TIF town hall meeting at the Chopin Theatre: Defending the indefensible

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I was hoping Mayor Daley would show up for last night's TIF town hall meeting at the Chopin Theatre.

After all, Mayor Daley pretty much invented the TIF program as we practice it in Chicago. You might say he turned it into a work of art—of the corrupt Chicago variety. The least he could have done is show up to defend it.

But Mayor Daley was most definitely not one of the 200 or so people who packed the theater to discuss what could be done to reform this monstrosity, in a meeting sponsored by the Tax Integrity and Fairness Alliance, a coalition of activists.

In the mayor's absence, I thought about defending the program. The idea being that if I praise tax increment financing, Mayor Emanuel might really reform it.

Instead of pretending to reform it in the hopes that people will forget it exists.

It's like a form of reverse psychology. I'm thinking of doing the same thing with political candidates, since the ones I vote for—or tell you to vote for—generally lose.

For the record, the best defense of TIFs I've heard came in an on-background gabfest I had years ago with a Daley administration official.

He said—and I paraphrase—that of course TIFs hike property taxes. And of course they divert money from the schools. And yes, the whole thing is hidden from tax bills in order to perpetuate a slush fund.

But so what? All mayors need slush funds to pay for the stuff they want to do. At the same time, the citizens—that would be you, readers—don't want to pay more in taxes.

So everyone in City Hall plays along with this fantasy that we can get something for nothing. In short, the mayor needs to fool the people so the people can keep on fooling themselves.

Well, nobody was fooled at the town hall meeting.

Tom Tresser pointed out that the slush fund had about $1.4 billion in reserves as of the end of 2011, the last year numbers are available. Tresser is one of the founders of CivicLab, a not-for-profit dedicated to gathering and disseminating information on how Chicago spends its money.

And UIC professor Richard Dye noted that it's always been a hidden form of taxation.

And west-side activist Valerie Leonard pointed out that the program really hasn't stirred any development in low-income neighborhoods, which, of course, is what it's supposed to do.

And another activist, David Murray Orlikoff, said we really can't have an honest debate on our financial state of affairs while at least $450 million a year gets diverted to the TIF slush funds.

Good point. It's hard to justify all the penny-pinching items on Mayor Emanuel’s agenda—not hiring new police, closing schools, trimming pensions, shutting down mental health clinics, outsourcing city jobs, etc—without bringing the TIF take into the equation.

Put it this way—that $450 to $500 million a year won't pay all the bills. But it will help.

After the meeting, Tresser told me they plan to hold more town hall meetings throughout the city in the coming months.

On the way out the door, I met a couple of teenagers from Northbrook, of all places. They said they went to Glenbrook North. Go, Spartans!

Not sure why they were there, but god bless them for being curious.

One of them did his best to defend the TIF program. To paraphrase . . .

At least Chicagoans can see some of the stuff they get for their TIF tax dollars—like that upscale River North skyscraper we're subsidizing to the tune of $29.5 million. In contrast, a lot of federal tax dollars just get wasted.

Well, as defenses go, it's a start. TIFs may be bad, but not as bad as things that are worse.

It reminds me of the good old days back in the aughts, when Mayor Daley's supporters would tell me, "Hey, Ben, if you don't like it here—move to Detroit."

Keep up the fight, people!

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