Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday July 12th, 2013, 4:36pm

Cook County Property Tax Bills To Provide More TIF Transparency, But More Changes Are Needed

Cook County property taxpayers in a Chicago or suburban tax increment financing (TIF) district will soon learn how much of their money is being diverted from local units of government and sent to a TIF program now that the data is being added to county tax bills.

Cook County Clerk David Orr released his 2012 TIF revenue report Thursday and announced that the second installment of the 2013 property tax bill will include the TIF information. The bills will be mailed during the summer of 2014.

Currently, Cook County tax bills for constituents living within a TIF district show zero dollars are being siphoned off into a TIF fund. But there were 435 active TIF districts in Chicago and suburban Cook County, which pulled in a collective $723 million during the 2012 tax year, according to Orr’s report.

Tom Tresser, co-founder of the CivicLab, is one of many Chicago TIF activists who have been calling for the information to be included on property tax bills. Tresser said the data is going to make “all the difference in the world” when it comes to TIF transparency.

“Your tax bill is lying to you when it says zero,” Tresser said. “It’s not zero.”

Under Chicago’s controversial TIF program, which began in 1986 and was greatly expanded by the city's former mayor Richard M. Daley, the city sets up tax increment finance districts in areas that are considered blighted. TIF critics, however, say the term blighted has been used too loosely, as TIF districts have been set up in both the Loop and downtown areas. The LaSalle Central and Canal/Congress TIF districts located downtown, for example, were among the largest districts by revenue in 2012, according to the report. They both individually took in about $20 million.

For those living in a TIF district, a portion of their property tax dollars gets diverted from local units of government, including the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Instead, the money is funneled into the TIF district’s fund. The amount that property owners pay into their TIF district varies because it’s based on the difference between what they currently pay in taxes and what they paid when the TIF district was first created. TIF districts typically have a life cycle of 23 years.

Since its inception through 2012, the city’s TIF program has collected $5.5 billion in tax revenue.

In return, companies receive public subsidies for economic development projects, like a shopping center, that will supposedly generate future property taxes inside the TIF districts. But TIF money has also been used for school building construction and other public-sector and non-profit projects.

The program is also controversial because the city has doled out millions of dollars for projects downtown, while some truly blighted areas have seen few benefits. TIF critics have also called into question the city’s practice of handing fat subsidies to big companies, including Walmart and the Hyatt Hotels, among many other major coprorations.

Tresser said he predicts Cook County residents will be quite angry and have a lot of questions once they see exactly how many dollars are being siphoned away from their schools and other public services and sent to the city and suburban TIF programs. The phone lines at the county, city and aldermanic levels will “melt” the day after residents receive their bills, he said.

Chicago’s TIF piggybank is also filling back up after two years of TIF revenue decline, the 2012 report showed. The city of Chicago stands to collect $457 million in TIF revenue for the 2012 tax year, which is $3.3 million more than in 2011. In 2011, Chicago hauled in $454 million in tax revenue, which was down 11 percent compared to $510 million in 2010.

Tresser added that the slight increase points to an improvement in the city’s general economy and an increase in property values.  

The suburban TIF revenue, on the other hand, dropped from $275 million in 2011 to $266 million in 2012.

During a press conference Thursday morning, Orr said Chicago is making some TIF “headway” because it cancelled nine TIF districts and did not create any new ones in 2012. There were a total of 154 active districts in 2012.

Three years ago, Orr called for a moratorium on all new Chicago TIF districts as a means to allow the new administration to review the issues surrounding the program and provide more transparency. 

“I am please that the stampede has slowed down,” Orr said.

But even though the TIF program's expansion has recently slowed, the city of Chicago has still hauled in nearly $1 billion for the 2011 and 2012 tax years.

On Thursday, Orr said he wants the mayor and city council to declare a TIF surplus to temporarily help plug the Chicago Public Schools district’s budget deficit.

CPS says it is facing a $1 billion budget deficit, and, as a result, schools are seeing severe funding cuts for next year in addition to the district's massive round of closings. In May, the Chicago Board of Education approved the shut down of 50 neighborhood schools, 48 of which closed for good last month, due, according to the district, to CPS' budget deficit and reported underutilization crisis.

“How do we explain to school kids that gym, music and art classes are cancelled while profitable businesses are tapping into the city’s tax base?” Orr said in a statement. “TIFs may have helped make downtown Chicago beautiful, but not enough is being done with TIF funds in the neighborhoods where they are needed most.”

In the last five years, Chicago has returned $182 million in TIF surplus to CPS, including $10.5 million last year, Orr said. He added that the city should be able to return more TIF money this summer to help ease the district’s budget woes, although he did not provide a specific dollar amount when questioned at Thursday's news conference. Some city aldermen, the Chicago Teachers Union and other education activists have also been making a push for the declaration of a TIF surplus.

In addition, Tresser, along with other TIF activists, want to know exactly how the city has spent, or plans to spend, that $5.5 billion it has collected since 1986. So does Orr.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel created a TIF taskforce that provided recommendations two years ago on how to make the program more transparent and effective. Orr said more TIF information has been put online for the public, but there is still a long way to go when it comes to transparency and judgment on how to use TIF money.

“There is a lot of room for improvement in accountability and equity, especially when so many taxpayer dollars are diverted into the Loop,” he said in a statement.

Orr called for a comprehensive report on all Chicago TIF districts that clearly shows how much of the $5.5 billion has been spent and earmarked. The county clerk says the report should also highlight the distribution of TIF dollars by project type, including schools, parks, infrastructure and commercial, among others.

In suburban Cook County, there were 281 active TIF districts in 2012 that are also in need of more scrutiny, he said. There's at least one TIF district in 69 percent of suburban villages and cities, according to the report.

“The need for greater transparency and accountability is just as vital in the suburbs as it is in the city,” Orr said.

Tresser applauded Orr's call for more transparency in Chicago. But, he says, Emanuel does not have to listen to the clerk's recommendations.

“The mayor can say, ‘Thank you for your input, Mr. County Clerk. Go count your chickens,’” Tresser said. “If David wants to do this, he should run for mayor in 2015, and then it will be his department (and) he can tell it to do what he wants it to do.”

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