The most important thing that any Chicagoan needs to know about TIFs: it's a property tax hike, stupid.
The most important thing that any Chicagoan needs to know about TIFs: it's a property tax hike, stupid.

I got an e-mail from a reader telling me: you’ve got to see it to believe it, but the city made a movie about TIFs.

So I went online, and sure enough—there it is on YouTube for the whole world to see. They call it “What’s a TIF?” Think of it as sort of a fantasy action flick, minus the action and heavy on close-ups of Mayor Rahm Emanuel appearing very solemn as he pledges to look out for the taxpayers.

Even as the tax increment financing program robs us blind.

I’ll give them this: the movie is a step up from Mayor Daley’s contribution to the genre of TIF primers. Speaking of fantasies, Daley’s people gave us “The ABCs of TIF: Benefiting All of Chicago,” a worksheet the city posted on its website and had its planners distribute at community meetings for the better part of the aughts. It included some outright whoppers. In contrast, “What’s a TIF?” merely misleads by omitting key facts and explanations.

Like I said: progress.

The three-minute, 59-second video begins with scenes of ordinary Chicagoans—or perhaps actors playing ordinary Chicagoans—cheerfully admitting they’re ignorant of what TIF stands for, much less how it works or what it does.

“There’s no G, so it’s not ‘Thank Goodness It’s Friday,'” one woman says.

Not a bad line, though I’m not sure what Mayor Emanuel hopes to accomplish by depicting Chicagoans as charming and clueless . . . unless it’s his subterranean way of assuring Wall Street investors they don’t need to worry about trouble with his infrastructure trust, which will privatize the funding and selection of government projects. In other words, maybe it’s a message that says, “The mayor can slip any scam past this bunch of dimwits.”

Eventually the TIF movie turns to a man on the street—a grizzled guy with glasses and a thick gray beard—who says the acronym stands for tax increment financing. He adds, “Nobody knows how they work.”

At which point, Alexandra Holt—the mayor’s budget chief—appears on camera to assure us that “it’s actually really simple.”

Simple? Really? Tell us, Alex—please!

Alexandra Holt
Alexandra Holt

“They’re property tax dollars.”

Hey, she’s onto something. But alas, it’s all downhill from there.

“They’re collected in a special zone,” Holt continues.

Well, I’ll give her a C for that explanation—though, keep in mind, I’m grading on a curve, which means she has the benefit of going against the Daley folks, whose explanations didn’t get much right beyond identifying the first three letters of the alphabet.

Yes, TIF funds are property tax dollars—a fact Mayor Daley was always reluctant to concede. So kudos to Holt for readily conceding it.

Unfortunately, she manages to leave out the next crucial concession: the money’s not just randomly, you know, “collected.” Oh no—you, the taxpayers, pay it out of your pockets.

More to the point, the city takes it out of the property taxes you think you’re paying to schools, parks, and libraries for things you’re presumably willing to pay for because you think you need them—like, you know, schools, parks, and libraries.

In short, the most important thing that any Chicagoan needs to know about TIFs is the last thing Emanuel, Holt, or any other mayoral aide will tell you: it’s a property tax hike, stupid.

I believe the lady who made the TGIF joke could understand that.

What’s next in the TIF video? Well, Pam Grier takes off her blouse and gets into a fight with some lesbian bikers in a topless bar.

Oops, sorry—my bad. That’s Foxy Brown. I’m mixing up my fantasy action flicks.

In “What’s a TIF?” Holt and other Emanuel aides go on to say an assortment of things that are, in one way or another, sort of true.

Yes, TIFs can be used to build schools and parks, like Holt says. But of course the school and park systems—not to mention the taxpayers—would be much better off funding these construction projects on their own. Instead, they have to participate in the TIF scam where they essentially give the mayor a dollar, then fall to their knees and beg him to please—please!—give them a few pennies back for schools and parks.

It’s also true, as Holt says, that shortly after taking office Mayor Emanuel appointed a TIF task force to look into reforming the program. But the mayor larded that task force with enough yes-men and -women that it wasn’t inclined to recommend any real changes. And so the mayor gives himself credit for reforming something that he never really reformed.

You have to admit, he’s pretty clever.

Not to bore you with specifics, but one of the TIF program’s greatest flaws is that the lion’s share of money supposedly intended for the poorest of the poor goes to the richest of the rich, making it a classic case of reverse Robin Hood on steroids.

Neither Mayor Emanuel nor his task force made any attempt to correct this flaw. In fact, just last month the mayor called a press conference to proclaim he was proudly reviving the River Point TIF deal. That’s a stinker left over from Daley in which the city will hand over $29.5 million in property tax funds to some of the world’s wealthiest developers, who clearly don’t need it, since they’re some of the world’s wealthiest developers.

In turn, the developers will construct a 45-story office building, for which there is no demand, on the banks of the Chicago River in the West Loop, a high-end neighborhood.

In essence, Mayor Emanuel is using tax dollars intended for communities like Englewood and Roseland to help rich downtown landlords lure tenants from other rich downtown landlords. All in the name of economic development.

“What’s a TIF?” manages to avoid mentioning the River Point deal. Instead, it goes on and on about the $4.8 million in TIF dollars Mayor Emanuel threw at Resurrection University to help subsidize moving its nursing program from Oak Park to the St. Elizabeth Hospital in West Town. Thus, the city spends your tax dollars to stick it to Oak Park. Which is payback, I suppose, for Oak Park using its own TIF scam to lure development out of Chicago.

Of course, most property tax payers aren’t even aware that they’re funding this game. That’s one of the other great flaws in the program: the TIF take isn’t itemized on property tax bills, even though property owners definitely pay a TIF tax.

Yes, that’s right: your property tax bill lies by telling you TIFs take no money when of course they do—a total of about $500 million a year.

As faithful readers know, I’ve been bellowing about this outrage for about eight years, ever since I started looking into why my own property tax bill kept going up, up, and up.

Mayor Emanuel has made no move to put the TIF take on property tax bills. Presumably, that’s because Mayor Emanuel—like Mayor Daley—understands that the less the public knows about TIFs, the easier it is to keep the TIF money pouring in.

In that respect, it’s exceedingly appropriate to begin “What’s a TIF?” with several Chicagoans giggling about their ignorance. After all, it’s the public’s ignorance that makes the TIF boondoggle possible.