The following is an op-ed from Celeste Meiffren, field director with Illinois PIRG.
Yesterday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he will be immediately
implementing some of the reforms proposed by his Tax Increment Financing
(TIF) Reform Panel five months ago. All of the proposed reforms are
necessary to fix TIF and need to become law before more of our tax
dollars are wasted.
Every year, $500 million worth of property tax revenue collected from Chicago taxpayers flows into a funding pool that, up until very recently, has been completely off the books—allowing for an out-of-control spending spree to well-connected developers and other special interests.
For example, in 2009, Chicago taxpayers
unknowingly shelled out $31 million to United Airlines — just to help it
move its corporate headquarters to the Willis Tower! Even more
infuriating is that this money came from a program that is supposed to
revitalize struggling areas of the city. Have you been to the Willis
Tower lately? I would hardly say helping a large corporation move in
there meets that requirement.
The United Airlines giveaway is only one of countless stories about the recent track record of Chicago's TIF program.
Concerns about waste and abuse in Chicago’s TIF program came under increased scrutiny during last year’s Mayor’s race. Once in office, Mayor Emanuel vowed to reform Chicago's TIF process and created a panel of experts to review the city's policies and historical use of this program. In August, the panel proposed meaningful reforms that would move the city in the right direction, and at the time, the Mayor called for their immediate implementation.
The Panel’s recommendations include integrating TIF into the overall city budget, which would place TIF spending under more democratic control, without the power over TIF spending being concentrated in the Mayor’s office. They include measuring the performance of TIF districts and projects and propose measures to hold developers accountable for delivering on their goals. And, overall, these proposals will make it easier for the public to know where our money is being spent and if it is being spent appropriately.
Coincidentally, after the Mayor’s press conference yesterday calling for partial TIF reform, it was announced that three companies would be returning a total of $34 million to the City of Chicago. Two of these companies are refunding TIF money because they did not deliver on their goals to create jobs. It’s a good step, but without a law on the books, there’s no money back guarantee for taxpayers that would discourage money from being wasted in the first place. Promises from politicians and pledges from companies to return the money aren’t enough to protect taxpayers.
Not to mention, taxpayers have already waited five months and the City has already approved spending $26 million in TIF money since the first time the Mayor called for the implementation of his Reform Panel’s recommendations back in August. If the Mayor and the City Council admit that TIF is broken, why would they continue to use the program before it gets fixed?
With so many more TIF proposals in the queue and with millions in public money at stake, the City should not wait any longer to act. Until we see the needed reforms passed into law, the City should put a moratorium on all new TIF spending, so no more of our tax dollars are wasted.
To find out more, read Illinois PIRG’s new report out today, “Cleaning Up Tax Increment Financing: Rethinking Chicago’s Troubled Redevelopment Program.”
Celeste Meiffren is a field director with Illinois PIRG.