As I write this, we still have three days—and counting—until Mayor Lightfoot’s much-anticipated budget speech, to be delivered Thursday, August 29, at 6 PM. Live on TV!
Man, there hasn’t been so much anticipation for a speech by a local pol since the Gettysburg Address.
All over town, reporters are trying to predict what Lightfoot will say, and how she will say it, and how much whatever she says will wind up costing us in taxes, fees, or fines.
Well, thanks to my City Hall sources I actually have a copy of the first draft, penned by Lori on the back of an envelope as she jetted home from her recent vacation in Maine. Don’t tell anyone you heard it from me . . .
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent . . . ”
Oops, that’s the real Gettysburg Address. All right—enough wisecracks. I will now make some predictions as to what Mayor Lightfoot will and will not say.
She’ll say our budget woes are greater—no, far greater—than she ever anticipated.
She’ll say it’s a budget crisis. But she’s confident we can solve it—because that’s how we roll, Chicago.
She’ll blame everything on her predecessor. Though she probably won’t name said predecessor. Unless she finds some reason to praise him. Oh, that would be a clever way of reminding everyone of who she’s blaming without, you know, actually blaming him.
By the way, the aforementioned predecessor is Rahm Emanuel, just in case you forgot.
Anyway, back to my predictions . . .
Mayor Lightfoot will tell you the things she’s already done to balance the budget—like freezing new hiring. And she’ll congratulate herself for nonbudget things she’s done, like getting rid of aldermanic prerogative.
Even though it’s not clear that was a problem to begin with. Oh, if only our real problems were as easy to solve as the made-up ones.
And she won’t say one thing about tax increment financing, the thing I want to hear her talk about. Or, more specifically, the lawsuit filed against the Lincoln Yards TIF deal.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking—damn, Ben, not another TIF column!
OK, you try writing a legitimate column about the city’s budget woes without mentioning the multimillion-dollar-a-year property tax scam that has soaked taxpayers for about $841 million in 2019.
A few weeks back, I unveiled a modest proposal to make all of Chicago one giant TIF district in order to raise the money to pay off all of our obligations.
I made this proposal on the grounds that if Chicago taxpayers are determined to remain stubbornly clueless about how much they pay in TIF taxes, why should I spoil the party?
Anyway, TIFs are intended for poor neighborhoods that desperately need a shot in the arm because—but for the TIF—they would not get any development at all.
But because of loopholes in the state TIF law, virtually any neighborhood qualifies as a TIF district.
That’s why Lincoln Yards, near the intersection of North and Elston on the booming north side, is eligible to receive a $1.3 billion TIF handout.
Basically, the city’s forking over $1.3 billion of your property tax dollars to a developer named Sterling Bay to underwrite the cost of Lincoln Yards.
I’m sure you’ll agree that the city has far more pressing needs for $1.3 billion than another upscale development in a gentrifying neighborhood.
Especially as Mayor Lightfoot is about to tell you how we have hundreds of millions of dollars in obligations that will probably keep her from spending money on things we want—like more librarians, nurses, and counselors in our schools.
The City Council approved the Lincoln Yards TIF in April at its last meeting under Mayor Rahm, and then-Mayor-Elect Lightfoot sort of looked the other way. Even though she campaigned against Lincoln Yards when she was running for mayor against Toni Preckwinkle.
There are two contrasting opinions as to what might have happened had Lightfoot put up a fight against the Lincoln Yards handout.
My old friend Alderman Scott Waguespack says she didn’t have the council votes to block it. My old adversary former alderman Patrick O’Connor, who was Mayor Rahm’s floor leader, says she did.
In this instance, I agree with O’Connor over Waguespack. Words I never thought I’d write.
Putting that debate to the side, here’s what happened next. The Grassroots Collaborative and Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education—two coalitions of activists—filed a suit challenging the Lincoln Yards deal on the grounds that, among other things, it’s racially discriminatory.
After all, it’s a massive handout for a relatively well-to-do, rapidly gentrifying white neighborhood that’s coming out of a program intended for low-income neighborhoods. I mean, you don’t have to be Earl Warren to see that this deal sucks.
With that lawsuit, Mayor Lightfoot had a choice. She could either look the other way and let the case proceed. Or she could fight it.
Alas, she went with option B. In other words, she’s got city lawyers in court fighting for the very TIF deal she originally said she didn’t want.
And Lightfoot’s lawyers are putting up quite a fight, filing all kinds of legal gobbledygook about how the case should be dismissed because the plaintiffs don’t have standing to file it.
A legal doctrine known as “How dare these peasants tell an all-powerful mayor what to do with their tax dollars!”
Cook County judge Neil Cohen should render a decision by September 11 on whether he’ll allow the case to proceed. So this TIF fight ain’t over yet.
Like I said, Mayor Lightfoot probably won’t mention any of this in Thursday’s budget speech—even though the Lincoln Yards TIF deal directly impacts the budget.
As always, the city’s official policy toward TIFs is that they don’t raise taxes. So shut up about them already, Ben.
It’s a policy Lightfoot inherited from her predecessors, whether she mentions them by name or not. v