PI Original Angela Caputo Tuesday December 1st, 2009, 2:38pm

Chronicling The TIF Blowback

Anyone who has been following the debate over tax increment financing (TIF) this past decade is probably rubbing their eyes in disbelief today.

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Anyone who has been following the debate over tax increment financing (TIF) this past decade is probably rubbing their eyes in disbelief today. That's because the Sun-Times became the second daily paper in a week to devote an editorial to Mayor Daley's "slush fund," capping off an unprecedented two months in terms of local attention to the issue. From their piece:

We'd love to tell you where the mayor plans to spend his slush fund money next, but while city officials may share that information with aldermen, they won't share it with you, the taxpayers.

These points aren't nitpicking.

Because at the end of the day, TIFs cost city homeowners money.

"It may be his slush fund," the Sun-Times editorial board goes on to write. "But it's our money." 

This ongoing succession of editorials and articles and mainstream-media-mentions really began when the Reader's Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky published a stinging cover story back in October that exposed some of Daley's plans to spend the $1 billion surplus in his "shadow budget."

The timing was impeccable. Their story hit the web on October 21, the same day that the mayor rolled out his FY 2010 budget, which proposed balancing the deficit via service cuts and a $370 million infusion from the city's dwindling asset lease reserves.  Here's our rundown of the resulting coverage: 

October 21: Appearing on WTTW's Chicago Tonight, the Metropolitan Planning Council's Peter Skosey's notes the mayor's plan to terminate several TIF districts, adding "we ought to be looking at the other 160 TIF districts" for ways to alleviate the city's budget crisis.

October 22: During an appearance on WFLD's Good Day Chicago, the Better Government Association's Andy Shaw holds up a copy of the Reader article, telling viewers "we need transparency here."  Greg Hinz also chimes in on his Crain's blog that afternoon, saying to the Daley administration: "Cut the bull, guys. It's our money. You clearly have a pretty good idea how you intend to spend it, so tell us."

October 25: On Fox Chicago Sunday, Dane Placko rails against Chicago's "huge TIF problem," while co-host Jack Conaty observes: "People have been getting upset about TIF for years. I think it's going to peak here shortly."

October 29: Ald. Tom Allen (38th Ward) dubs TIF the "over-tax fund" and calls for tapping into the mayor's secret accounts to restore public services.

November 1: Daley sits down for an interview with WBEZ's Alison Cuddy during which TIF is a major topic of discussion. When asked if he plans to make the system more transparent, the mayor replies, "Sure we will. Sure we will."

November 2: Progress Illinois fact-checks Daley's WBEZ interview and finds his defense of the TIF network weak and often misleading. 

November 5: In the Reader, Dumke also takes a look at the interview and concludes that Daley "played fast and loose with the facts when he wasn't ducking the question altogether."

November 9: In an editorial headlined "It's Our Money," the Tribune writes that "Chicago has gotten carried away" when it comes to TIF and demands: "Open the books, Mayor. Put everything out in the open so taxpayers can see how their dollars are spent."  

November 10: Thanks to a new online search tool developed by Cook County Clerk David Orr's office, Progress Illinois reports that 92 percent of Mayor Daley's own property tax payments are redirected into the Near South TIF district.

November 13: Daley holds a press conference on the renovated Cherry Avenue bridge (paid for with TIF dollars) and tells reporters, "Some of the aldermen are questioning [TIF]. That's why they're not here today, to be very simple. Because they don't think it should be used for this purpose." Progress Illinois points out that Daley is setting up a straw man.

November 17: The Sweet Home Chicago Coalition holds a press conference in the Uptown neighborhood, highlighting some of the blighted buildings that could benefit from greater TIF investment.  The coalition voices support for a proposed ordinance that would require 20 percent of the annual TIF revenue to be committed to affordable housing.

November 18: Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) puts his foot down on a plan cooked up by some of Daley's deep-pocketed friends to create an "East Loop" TIF to rehab their properties. Reilly notes that the area does not "come close to meeting the threshold level of obsolescence or deterioration the Illinois [TIF] statute was designed to address."

November 19: Joravsky's latest Reader article describes how state lawmakers did the mayor's bidding during the 2009 legislative session by quietly extending the lifespan of several Chicago TIF districts. 

November 23: In an editorial titled "TIF Gone Wild," the Tribune celebrates Ald. Reilly's rejection of the proposed TIF district, writing: "If the building owners want to make their properties more attractive to tenants, they can do it with their own money." 

November 24: WTTW's Elizabeth Bracket reports on the proposed East Loop TIF and interviews Ald. Reilly -- as well as some local residents -- about his decision to oppose the plan. 

November 27: The Sun-Times' Abdon Pallasch takes a crack at fact-checking Daley's TIF statements, writing that the mayor "is being less than truthful" about the TIF network's effect on local taxing bodies and taxpayers.

December 1: Most recently (as noted above), the Sun-Times editorial page pivots off Pallasch's piece and demands better answers, writing: " [T]he mayor needs to speak frankly with taxpayers about TIFs. It may be his slush fund. But it's our money."

TIF enthusiasts know that it was Jacqueline Leavy of the now-defunct Neighborhood Capital Budget Group that actually coined the "shadow budget" phrase years ago. Even back in 2005, Leavy was calling "a full evaluation" of the TIF program "long overdue." It's a point that we and the Reader have been echoing for some time. It's encouraging to see the issue getting such a steady drumbeat of attention.

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