While much of the country was losing its collective mind over the prospect of a President Trump, Chicago’s City Council unanimously passed Mayor Emanuel’s budget.
After the November 16 vote, the mayor and aldermen congratulated themselves for not raising property taxes in next year’s budget, at least not over and above the millions they’d raised earlier in the year.
Meanwhile, another proposal was swiftly flying through a separate approval process. And this one amounts to a $625 million property tax increase the mayor plans to use to rebuild portions of the Red and Purple Lines and construct the Belmont Flyover (which would allow the Brown Line to bypass Red Line tracks as it pulls into the Belmont station).
So how can the mayor and aldermen say they’re not raising property taxes when actually they’re about to do just that?
Because the Red Line project will be paid for in part with a TIF. And the city’s official line on TIFs is that they don’t raise property taxes. Even though they do.
Yes, dear readers, I’m writing a TIF story. Consider it a sign that my horror over the presidential election is becoming more manageable.
Now, I know you’re thinking: Hey, man, don’t we live in a post-TIF world? That is, how can I write about something as humdrum as tax increment financing when our country’s in the hands of a pussy-grabbing bully who’s being cheered on by white supremacists?
Good question. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I have a good answer.
It reminds me of that scene in the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall where nine-year-old Alvy Singer is taken to the family physician, Dr. Flicker, by his anxiety-ridden mother.
Having read somewhere that the universe is “constantly expanding,” young Alvy’s concluded that one day it will explode.
“He stopped doing his homework,” his mother says.
“What’s the point?” Alvy responds.
“What’s the universe got to do with it?” exclaims the mother. “You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.”
Mrs. Singer has a good point. My takeaway is that just because Trump is frightening doesn’t mean I should stop doing my homework and let Rahm get away with his machinations. In fact, I suspect that Trump’s election may encourage more mayoral chicanery.
Recall, if you will, one of Emanuel’s most famous lines, uttered when he was President Obama’s chief of staff: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Since we all agree Trump’s election is a crisis—at least for most Chicagoans—we have to anticipate and examine the ways Rahm will try to exploit it.
Like the Red Line transit TIF.
OK, it may not be as bad as Trump setting up his own kleptocracy, cutting deals to promote his hotels in India while interviewing candidates for secretary of state, but it’s still problematic.
The mayor’s rushing to pass the transit TIF in order to secure federal funding before Trump’s inaugurated January 20. Emanuel’s logic is that there’s a good chance Trump may deny funding requests from a city he apparently hates because we took down that honorary sign we never should have put up in the first place. Oh yeah, and for promising to protect immigrants. (For more on how Chicago transportation could be affected by a Trump presidency, see John Greenfield’s column today.)
Though, now that I think about it, over the weekend Trump met with Ari Emanuel, the mayor’s brother and Trump’s old agent. Trump even called Ari the “king of Hollywood” once. So maybe we’ll get our funding from President Trump, so long as we go through Ari.
Anyway, the transit TIF—a variation on a regular TIF—was passed by the Illinois General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Rauner over the summer. Apparently, TIFs are one of the few things Rauner and house speaker Mike Madigan agree on.
Originally, TIFs were intended to subsidize privately owned, property-tax-paying projects—like shopping malls—in low-income, blighted communities.
The transit TIF does away with any pretense of having to finance tax-producing, privately owned developments in blighted communities. Indeed, the new state law stipulates that transit TIF districts can be used in communities that are benefiting from “investment by private enterprise,” i.e., more well-off neighborhoods.
That’s how the mayor’s able to use transit TIF funds in an area that spans from Devon to Division and roughly from Southport to Broadway. This area includes portions of such unblighted north-side neighborhoods as the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, and Lakeview.
The money will help pay for the first phase of the Red and Purple Modernization Program, which includes repairing tracks, rebuilding four stations, and constructing the aforementioned flyover.
Altogether, the project will cost $2.1 billion, of which $625 million will come from the transit TIF.
Now I’ve reached the painful point of my column where I have no choice but to explain how this TIF will work.
Typically when a TIF is created, it freezes the amount of property taxes taxing bodies—like the schools, the parks, and the city—can take from the area for up to 24 years. As the property values within it rise, the additional taxes that property owners pay because of rising property values get diverted to the TIF.
A transit TIF exempts the schools from this process, so CPS will continue to get all of the property taxes it’s got coming from the property inside the Red Line TIF district. A transit TIF is also good for up to 35 years.
But the city, county, and parks won’t get the tax dollars they’d otherwise get from this area. That means that when the mayor looks to spend more money to pay for something like hiring police, he’ll likely have to raise property taxes to compensate for the money he’s not getting from this TIF district over the next three-plus decades.
Like I said, it amounts to a tax hike, folks—just like all TIF districts.
Now, personally, I don’t have a problem with raising property taxes to build new train stations or fix the tracks.
However, I do have serious reservations about the Belmont Flyover, as I’ve explained before. But it looks as though it’s coming, no questions asked or answered, thanks to the Trump crisis.
Clever guy, our mayor. We owe it to ourselves to watch what he’s up to, no matter how frightened we may be of President-elect Trump. v