Hey Mayor Daley, let's have lunch

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It was clear from his recent interview with WBEZ that Mayor Daley doesn't understand how his TIF program works.

And it's clear from its document "ABC's of TIF" that the Department of Community Development doesn't understand how the TIF program works.

And based on his letter in yesterday's Tribune, it's clear that Gene Saffold, the city's Chief Financial officer, doesn't know how the program works either.

Wow, we hit the trifecta. Nobody knows nothing about nothing. No wonder the city's going broke.

As a service to Mr. Saffold, I'll offer him a brief tutorial on Mayor Daley's favorite program by correcting a few of the erroneous assertions his letter makes.

He writes: "Chicago taxpayers and their aldermen are involved in every step of the way" thanks to "community meetings, public hearings and City Council meetings with active public participation." But the only mandated public hearing where citizens get to vent their views about TIFs occurs before the Community Development Commission (the City Council does not allow for public comment), a rubber-stamp board of Daley appointees that meets at one o'clock in the afternoon in the middle of the work week. And even there the public isn't permitted to directly question developers or city planners about proposed TIF deals or districts. In fact, in many cases—if not most—TIF deals go from start to finish without one substantive question being asked.

Saffold writes: "Aldermen have a great deal of spending oversight, as they endorse and approve every disbursement of TIF funds." It's true that the City Council approves TIF deals that involve private companies, but for the most part it's a routine sign off, sort of like a zoning change, where aldermen blindly follow the local alderman's lead. Otherwise Mayor Daley exercises the right to spend TIF funds as he wants, as when he takes TIF money intended for commercial deals in one ward and uses it to build schools in other wards. In many instances, the local aldermen are among the last in City Hall to know about the switch.

He says the program's greatest attribute is "its ability to capture growth in a neighborhood and use it for targeted reinvestment in the same community." But in fact there's something called porting where the mayor gets to take TIF money collected in one district and spend it in another. It happens regularly.

He says that each TIF district has "a plan and proposed budget that directly addresses the specific needs, goals and redevelopment objectives of that community." Actually, though, the budgets for most TIF districts are far greater than the costs of the development projects in them, so there's generally a pool of money left over for the mayor to spend how he wants. That's why they've come to be known as slush funds. People in Edgewater can tell you all about it.

In addition, the plans for each project are so loosely written and the oversight so negligible that money ostensibly earmarked for one thing often winds up getting spent on something else, as 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon learned the hard way.

He asserts that the city's TIF website—created only after the TIF geeks of the world raised holy hell—is "user friendly" and that by going there "taxpayers can see exactly how their TIF dollars are spent."

Obviously, he's never been to that site. If he had, he'd know that it's filled with clunky PDFs that take forever to download and contain page after page of bewildering documents [PDF] written in actuarial jargon that's virtually incomprehensible to the average human being.

Furthermore, these documents don't tell folks exactly how TIF money is spent. It's the shadow budget that does that. As in the shadow budget the city won't release.

But, look, I can understand why he's confused. This TIF stuff can be hard to follow. So I tell you what I'm going to do, Mr. Safford. How about you, Mayor Daley, and I meeting up for lunch? As an bonus, I'll explain how the TIF tax is shielded from taxpayers by keeping it off property tax bills. And how a lot of the money goes to the wealthy even though it's supposed to help the poor. And how it takes money from the schools. And ...

On second thought, you might need to schedule two lunches to learn exactly how the darn thing works.

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