The TIF sunshine ordinance,
sponsored by Chicago Alds. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) and Manny Flores
(1st Ward), passed the full City Council by a unanimous vote on April 22. It
set a deadline of July 30 for the creation of a single online database of
The TIF sunshine ordinance, sponsored by Chicago Alds. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) and Manny Flores (1st Ward), passed the full City Council by a unanimous vote on April 22. It set a deadline of July 30 for the creation of a single online database of TIF-related documents.
Last Friday, the first day after the deadline, the Department of Community Development (DCD) posted a press release announcing the launch of the new TIF website. Though it conspicuously avoids mentioning the ordinance, DCD spokesperson Susan Massel later acknowledged that the site is the city's response to the legislation. "We believe we've done a good job of meeting the requirements of the ordinance," she told us.
So let's take a look.
The TIF section of the DCD Web site is essentially a series of PDF documents. Many are searchable once downloaded, but others are not copy-and-paste-friendly. There is a lot of great information buried here, much of which wasn't online before. However, it's necessary to know what you're looking for.
As an example, we're going to examine the information available on the Central Loop TIF, one of the city's oldest and most complex districts.
The main page is broken down into two sections: "Overview" and "Projects." Here's how the Overview section is organized:
Profile and Map
This document provides a two-or three-page overview of the TIF district in glossy PR language. This is the type of information that would be good to have in HTML on the overview page, rather than in PDF form. The profile does attempt to compile each district's vital information in one place, but not nearly as elegantly or thoroughly as the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group's old TIF profiles (which are no longer updated). The document also contains some misleading information, like the percentage increase of the TIF's assessed value from the date of its inception until 2005. Without indexing this information to inflation and nearby real-estate markets, this statistic is misleading at best.
This type of document establishes all the underlying details of a TIF district, including its goals. Each is dense and detailed, but all are structured the same way. So once you've read a few, you get the hang of what's in there. One problem with many of these documents (including the Central Loop version) is that the PDF is an image rather than text. That means that you cannot copy-and-paste text from the document for use in other documents. Early drafts of the ordinance required all documents posted to the TIF database to be "machine-readable," but this provision was stripped from the final version. That is unfortunate because there is tons of good information buried in these plans, including the criteria for a TIF district's creation.
Presumably this should be the actual ordinance establishing the TIF, but the links to many of these are broken on the city's new website. This includes the Central Loop's -- just try clicking the link above.
This is the document that details money flowing in and out of the TIF district on a yearly basis. As with the redevelopment plans, many of these PDFs are images rather than text. There is actually a significant amount of good detail in there (who got paid how much, which buildings were purchased for what price), but the reports leave out lots of particulars (for instance, what goods or services were delivered when). To give one example, in the 2008 Annual Report, it notes that Rausch Construction was paid $5,207,212 for "public improvement." What building did they work on? What floors? What kind of work? Contractor or subcontractor? On CityPayments.org, we see that Rausch does lots of work for the city, including "Construction Of Downtown Bus Layover/Turnaround Chicago Department Of Transportation." This could be part of the TIF-funded work, but we the annual report doesn't tell us. We're not suggesting there's anything goofy about this particular line item -- just that more detail would be good.
The Projects section typically has a project name with supporting documents linked beneath. Document types include:
These are often simply copies of the relevant pages from the City Council Journal of Proceedings on the day the agreements were approved. They can be very repetitive, sometimes containing three complete copies of the document in each PDF. The key bits in these documents are the budgets, project descriptions, and sources of financing. Again, they lack useful detail. Example: Schedule C of the CNA Financial Corporation Redevelopment Agreement notes $24,204,899 in "TIF-FUNDED IMPROVEMENTS" to cover "costs for rehabilitation, reconstruction, or repair or remodeling of existing public or private buildings." That's a lot of money for so little specificity.
Community Development Commission Staff Report
These are pretty beefy documents with tons of research about a particular issue. For instance, this one covers the problem of excess leasing space in the CNA building. Apparently CNA had threatened to relocate out of town, and this document lays out the case for giving CNA money to redevelop and lease the property. Again, some plain-language summary would be appropriate here. Instead of just posting these documents and letting people guess what happened after the money was spent, it would be nice to pull the story together. For instance, the Chicago Housing Authority ended up being a major tenant of this building, but you have to go somewhere else to figure that out.
Economic Disclosure Statement
These are some Holy Grail documents right here -- they lay out the roles and relationships of key people associated with a TIF redevelopment agreement. They also happen to be the most difficult documents to feed into an OCR scanner in the hopes of getting usable text. The documents are images of photocopies of form documents with the answers (names, companies, relationships, etc.) hand-typed with typewriters. (If anyone is interested in doing a reverse-Facebook on these people, mapping relationships, that might be worthwhile.)
Certificate of Completion
These are documents -- not very useful ones -- certifying that the project is "complete" from a legal point of view. In the future, it might be worthwhile to ask certain questions of the CDC (what goal did the project achieve, who got paid how much for what, etc.) once a document like this hits the site.
In general, the problem with the files is the way they're published. For any given TIF, the most relevant data is spread out across several documents, all of which must be tediously downloaded separately rather than read in the relative comfort of a single browser page.
Other aspects of the new site are also grating. The TIF districts are grouped illogically and confusingly. If you click on the link for "TIF District Overviews," you are met by links to seven regional sections: North, Northwest, West, Southwest, South, Far South, and Central. Within these groupings, seven districts appear twice. If you click on the link for "TIF Annual Reports," however, you find only six groupings of TIF districts: Central Area, North Side, Northwest Side, South Side, Southwest Side, West Side. This time, 25 appear twice, one appears three times, and three that were present in the Overview section have vanished. The old West Ridge/Peterson TIF wasn't available in either set of groupings until we complained to DCD officials on Monday. And no matter which link you click on, five new TIF districts, all designated in 2009, are nowhere to be found.
All of this makes it difficult to arrive at a full count of the number of active TIF districts in the city, a fairly essential fact. Tediously opening all 160 TIF profiles on the website and checking to see which are no longer active, you'd think there were 154. Massel puts the city's count at 160, but we were only able to reproduce this by cross-referencing a City Clerk webpage, reviewing a document provided to aldermen in May, double-checking with the DCD, and including a TIF that hasn't yet been certified by the county. Greg Hinz, a capable reporter at Crain's Chicago Business, seemed to think the number was 164 as recently as last Friday. This is exactly the kind of confusion the site was supposed to clear up.
How, then, should we evaluate the city's TIF website? One way would be to use a letter grade system, in which an 'A' would be awarded to an elegant and thorough online tool that makes TIF easier to understand and an 'F' to a willfully confusing and incomplete document dump. On this scale, a grade of C-minus might be fair for the city's website. Here are suggestions for making it better:
- Plain-language narrative on the TIF district home page. For instance, the Central Loop district expired on December 31, 2008. This is an essential fact that is not obvious until someone downloads the right document and reads the right sentence
- Links to relevant press releases and news articles about project. Just having more connectors and context is good.
- More detail on payments. It's great to see, after downloading a PDF and visually parsing it, that Contractor X was paid Sum Y, but there is no information that tells us why the money was spent or what TIF district goal was achieved with the expenditure.
Aside from our grading system, there is another, more objective way to judge the site: Does it fulfill the requirements of the TIF sunshine ordinance?
Using this criteria, the site fails. The requirements of the ordinance are clear: It mandates that all annual reports for TIFs designated after July 30, 2004, be published. Yet on the current site, only the most recent reports are published. Meanwhile, many of the links to these TIF districts' designating ordinances -- also required by the ordinance -- are broken. And the five TIFs passed in 2009 are AWOL.
When we asked Massel about this, she urged patience, calling the website "a work in progress." Fair enough. But the ordinance was passed on April 22. Forty-eight aldermen set a legally binding deadline. It wasn't met.
It's hard to imagine that an edict coming straight from the mayor would receive the same response.
Max Brooks and Daniel X. O'Neil are members of OpenGov Chicago(-land), a group for citizens who are interested in seeing their federal, state, and local government function more efficiently and responsively. They are working with others on a project to make TIF information more useful.