Mayor Rahm's TIF reform with strings attached

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Its important to remember that when it comes to the TIF surplus, Mayor Rahm gives to the schools with one hand and takes with the other.
  • Rich Hein/Sun-Times Media
  • It's important to remember that when it comes to the TIF surplus, Mayor Rahm gives to the schools with one hand and takes with the other.

Around the time Mayor Emanuel was unveiling his latest TIF reform, I started getting calls from exasperated teachers and parents about the games being played with the mayor's last TIF reform.

Which just goes to show you, whenever Mayor Emanuel talks TIF reform—beware!

OK, let's get some basics out of the way . . .

The way I like to explain it, tax increment financing is where the property taxes you pay for things you want—like schools—get diverted into a slush fund to pay for things you don't want.

Like whatever really dumb idea Mayor Emanuel's cooking up—e.g., a Marriott hotel and DePaul B-ball arena in the South Loop.

About a year ago a bunch of parents from the Raise Your Hand Coalition and the Common Sense Coalition of LSCs took to the streets, marching to DePaul's downtown offices to protest against cutting funds to the public schools while spending money to build a basketball arena and hotel for private institutions.

The uproar created a political challenge for our mayor. How to silence these pesky parents without seriously interrupting the flow of slush for his projects?

The mayor came up with the idea of the TIF surplus kickback. That is, he pledged to return to the schools a relatively tiny portion of the $1.7 or so billion he's got sitting in TIF reserves. Most of which he took from the schools in the first place.

At which point grateful parents throughout the city were supposed to fall to their knees and say, "Oh, thank you, Mr. Mayor, for not spending all of our school money on stuff like that Marriott/DePaul project."

With his reelection campaign coming up, the mayor obviously decided he had to play this game again, just in case the parents got restless.

So last week he announced that if the property tax hike he's proposing goes through, he'll kick back some of the TIF slush this raises to help cover pension obligations. (An idea, by the way, that he may have gotten from yours truly. No need to thank me, Mr. Mayor.)

Meanwhile, at roughly the same time, CPS sent a memo to principals inviting them to "apply for partially-funded positions for school years 2014-2016."

The money would come from the TIF surplus kickback he had previously announced. "For elementary and high schools, up to 84 system-wide arts positions can be funded," the e-mail continued. "For high schools, up to 84 physical education positions can be funded."

In short, each of the 658 schools in the system gets to apply for one of 84 partially funded art positions.

Think of it as the Chicago's version of American Idol, where the contestants come before the judges to sing for their supper, so to speak. If anyone knows the words to "Copacabana," it might be worth singing a line or two the next time you bump into the mayor—just in case he's partial to Barry Manilow.

Moreover, "the TIF surplus funds are designed to ensure that all schools have access to [arts] teachers in order to meet the following requirements over the next three years: For students in grades K- 8, 120 minutes of arts instruction each week."

In other words, the TIF money is being used to help cover the cost of one of the mayor's unfunded mandates.

Look, I'm all for mandating more art and gym, Mr. Mayor. But if you're making the schools do something, you have to give them the money to pay for it.

I mean—it's bad enough the mayor's making schools beg for their TIF money. It's even worse that he's making them spend it to fulfill his mandates. As opposed to fully funding his mandates.

If he conducted other business this way he'd have told Marriott, "We'll pay for the coffee shop in your new hotel. But you'll have to come up with the rest—how about a bake sale?"

Which is not a bad idea, come to think of it.

I, for one, think the mayor should divert money from the Marriott/DePaul project to pay for his art and gym mandates.

Now, that's an idea he'll never steal.

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