Taxpayers are largely kept out of the loop when it comes to how their property taxes are used by tax increment finance (TIF) districts, according to Tom Tresser, co-founder of the Civic Lab.
Aiming to promote transparency in government and give residents background information on neighborhood TIF projects, the Civic Lab and the TIF Ad Hoc Committee of the Washington Park Community hosted a town hall meeting at the Washington Park Field House Saturday.
According to the Civic Lab data, 53 percent of Chicago's property taxes went toward TIF financing last year.
There are six TIF districts that include a portion of Chicago’s South Side 20th ward, which is largely comprised of Washington Park and Woodlawn. Approximately 32 percent of homeowners in the 20th ward have funds from their property taxes go toward a TIF district, the largest of these districts being the Woodlawn TIF District, with more than 90 percent of it falling within the boundaries of the ward. TIF district borders do not coincide with political or community boundaries.
Tax increment financing is a form of public financing by which portions of property taxes are used as a subsidy for community development projects. Projects with funding from TIF districts are approved by the Chicago City Council.
Instituted in Illinois more than 30 years ago, TIF districts are designed to encourage development in blighted areas. But for years critics have condemned a lack of community involvement in potential developments, saying taxpayers should have more input into which projects their taxes help fund.
“The projects that are proposed — they’re not asking you,” said Tresser, to a room of approximately 40 residents at Saturday's TIF meeting. “TIFs go on for 23 years, so this is a gift that keeps on giving, and the other uses of government suffer, so there’s a larger policy question that I have to put on the table ... Do these projects need our public money? And is this the best way to have economic development for the city?”
According to Tresser, TIFs are driven by “power, not policy.”
The University of Chicago-led South Side redevelopment of Harper Court received a subsidy of $20.4 million in TIF funding from the 53rd Street TIF District, with $5.2 million going toward construction of a new hotel, the Hyde Park Hyatt.
According to data compiled by the Civic Lab, 443 TIF districts in Cook County extracted $729 million in property taxes in 2011, with $454 million coming from Chicago’s 163 TIF districts, spread out amongst 49 wards. The only ward in Chicago to not intersect with a TIF district is the Northwest 41st ward, which includes O’Hare Airport.
The Woodlawn TIF District ended 2011 with more than $15 million in assets. According to Civic Lab data, since if was first created in 1999, the Woodlawn TIF District has collected more than $25 million in property taxes.
Those property taxes, according to Tresser, could have gone to public schools or park districts. Saying the data is “hazy,” he questioned which bank the TIF district’s funds are housed in, where $917,767 in expenditures from 2011 went and, saying “it’s your right to know,” called on volunteers to join the Civic Lab’s TIF Illumination Project to demand further insight.
During the meeting, the Washington Park Advisory Council brought to light a proposed project by Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), for a 55-acre, $260 million sports complex. Being touted as a job creator, the complex would include an outdoor ski mountain, an aquatic center, a track and field building, and indoor golf, tennis and hockey facilities. Although the project is in very preliminary phases, it includesallocating TIF funds for development of the facilities. Many of Saturday’s meeting attendees had no knowledge of the plans for such a facility.
Generating the data for the Washington Park meeting, the TIF Illumination Project is comprised of volunteers who research data available from the City of Chicago and the Cook County Clerk’s office, and FOIA when necessary, to investigate the goings on in Cook County’s TIF Districts.
Through the TIF Illumination Project, the Civic Lab plans to investigate all of the TIF districts that intersect Chicago’s wards, and host town hall meetings in neighborhoods across the city. Tresser said there were at least eight more meetings scheduled, with the next being on March 30 at 1 p.m. at South Shore High School.
“I directly correlate the downward spiral of my community to the enactment of TIFs because if they’re taking tax dollars of out my community, how are we supposed to get our schools turned around and get our police to control violence,” asked Donald Gibson, 45, a resident of Chicago’s 9th ward. “It’s a travesty they don’t let the community have more interaction or participation in choosing what should be built or what should be done with TIF funds.”
Planning to go home and contact Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) to find out TIF information for his own ward, Gibson signed a Civic Lab petition that demands TIF appropriations be included on property tax bills.
“We have to get the community more involved. If you had 500 people getting the information I got today, things would definitely change,” he said.
State Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), who also signed the petition to demand that property taxes collected by TIF districts be clearly shown on property tax bills, said there was a communication gap between aldermen and Springfield’s state legislators. She said she attended the meeting because, as a resident of the 20th ward, she was curious about TIF districts her neighborhood.
“People need to educate themselves more, they need to become more aware of what a TIF is, what it does and how it operates, and once they find that out I’m sure they’re going to become very angry because our taxes are going up, but they have very little say in what projects they’re funding,” she said.
Hunter mentioned introducing an amendment to TIF legislation in Springfield that would support the Civic Lab’s petition, but said that wouldn’t come for a while.
“We need to talk with our alderman, meet with our alderman and find out what is going on,” she said. “The community needs to be included in these TIF decisions.”