Residents of Chicago's 11th Ward were outraged upon learning that $57.4 million in property tax money was sitting in their tax increment financing (TIF) districts' collective bank accounts at the end of 2011, according to data unveiled by the CivicLab.
One resident suggested at least one way that money could have been put to use at the CivicLab's TIF Illumination Project meeting Wednesday night.
Maureen Sullivan with Bridgeport Alliance said she has been pushing the city to renovate the Ramova Theater at 35th and Halsted streets for years, to no avail.
The city currently owns the property, which has been closed since 1986, Sullivan said.
“It could be a thousand-seat performance space and the largest economic generator on Halsted Street, and it's sitting there empty," Sullivan said in remarks after the meeting, held at the McKinley Park library. "And I'm so angry, because when I talk to the city, they dangle (TIF) in front of you, like 'we may be able to get you some TIF funds for this.'”
The town hall, which aimed to promote TIF transparency at the local level, was the TIF Illumination Project's thirteenth community meeting since February. The TIFs in the 12th Ward were also discussed at Wednesday's meeting.
About 57 percent of the 11th Ward, which includes the Bridgeport neighborhood, is in a TIF district. About 47 percent of the 12th Ward, which includes the McKinley Park, Little Village and other neighborhoods, is in a TIF district. Ten TIF districts fall within each of the wards.
The 11th Ward's TIF distritcs hauled in $13.3 million in property taxes in 2011. And in the 12th Ward, TIF districts took in $2.7 million in property taxes in 2011.
Across the city, there are 172 TIF districts. An additional 280 TIF districts are located in suburban Cook County.
The boundaries of TIF districts wander across the city's wards and other political lines.
A portion of the property tax dollars of those living within a TIF district are diverted from other units of government, such as local schools and parks, that also rely on money from property taxes.
The TIF program, which was started under former Mayor Harold Washington and greatly expanded under Richard M. Daley's administration, began with the goal of eradicating blight, creating jobs and promoting economic development in underserved neighborhoods. TIF money is doled out to companies planning infrastructure development projects in the districts.
Through 2012, the program has taken in about $5 billion in property tax dollars since it began in 1986, according to the CivicLab's analysis.
At the end of 2011, the 163 TIF districts had $1.7 billion sitting in their collective bank accounts, the CivicLab found.
Tom Tresser, co-founder of the CivicLab, said this is where the data starts to get political and controversial.
"If the city says it's broke, and you can't get service because we're out of money, it immediately raises the question of what about this bunch of money," he said. "This is property taxes. This isn't magic beans. These are property taxes collected from your properties."
Tresser said the TIF program is a slush fund for the mayor. If the mayor is in favor of a TIF project, it will happen, he told the crowd.
"If the alderman wants a TIF and is tight with the mayor, it will happen," he added. "If the alderman wants a TIF and is not tight with the mayor, I'm not so sure. If the alderman does not want a TIF and he is not tight with the mayor, you’re going to get it anyway."
In the 11th Ward, 92 percent of the TIF projects that took place through 2010 were private developments, according to the CivicLab's data analysis. About 8 percent of the projects were public.
Those private projects received more than $46 million in TIF money. A few of the companies awarded TIF funds include Target and the waste hauler company Marina Cartage, among others.
"Are you OK with that list of projects," Tresser asked the crowd, to which audience members exclaimed 'No!'
In the 12th Ward, about 42 percent of the TIF projects financed through 2010 were private, while a little more than 57 percent of the developments were public.
Some of the private companies that received TIF money in the 12th Ward, according to the CivicLab, include Farley's & Sathers Candy Company, Inc. and National Wine and Spirits, Inc.
Tresser said TIF money comes with "no strings attached," so if a company goes bust, for example, it is not required to pay back any awarded TIF money.
According to the CivicLab, $9 million was left sitting in the bank accounts of the collective TIF districts inside the 12th Ward at the end of 2011.
Sullivan said her organization plans to continue looking into the TIF program in order to further reveal how the funds are being used in the community.
Jeneva Garrett, a 15-year Bridgeport resident, said she is curious to learn whether some of the companies who received TIF money in her ward have made campaign contributions to the alderman.
"I wouldn’t be surprised at all," Garrett said.
The TIF Illumination Project heads to the 50th Ward on June 11. The meeting will be held at the Devon Bank at 6:30 p.m.