Dozens of South Shore residents weren’t too happy upon learning that a portion of their property taxes have been used as part of the city’s tax increment financing, or TIF, program.
Tom Tresser, co-founder of the CivicLab, came to the 7th Ward, and is heading to others, as part of the volunteer-based TIF Illumination Project, which is intended to promote TIF transparency and provide Chicago residents with a snapshot of what the program is — or isn’t — doing for their communities.
“I can’t believe that it’s so much money that’s out there that the community does not know about that’s not channeling back into our community, especially with all the schools closing,” Renita Jones, a South Shore resident of more than 14 years, said after Saturday's meeting.
“It’s just amazing to me that (the city is) saying there’s no funds, and we have millions of [TIF] dollars that’s available that’s going to the corporate district, but the lower-class people are suffering from it,” Jones added.
TIFs are designed to eradicate blight, create jobs and promote economic development in neighborhoods that need it most by diverting property tax dollars in TIF districts and funneling them to companies planning development projects in an area in order to spur growth.
But Tresser called the program, which was started by former Chicago mayor Harold Washington but greatly expanded under Richard M. Daley’s leadership, “out of control,” with some companies in the Loop receiving millions of dollars in TIF subsidies while truly blighted communities see few economic development projects.
Also, it’s a challenge for the public to learn how their dollars are being spent, he added.
There are 163 TIF districts in Chicago covering 33 percent of the city’s landmass, Tresser said.
Other municipalities also use TIFs. An additional 280 TIF districts are located in suburban Cook County.
In total, $454 million was extracted from Chicago’s property taxes for the TIF program in 2011.
“That’s off the books,” Tresser said. “That’s a slush fund. That is impenetrable; not available to you or even the aldermen when they vote on their annual budget.”
TIF money is diverted from government services such as police, community colleges, schools, and parks.
But it’s important to note, Tresser said, that about $1.3 billion in property taxes remained in the collective 163 TIF accounts at the end of 2011, according to the CivicLab’s data analysis.
“So right away you have to ask yourself, why don’t we have access to (those) funds?” Tresser said. “What is magic about that money that it’s not available to the citizens for our various needs? How can the city be claiming to be broke if that money is sitting in bank accounts?”
Property taxpayers in the 7th Ward paid $21.4 million in taxes in 2011.
But after more than $1.4 million was extracted for TIFs, about $20 million was left for the various units of government, according to the CivicLab’s calculation.
“Everyone got squeezed, and you [multiply] this [by] 163 TIF districts,” Tresser said. “So this operation happens over and over again for every TIF district. The Board of [Education] and the other units of government are getting squeezed.”
Altogether about $6.1 million was left sitting in the 7th Ward’s TIF districts' bank accounts at the end of 2011, the CivicLab found.
“You could ask yourselves, what would you do with $6 million in the 7th Ward,” Tresser asked the crowd. “I think you probably have some ideas.”
There are five active TIF districts in the 7th Ward, but the main ones are the 95th/Stony Island TIF district, which covers 80 percent of the ward, South Chicago which encompasses 21 percent of the ward, and the Commercial Avenue district covering 40 percent of the ward.
A newer district, Chicago Lakeside, is located inside 100 percent of the ward, although no activity has been reported yet, Tresser said. The 2012 TIF reports will be available from the city in about four months, he added.
The Chicago Lakeside project area was created in 2010 to spur redevelopment near the former South Works steel mill site on the Far South Side lakefront. It's in the beginning phase of creating a master road and infrastructure construction plan for a mixed-use community development on nearly 90 acres of land, according to the city.
“We have the huge ... Chicago Lakeside TIF where Phase 1 is $96 million, and that’s for the infrastructure work, etc.,” said Sharon Louis with the South Shore Sustainability Collaborative. “I think it’s important that we understand what’s going on. One of the things that we really need to make sure that we get (is) community benefits from all of these projects.”
The other main TIF district in the ward, 95th/Stony Island, has collected $13.7 million in property taxes since it was created in 1990 through 2011, CivicLab data show.
“They took $13.7 million from the property owners inside this area in 11 years,” Tresser said. “What happened to it?”
Tresser highlighted the district’s main project, the Stony Island Plaza, near the corner of 95th Street and Stony Island Avenue.
The developer was awarded about $7 million in 1998 to construct the shopping center that currently includes a Jewel-Osco and a Marshalls, among other retailers.
Resident Jones said she’s visited the shopping center about once since she’s lived in the area, and she raised some concerns about the mall’s accessibility to local residents.
“Was it worth the money? No, absolutely not,” she said. “I think they could have found better things to do with that money besides build that big ole’ mall. You can have little-bitty community malls in the community instead of building that one mall that you have to take a bus to travel [to]. And public transportation is not that well to get down there. I think that was just truly a big waste of money.”
The TIF Illumination Project heads to the 8th and 9th Wards, covering the Avalon Park and Roseland neighborhoods, on April 6.