TIF madness results as politicians game the system while public goes about its business
October 5, 2018

The chart above, provided by CivicLab and the TIF Illumination Project, shows that over the typical 23-year life of a TIF, the amount going to public uses remains stagnant (in the purple box), while an ever-increasing amount (in the left yellow triangle) is off the books with no transparency and goes to the mayor for pet projects.

It’s a very different political world out there these days, to say the least.

While there was always some corruption and government malfeasance, for much of American history, you voted for whom you thought were the best candidates, and whether your choices won or not, you could be reasonably certain that the Federal, State, or City government would operate well enough that you didn’t have to pay a lot of attention until the next election. If you thought things were running well enough you voted for the incumbent or his or her party, and if not you voted for change. Most of the rest of the time, we could focus on our own lives and let our elected officials, people we hired to do a job, do that job.

It is clear that is not the case anymore. Nationally, the unprecedented corruption, farce, and outright meanness in Washington has created a national mood of despair and fear and turned everyone into news addicts. We spend a lot more time worrying about what is happening on Twitter and Facebook and if the world will survive another day. During the last few years in Springfield the situation has been no better, as Illinois went without a budget for two years, and finally got one when enough citizens and activist groups put the pressure on so that politicians became nervous about losing their seats.

Here in the City of Chicago, while we’ve been going about our daily lives, the politicians, particularly our mayors but also our aldermen, too, have allowed tax increment financing (TIFs) to spin out of control.

As our page one lead article details, Tom Tresser of CivicLab and the TIF Illumination Project has found that more than $1.4 billion is sitting in the City’s TIF accounts, taking away much-needed tax dollars from schools, libraries, and infrastructure and giving Chicago’s mayors a slush fund to dole out to favored developers. TIFs were supposed to spur development and construction in blighted areas; instead, the funds often are diverted to affluent areas, resulting in what Nathan Ryan of Grassroots Collaborative calls “a tale of two cities,” with TIFs “taking resources away from neighborhoods, especially black and brown communities, and moving that to developers for things like luxury condos and stadiums.”

When Tresser asked the City where the $1.4 billion is going, he was told the funds are “committed” and therefore “confidential.” So the City has decided we can’t be told where our billions of dollars are going because they are “committed” to something? That’s the opposite of TIF transparency; that’s TIF madness and malfeasance.

David Merriman of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs has done a study of TIFs around the country, finding that, “in most cases, TIF has not accomplished the goal of promoting economic development.”

TIFs in Chicago collect almost $500 million a year. If the money went to where it was originally designated instead of to TIFs, with the total budget for Chicago Public Schools for the 2018-19 year at $3.1 billion, that $500 million could easily make up the $300 million more the schools need and that the CPS asked the State government for in July. The total annual budget for the Chicago Public Library system is $75 million. Imagine what even a part of that $500 million could do to upgrade CPL structures and computers, to buy new books, to expand hours, and to restore years of personnel cuts. And wouldn’t we all like to see the City reopen some of its shuttered mental health clinics, to get the mentally ill off of intersections and out from doorways and under viaducts and into treatment?

Yet here in Chicago, politicians merrily continue down the TIF trail. So it’s up to us as citizens to stop them.

Don’t lose sight of the importance of the Nov. 6 gubernatorial and state legislative races, and vote for the candidates whom you believe can clean up the mess in Springfield. But after that, when you turn your attention to the mayoral and aldermanic races coming up in Chicago in February, make sure TIFs are an issue on which you will base your vote.

Merriman offers suggestions on how to clean up TIFs, including allowing governments to opt out of TIFs, therefore retaining funding that should have gone to schools, libraries, and infrastructure in the first place; governmental reviews of TIFs to see if they are actually effective (not happening in Chicago now); and government providing “extensive, easily accessible information about TIF use, revenues, and expenditures” (definitely not happening in Chicago now).

We all need to put pressure on our current elected officials, and on candidates, to follow suggestion’s like Merriman’s to clean up TIFs. Call them and write to them. Protest. Use social media as a force for public good, and not as a place to have arguments with people you don’t agree with. The next mayor needs to be more responsible about collecting and dispensing TIF money, and the aldermen need to oversee and regulate the mayor when he or she does so.

If you think that citizens attempting to have more of an effect is futile, look no further than the Tri-Taylor area, where citizens formed the new Tri-Taylor Neighborhood Watch Group, and used social media to help apprehend an alleged burglar.

That’s the type of citizen action and use of modern technology we need not only to fight crime, but to fight politicians gaming the system at the City, State, and Federal levels. Demanding more transparency and better use of TIF funds in Chicago would be an excellent start.