is approaching $13,000. If the upward trend continues, I’ll be priced out of my house just like people in Woodlawn, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, etc.

The powers that be in this city call such relocations progress. Yeah, it’s always progress, so long as it’s happening to someone else.

How much do the TIFs—with their annual take of hundreds of millions—add to my bill? I can’t tell you because I don’t know. I’m not privy to the information I need to make such calculations. Those who have the info aren’t talking, presumably because they don’t want you to know.

I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, back to Mayor Lightfoot’s TIF reform.

There are three general problems with TIFs. There’s the equity issue—TIFs mostly benefit rich neighborhoods, even though the program is intended to help the poor.

There’s transparency—they’re part of a shadow budget, shrouded in secrecy. The city’s supposed to apply a rigorous “but for” test to any application, as in, but for this TIF handout the project wouldn’t happen. But there’s generally no public scrutiny of these claims.

And then there’s the matter of cost. As I said, the TIFs jack up your property taxes. Think of them as an unknown surcharge that the city adds to your property tax bill without telling you that they’re adding it. 

As soon as the mayor and aldermen create a TIF district, they freeze the amount the schools, parks, and county can take in property taxes from that district. To compensate for the money they’re not collecting from the TIF district, the schools and parks have to raise taxes on everyone else.

Mayor Lightfoot is proposing to “reform” the first two deficiencies by applying a TIF oversight committee to make sure the money’s more equitably distributed and to make a “more robust ‘but-for’ analysis” so “TIF funds are only used for projects that wouldn’t otherwise move forward,” as her press release puts it.

Good for you, Madame Mayor. I welcome any attempt to reform this beast and bring the shadow budget out of the shadows so we can see how much Roseland, one of the poorest neighborhoods, gets in contrast to Lincoln Yards, one of the richest.

Of course, I must point out that Mayor Rahm made similar TIF reform promises when he took office in 2011. 

He put together a committee to study the matter. They prepared a report that made many of the same recommendations as Lightfoot. Then Rahm held a press conference congratulating himself for reforming TIFs, and went right back to business as usual.

Within a year and a half of announcing his TIF reform, Mayor Rahm got the City Council to approve more than $50 million for the DePaul basketball arena and hotel in the rapidly gentrifying South Loop. The deal was approved on a voice vote that most aldermen didn’t know they were taking. So much for the but-for.

Before it was over those South Loop TIF funds had been used to fix up Navy Pier, which isn’t even in a TIF, much less located in the South Loop. How that’s legal, I do not know. But Rahm got away with it.

Here’s hoping that Mayor Lightfoot is a little truer to her word about TIF reform than Mayor Rahm, though, as you can see, the bar is low.

As for “reforming” the cost part of the TIF by telling us, you know, how much they cost—don’t hold your breath.

Reforming this part of TIFs is like “reforming” a game of three-card monte. It can’t be done without defeating the whole purpose of the game. The point of the TIF scam is to mislead people into thinking they’re getting something for nothing. If you told them the truth, the scam would be busted.

One of Mayor Daley’s budget advisers explained it to me many years ago. He’d been reading my columns and wanted to meet the strange journalistic creature who was obsessed with this byzantine funding mechanism that heretofore only budget geeks cared about.

So, he reached out through a mutual friend. One rainy Saturday morning we had an off-the-record meeting at our friend’s house. She served coffee and cookies, and we spent the better part of two hours talking about TIFs.

Is that fun or what?

He explained that when it came to the budget, the mayor told his aides what he wanted to spend. Their job was to find the money to pay for it. TIFs were only a means to that end.

The larger problem, he explained, is that Chicagoans don’t realize the full cost of running the city. They’re like the people Jack Nicholson was raving about in A Few Good Men—they can’t handle the truth!

In this case, the truth they can’t handle is how much it costs to pay for police, fire, schools, street paving, pensions, etc.

I’ve come to grudgingly admit that the budget adviser had a point. The best way to get people to quietly and obediently pay their property taxes is to fool them into thinking they’re not paying them at all.

Ignorance is bliss, Chicago—enjoy your game of three-card monte.   v