Dipping into TIF accounts to avoid a teachers' strike, Mayor Rahm finally does the right thing


Retired teacher Patricia Lofton counted a stack of picket signs Monday as the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools worked to avoid a strike. - AP/CHARLES REX ARBOGAST
  • AP/Charles Rex Arbogast
  • Retired teacher Patricia Lofton counted a stack of picket signs Monday as the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools worked to avoid a strike.
Moments after word broke late Monday night that Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and Mayor Rahm Emanuel had cut a deal to avert a teachers' strike, Kris Bryant hit a ninth-inning homer to send the Cubs/Giants game into extra innings.

So just when we were on the verge of losing, hope sprung anew—for the Chicago Public Schools as well as for the Cubs.

In the case of CPS, hope came from the mayor's decision to spend at least $90 million in property tax dollars on the schools, rather than wasting it on stupid stuff that no one really needs.

Those property tax dollars were sitting in the tax increment financing bank accounts, just waiting to be taken. And Mayor Emanuel took them, finally, in order to pay for much-deserved teacher raises, in order to avert a strike.

So let me break from pounding the mayor like a piñata in order to praise him.

Yes, that's right. I'm going to praise the mayor. 

Mr. Mayor, congratulations for finally doing the right thing. I know it can't have been easy to kick that TIF money back to the schools, even if you took it from them in the first place, and even if the only reason you did it is 'cause you realized you couldn't afford another teachers' strike politically, what with so many Chicagoans already so mad at you over the way you handled the Laquan McDonald video, and even if—

You know, I think I could use a little more practice at praising the mayor.

Let me also take a second to explain why this feels like such a big victory.

In case you've forgotten, the TIF program collects up to $500 million a year in property taxes. That fund becomes like pure slush for mayors to spend anyway they want.

A mayor can't run a city without a slush fund, a press aide to former mayor Richard M. Daley once argued, during an off-the-record conversation back in 2006.

I'd just breathlessly explained to him how the TIF scam worked. I was making many breathless explanations about TIFs in those days. Back then, I was in year two of what turned into a 12-year mission, telling everyone and anyone who'd listen that TIFs annually divert hundreds of millions of property tax dollars from CPS. So if we wanted to adequately fund our schools, all we had to do was re-divert the diversion, so to speak.

I was so excited about my realization that I was like Archimedes, the ancient Athenian mathematician, who, while taking a bath, made a breakthrough discovery about a problem that had been vexing him. 

He then jumped from the tub and ran naked though the streets, yelling, "Eureka!" which is Greek roughly for "I have found it."

That's like me with TIFs—only I was fully clothed.

I wrote dozens of columns and had hundreds of conversations on the topic—even in front of a high school social studies class. Eventually, lots of other people—like Congressman Mike Quigley and west-side activist Valerie Leonard—had their own "eureka" moments. (I'm pretty sure they were fully clothed, as well.) It got to the point where people were marching in the streets waving signs that said things like "Silly mayor—TIFs are for kids".

And now, finally, it seems the mayor had no choice. Ultimately he had to redivert the diversion 'cause too many Chicagoans were onto the scam.

Still, I have a feeling I'm not through with TIF columns, as it seems unlikely that Rahm's given up on wasting the money.

For instance, consider this mayoral quote from Tuesday's Sun-Times: "TIF over the years has become a dirty word and [people] should know that there have been changes."

Uh oh. Always be wary when the mayor claims he's changed (or reformed) the TIF program.

This sounds to me like he's waiting for this moment to pass, so he can go back to wasting TIF money on stupid stuff.

Stay vigilant, Chicago. You can't be like the Cubs, who went on to lose Monday night's game in the 13th inning, despite Bryant's ninth-inning homer.

Yes, we averted a teachers strike. But the game's far from over.

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