Raise Your Hand Action, a coalition of public school parents, protested TIFs before the Joint Review Board on January 11. Credit: Courtesy Raise Your Hand Action

For the last several weeks, the 13 or so mayoral candidates have been
promising to defend Chicago’s already overburdened taxpayers from future hikes to our ever-rising property taxes.

And then on January 11, the Joint Review Board gave Mayor Rahm the green light to raise property taxes by as much as $1.6 billion over the next 23 years. Yet not one mayoral candidate showed up to the meeting to protect us.

In their defense, the candidates—like most people in Chicago—probably don’t know the board exists, much less when it meets.

Welcome to another chapter in my multipart series—the making of the Lincoln Yards TIF. Where I take you step-by-step as Mayor Rahm tries to bamboozle you into thinking it’s a good idea to spend hundreds of millions of property tax dollars underwriting the redevelopment of an already gentrifying neighborhood.

All in the name of eradicating blight in low-income communities.

In chapter one, we learned that TIFs raise your taxes even if the mayor claims they don’t. In chapter two, we watched Tony and his girlfriend have wild sex outside the monkey cage at the zoo.

Just kidding. That scene from The Sopranos has nothing to do with TIFs (lately, I have The Sopranos on my mind)—I was just hoping a little levity might ease the pain of getting fleeced.

In this installment, allow me to introduce you to the Joint Review Board, a Potemkin-village facade intended to give you the illusion of oversight that doesn’t really exist.

To understand the board’s purpose, you must remember that TIF districts force Chicago Public Schools and the park district and the county and all the other taxing bodies to raise their property taxes to compensate for the money they’re not getting from the TIF districts.

We’re talking about hundreds of millions of property tax dollars a year—a number that will rise if Mayor Rahm gets the City Council to create the Cortland/Chicago River and Roosevelt/Clark TIF districts. Together, those two TIFs would siphon off another $1.6 billion or so from the taxing bodies (at least $800 million from schools alone) over the next 23 years.

The Cortland TIF will fund Lincoln Yards. The Roosevelt TIF will fund a project I call Rezko Field—in honor of Tony Rezko, the political wheeler who used to own the land before he went to prison for his part in a state pay-to-play scandal.

In a perfect world, the taxing bodies would be cautious before they let Rahm force them to raise property taxes only to see it get diverted to his slush fund.

The Joint Review Board is their opportunity to be vigilant. It consists of representatives of these taxing bodies, plus a member appointed by the city who’s supposedly looking out for the wider public—in this case, Josh Ellis, from the Metropolitan Planning Council, a local think tank.

The board’s job is to scrutinize a proposed TIF district to determine if creating it justifies the property taxes it would raise.

In a perfect world, the board would be stocked by high-ranking officials—like, Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools—who’d ask probing “but for” questions. That is—but for this TIF subsidy, would the land get developed?

Of course, Chicago is far from perfect. And so the board consists of lower-level bureaucrats, who ask no questions and vote yes—as told.

If you looked up rubber stamp in the dictionary, it would have a picture of the Joint Review Board—right next to a photo of the school board.

Generally, the Joint Review Board’s meetings draw few observers. And usually they’re held in a small, windowless room in City Hall. In the good old days of Mayor Daley, city officials set out donuts and coffee, as though they felt sorry for people who had to show up.

But at the January 11 meeting, there wasn’t a donut in sight as the city moved to a larger room to handle a bigger crowd brought in by the Raise Your Hand Action coalition of public school parents.

In a nutshell, the coalition believes it’s obscene to earmark hundreds of millions of dollars for upscale developments in gentrifying neighborhoods when our schools are so broke they can’t afford to adequately fund special education. Hard to argue with that.

The Raise Your Hand activists knew about the meeting thanks to freelance journalist Dave Glowacz, my podcasting buddy. He wrote about it on his blog, Inside Chicago Government.

Well, they certainly didn’t hear about the meeting from the city—which seems determined to keep the board a secret. You can’t find a mention of the Joint Review Board on the city’s website.

So three cheers for Glowacz—he’s like Paul Revere riding through Chicago yelling: The review board’s meeting, the review board’s meeting!

Roughly 80 people showed up—not that it mattered. The board voted for both TIF districts without asking any meaningful questions or answering the ones that the audience asked. Board member Josh Ellis went so far as to say he couldn’t vote no, even if he wanted to, as state statute only permits the board to address whether an area qualifies to be a TIF district.

With all due respect, Mr. Ellis, you got it wrong. The main point of the Joint Review Board is to examine the impact on taxing bodies. It says so in the state law book, where it permits the Joint Review Board to consider “an assessment of any financial impact” on “any taxing district affected” by a proposed TIF. (Go to Sec. 11-74.4-3 of the good old TIF code and check it out yourself—for some scintillating nighttime reading.)

Not only has Mayor Rahm not shown how either TIF district impacts the taxing bodies (CPS included), he shows no inclination to do so anytime soon.

As the meeting ended, board members thanked people for attending—a trend they said they hoped would continue, like they were chiding citizens for not attending previous meetings.

Even though those who did show up were told that showing up is pointless as the board’s just a rubber stamp anyway.

Say this for Mayor Daley—when he fed us his TIF baloney, he passed out some donuts to sweeten the taste.

And so the rubber stamp express continues—next stop’s a January 24 meeting of the Community Development Commission. I’ll be watching.  v