Chicago's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Program is intended to take property taxes today for investments that will produce more property taxes in the future, the Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky said at a TIF forum Tuesday night.
"I have no problem with the TIF program in the essence, but we don’t live in the essence. We live in Chicago, Illinois," said Joravsky, a panelist at the packed TIF Illumination Project's town hall meeting for the 50th Ward.
Joravsky said the city's TIF program has become "deranged" and blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel's recent plan to kick in $55 million in TIF funds for a new DePaul University basketball arena near McCormick Place.
The $55 million would be used to buy the current property now paying property taxes and essentially turn it into a tax-exempt property.
"It’s a complete reversal of what the whole TIF program is about,” Joravsky said at the forum, held at Devon Bank Tuesday night.
Joravsky, who reports extensively on the city's TIF program, told the more than 50 attendees to contact Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th) and explain to her how the basketball arena project is not a good use of public money.
“(Silverstein's) first vote of great significance will be when she has to vote on this $55 million monstrosity,” he said.
Joravsky urged all Chicago citizens to "wake up from their slumber and let their alderman know that they should not just be a rubber stamp for the mayor."
Tuesday's meeting was the CivicLab's fourteenth TIF Illumination Project community meeting since February. The CivicLab's co-founder Tom Tresser and other TIF "illuminators" are traveling across the city in attempts to promote TIF transparency at the local level.
Residents of the 50th Ward learned that the five TIF districts in their ward extracted $3.7 million of their property taxes in 2011, according to the CivicLab's analysis.
The 50th Ward produced about $67 million in property taxes in 2011, but the TIF districts took in nearly 6 percent of that money, Tresser said.
A portion of the property tax dollars of those living within a TIF district are funneled away from other units of government, such as local schools and parks, that also rely on money from property taxes.
Nearly 49 percent of the TIF projects that took place through 2010 in the 50th Ward were private developments, according to the CivicLab's data analysis. About 51 percent of the projects were public.
Overall, at the end of 2011, 163 TIF districts in the city had a collective $1.7 billion sitting in their bank accounts, the CivicLab found.
“Is this news to you,” Tresser asked, to which audience members exclaimed 'yes!' “Well, how can (the city) be broke?”
Former Ald. Bernard Stone (50th) later questioned why Tresser said the city was broke, as the CivicLab's presentation revealed otherwise.
"That’s my point,” Tresser responded. “This is the frame the people have been presented with by our leaders that we are broke, and I am saying I don’t believe it, and our research backs us up.”
One resident asked Tresser and Joravsky whether there was a way to get back the TIF money that was diverted from the Chicago Board of Education. The attendee suggested TIF money could help close the reported $1 billion deficit the school district is facing, that way 50 neighborhood schools will not have to close.
"Good luck with that," Joravsky said.
Joravsky is more hopeful that some kind of meaningful future changes to the TIF program could originate from local lawmakers rather than those in Springfield. He cited the 11 Chicago aldermen who voted against Emanuel's changes to the parking meter deal at the last city council meeting.
"That’s a start," he said.
Rich Kaplan, a 25-year resident of the 50th Ward, called on his neighbors to arrange a meeting with Silverstein to discuss the TIF program.
He also said the vast number of protests against the school closings, for example, offers some "hopefulness" in terms of opposing the city's powers that be.
“There may very well be a new movement in the city,” he said.
Tresser said the spirit Kaplan mentioned is "alive and well."
More than 1,000 people have attended the TIF Illumination Project's meetings so far, Tresser explained. He believes he is seeing what could be the start of aldermanic campaigns at some of the TIF meetings, because people are becoming more educated and engaged on the issue.
“If you don’t like the picture that we are showing you, then it's on you to change it,” Tresser said.
In other related-TIF news, Chicago's Community Development Commission unanimously gave the OK for a $5 million TIF subsidy to go to Vienna Beef Ltd. The funds are meant to assist the company in a move from its current North Side factory to Bridgeport. The company is looking to move, in part, because the city plans to do roadway realignment near its current factory, which could "impair Vienna's vehicular access, onsite functioning and any future expansion opportunities," a report to the commission reads.
Vienna's report also noted that the company was approached by other states to relocate. The proposal still has to go up for a vote in the full city council. But if approved, Vienna would have to stay at the new South Side plant for at least 15 years and have no less than 250 full-time workers there as part of the deal.