A few weeks ago a City Hall source gave me a CD filled with the 2005 annual reports for the 143 tax increment financing districts in Chicago, and over the last few days it’s been a source of delight for me and other TIF geeks awed by the sheer scope of this scheme. I mean, on one level you have to hand it to city officials: they’re siphoning some $400 million a year in property taxes away from the schools, parks, libraries, etc, into off-budget slush funds, insisting all along that they’re not raising our taxes.

The annual reports, required by state law, are pretty much the only source of information the public has about TIFs, which are districts set up by the City Council at the direction of the mayor and routinely rubber-stamped by the bodies supposed to be overseeing them. By and large, the reports aren’t very useful. They’re hard to find. The city doesn’t go out of its way to promote them (the CD I have was apparently produced as a favor for other officials). And they’re confusing. You have to read between the lines to find the juicy stuff–the things the reports tell you are far less interesting than the things they leave out.

For example, consider the Pilsen Industrial TIF. Passed in 1998, the Pilsen TIF was intended to preserve the industrial job base in the factories and warehouses in the large manufacturing area near the Stevenson Expressway and Western Avenue. So far the TIF’s record on protecting industry has been mixed. It got off to a good start, allocating about $3.5 million to help American Linen build a new operation, but it’s gone downhill ever since. Yes, the city spent another $9.5 million in TIF funds to help build the Chicago International Produce Market at 2404 S. Wolcott. But the produce market was relocated from the old South Water Market on Morgan, which is being converted into Chicago University Commons, an upscale complex of loft condominiums, so it was one step forward and another one back in terms of protecting industries from residential encroachment.

Then, starting in 2004, things really went off track. First $5 million went to help Target build a store at 1940 W. 33rd. And then 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis got the City Council to amend the TIF so that a consortium of developers–Mota Construction Company, Kimball Hill Suburban Centers, and former HUD head Henry Cisneros–could build a 391-unit condo development on five acres at Peoria and 18th Street. Many Pilsen residents criticized Solis for using the TIF as a tool to spur gentrification, the very thing it was supposed to curb. Solis insisted that there just weren’t that many factories and warehouses looking to come to Pilsen–TIF or no TIF.

The annual statement doesn’t weigh in on this debate. Instead it dedicates page after page to mind-numbing legalese, a few confusing fiduciary charts, and a hard-to-read map of the district. Finally, on page 19 of the 39-page report, you get to the good stuff: a list of vendors.

The Pilsen TIF was one of the busier TIFs in the city last year. All told, the city doled out about $7.5 million in TIF funds to 19 vendors, ranging from HNTB Corporation, a sewer design company that got a professional service contract of $15,306, to Acme Refining Scrap Iron and Metal Company, which sold some land to the city for $785,500, to V & V Supremo Foods, which got a job-training contract of $32,889, to Rubin Brothers Inc., which got another job-training contract of $129,414.

What the report neglects to mention is that almost all of the vendors who received TIF funds contributed money to Daley or Solis. In some cases the contributions were checks from the company. In other cases they were personal donations from company officers. Since 2004, for instance, Acme has donated $11,000 to the 25th Ward Regular Democrat Organization, whose president is Solis. Since 2001 V & V has donated $3,400 to Solis’s organization and Rubin Brothers $4,050. If you broaden the count to include the developers building the condos on 18th Street, you see that Mota has contributed $31,150 to Solis’s organization since 2004 and Kimball Hill $4,000. Cisneros sent a check for $2,500 on August 16, 2005, just a few months before he announced the condominium plans.

Of course, the money Solis and Daley got from the vendors is just a small part of the millions they’ve raised over the last six years. After his 2003 reelection Daley said he would no longer take contributions from contractors doing business with the city, though before this week’s fund-raiser he had still managed to raise about $2 million. Solis has raised about $1.1 million over the last five years, about $70,000 of it from the TIF vendors alone. Meanwhile Solis’s most formidable political opponent in the ward, former alderman Ambrosio Medrano, had just $54.08 in his campaign fund at last count.

Claypool Caves

The north-side congressman Sidney Yates liked to tell a story about his first political campaign. It was 1939, and he was running for alderman as a reformer against an incumbent backed by Joseph Gill, the powerful 46th Ward Democratic committeeman. After getting clobbered, Yates went to Gill’s ward office on election night and publicly conceded, almost apologizing for running. “I told them that when I was young it seemed my father did so many foolish things–I was comparing Mr. Gill to my father,” Yates said in an interview. “And I said it occurred to me how much smarter my father had become. I said I had become much smarter as a result of this race too. And I became part of Mr. Gill’s organization.”

A few years later Gill slated Yates to run for Congress, where he remained, a good progressive, for more than 50 years. Point is, local bosses have a soft spot for independents who know their place.

This history lesson is relevant in the wake of this week’s Cook County Board election and Mayor Daley’s recent tirade against board commissioner Forrest Claypool. The mayor ripped into Claypool because the commissioner had refused to endorse Todd Stroger, Daley’s candidate for County Board president in the race against Republican Tony Peraica. Daley’s objective was obvious to most folks in City Hall. He was sending a message to any local politician who dared to cross the line.

The fact that Daley directed his rant at Claypool only underscored the point. Claypool used to be Daley’s fair-haired boy, serving as the mayor’s chief of staff and later as head of the Park District. The mayor even looked the other way when Claypool ran against board president John Stroger, a longtime Daley ally, in the Democratic primary last March. Claypool might have avoided a falling-out with Daley had he, like Yates, quickly fallen in line after losing.

But Claypool didn’t fall in line, and you know what happened next: after John Stroger was incapacitated by a stroke, the party bosses selected Todd Stroger to replace his father on the ballot. The longer Claypool refused to endorse Todd Stroger, the more attention he drew to the bosses’ backroom machinations, the more credibility he bestowed on Peraica’s campaign, and worst of all, the more he embarrassed Daley.

How’s Claypool taking the mayor’s public tongue-lashing? He’s biting his tongue. He stands by his decision not to endorse Stroger, but he refuses to say a nasty word about Daley. “I’m trying to be classy and dignified and measured,” he told me.

Don’t look for him to endorse someone else in the upcoming mayoral campaign or blast the Daley administration for corruption, soaring taxes, wasteful spending, the state of the schools, or the pending CTA breakdown. He may feel betrayed by the mayor’s rant, but he’s not stupid, and he doesn’t want to jeopardize what’s left of his political career.

However, his supporters need not be so cautious. Here’s a reminder. For all those so-called Claypool Democrats who are hell-bent on reform, there’s another far more important race coming in February.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, Mike Browarski.