Ben Joravsky, Richard Mell

Once upon a time, many years ago, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell liked me.

At one point in the early 1980s he actually drove me around his ward, showing me the parks and schools and explaining how things worked in this town. It was like he was my favorite uncle.

Back then I was a rookie writer stringing a story for a local paper. Maybe he figured I couldn’t do him much harm.

But somewhere along the way his attitude changed. Maybe it had something to do with all the articles I wrote about his powerful ward organization—filled with city, county, and state patronage workers—beating up on the hapless opposition. By the 1990s he was no longer returning my calls, and that’s pretty much the way things have been ever since.

So imagine my surprise when out of the blue one of Mell’s legislative aides called to invite me to speak at the April meeting of the 33rd Ward zoning advisory committee.

My topic? What else: tax increment financing.

I couldn’t get there fast enough. With this coming on the heels of an invitation by Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Schools, to come downtown for my own private briefing (where she and other top CPS officials patiently explained to me why pay increases aren’t “raises”) it was like I’d suddenly become the most popular man in town. It wouldn’t have surprised me to get a call from City Hall letting me know the mayor wanted his own private TIF tutorial. Hey, based on what he’s said publicly about the program, he could use one.

Anyway, my meeting with the Mell gang took place in the basement of the Horner Park field house, at California and Montrose. About 50 people showed up. From the questions they asked, it was clear they got the gist of how the program works—and shared my views about it.

I sat at a table at the front of the room between Alderman Mell and his daughter, state rep Deb Mell, who also never returns my calls.

I called the TIF program wasteful and inefficient, because it is. And I said it was designed to develop poor, blighted communities but mostly succeeds in sending money to the richer parts of town, because it does.

I pulled out the tax bill of a property owner who lives in a TIF district to show how money diverted into TIF funds is not itemized on ordinary tax bills, which tricks people into thinking it costs them nothing—though in fact it sucks up about half a billion dollars a year in property taxes that would otherwise go to the schools, parks, county, and other local agencies and causes those bodies to raise their levies. In essence it’s an extra $500 million-a-year tax on local property owners.

I talked about the errors, half-truths, and evasions that riddle the city’s official statements on the program, most notably “The ABC’s of TIF” on the Department of Community Development’s website.

Every so often Alderman Mell rolled his eyes or shook his head or even interjected to say the program wasn’t so bad. But he stopped defending the program after I pulled out a fact sheet I’d put together with my colleague Mick Dumke showing that the Second Ward, led by rookie Alderman Robert Fioretti, was the city leader in reaping TIF money while the 33rd Ward, led by the loyal 35-year veteran, was in the bottom half, a difference of tens of millions of dollars a year. While I talked, Mell scoured the numbers with the intensity of a bookie reading a tip sheet.

Someone in the audience asked me to get a little more specific about what should be done about the TIF program, so I suggested we start with Representative Mell. The program is governed by state law, which means the General Assembly could reform it if legislators wanted to.

Representative Mell said she wanted to do something about it, and asked me what I’d suggest.

Wow—next thing you know they’ll be asking me for advice on election-law reform.

So I threw out two ideas. One, tighten up regulations so only truly blighted communities—like Englewood or Lawndale—get to create TIF districts. That way wealthier areas like the central business district don’t siphon off tax money.And two, limit the amount that each TIF district collects. It’s one thing for the City Council to approve a TIF district to fund a specific project—say, a new shopping mall that won’t be built without a $1 million subsidy. But it’s another to let that district collect millions of taxpayer dollars on top of its original purpose. All that extra property tax money ends up as a slush fund Mayor Daley can pretty much manipulate however he likes. So if you really want to crack down on TIF abuses, pass a law that slaps a cap on the program, limiting each TIF district to the amount it will cost to fund the project or projects it was designed for.

Voila—problem solved. Let’s break for dinner.

Of course, such legislation would invite the wrath of Mayor Daley, not to mention countless suburban mayors and officials with their own little TIF empires. Good luck getting that one out of committee, much less into the law books.

But, I added, I suppose if anyone could lead the charge it would be Representative Mell, who, thanks to her father’s clout, is largely impervious to the counterattacks of the mayor.

She smiled when I said that.

At one point I got so worked up in my oration that Aldermen Mell said I sounded like a candidate and suggested I run for office. I told him that I’d never make the ballot once he and his election-law lawyers got through challenging my nominating petitions. Got a chuckle out of the old man with that one.

After a while Alderman Mell started talking about how he actually agreed with a lot of the things I was saying. He said he saw no reason the TIF take shouldn’t be listed on property tax bills so folks know exactly how their money is being spent. He went on to say he might even introduce a resolution to the City Council calling on his colleagues to look into the matter.

Masterful move, I must say. Frustration with TIF abuses is (very) slowly spreading among north-side voters. In the Democratic primaries in February, I heard a few legislative candidates vow to clean up the program—something I’ve never heard in more than a decade of reporting on TIFs. And earlier this year a few north-side state legislators, including Harry Osterman and John Fritchey, actually voted against extending the life of a couple of TIF districts.

So it’s not a bad idea for a north-side alderman up for election in 2011 to act like he cares. Even an entrenched incumbent like Richard Mell.

At the very least, an old pro like the alderman—who’s engineered the election of a bunch of local pols, including his daughter Deb, former 35th Ward alderman Vilma Colom, and his son-in-law, former governor Rod Blagojevich—knows enough to give a room filled with voters a little bit of what they want to hear. I guess you could say he was using me as much as I was using the forum—he’d dragged me out to make it look like he was on board with TIF reform just in case that train ever leaves the station. Got to give the man credit: he’s always one step ahead in this game.

And a few days after the forum, Representative Mell called to say she’d be talking over TIF reform legislation with Osterman. I’ll keep you posted.

When the meeting was over, Alderman Mell announced that a spokesman from the city’s Department of Community Development would be coming out to the May meeting to provide the “other side” of the TIF story. Someone in the audience urged me to come back and debate the city’s guy.

“Oh, no,” said Alderman Mell. “He got his bite of the apple.”

I reminded him that he had invited me to this little get-together, so he was the one who’d bitten the apple. Or something like that.

Before I left, one of Alderman Mell’s aides asked the two of us to pose for a photo for the alderman’s Web site.

The alderman looked like he’d rather drink sour milk. But I put my arm around him and said, “C’mon, alderman, you know you love me.”

He rolled his eyes again but then clasped my hand and gave me what I’d hoped for: a big ol’ smile.

A few days later Mell posted the grip-and-grin shot with the tag line: “Ben Joravsky and Alderman Mell agree to remain political frenemies.”

Guess that about sums it up.   

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.