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TIFs: the tax bill you have to pay but never see

The program intended to help the poorest of the poor largely benefits the well to do

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In his previous crusade, north-side activist Tom Tresser went up against the political, cultural, media, and civic elite of Chicago as he fought against bringing the 2016 Olympic games to town.

Against all odds, Tresser won!

And decisively so. No only did the International Olympic Committee award the games to another city (thank you, Rio de Janeiro), but they also exposed just how deficient Chicago's application was by bouncing it before the other finalists'.

Thank you, IOC. And thank you, Tom Tresser and No Games Chicago, for exposing that budget-busting land-grab fiasco.

For an encore, Tresser is trying to get city officials to tell the truth about how they spend your property taxes.

Good luck with this one, Tom, though it's definitely worth fighting for.

"We believe the public should know how its public dollars are spent," says Tresser. "It's just fundamental to democracy."

He is, of course, talking about the city's tax increment financing scam. That's the program intended to eliminate blight in the poorest neighborhoods. Instead, the city jacks up your property taxes and funnels the money into a slush fund available for virtually anything the mayor wants, generally in neighborhoods that are neither poor nor blighted. Such as—to pick just one of my favorite TIF deals—the recent $30 million handout to the developers of River Point, an upscale office complex on the banks of the Chicago River downtown, in the hottest real estate market in the city.

Meanwhile, the mayor's closing schools because we're broke. Good thing for him that hardly anyone's paying attention.

That's where Tresser comes in. Along with assorted academics, computer geeks, and other troublemakers, Tresser has started the CivicLab, which is breaking down the city's TIF game to see who really wins and loses. They're setting up a website (civiclab.us/the-tif-report) that reveals what Mayor Rahm Emanuel most wants to conceal, just like Mayor Richard Daley before him: that the program intended to help the poorest of the poor largely benefits the well to do.

In addition, the CivicLab is organizing an online petition to force lawmakers to address the best part of the scam—the fact that your tax bill lies to you about it. "Getting the correct information on the tax bill is a big start," says Tresser. "If you have property in TIF districts, the property tax must reveal the impact of what you pay. It's so fundamental."

Before you fall asleep, let me explain. You too can be a TIF geek!

If you're a renter, your landlord passes you the property tax tab in your rent. But if you're an owner, each year the county sends you a property tax bill that you probably don't pay attention to, other than paying it.

That bill itemizes down to the penny how much of your taxes are being sent to schools, parks, the city, etc—things you're more or less OK with spending your money on. In truth, lots of it is going into the TIF slush fund to finance things you probably don't want your money spent on, like the aforementioned office building in River North.

Don't believe me? Well, look at your tax bill. If you live in a TIF district, it will tell you that you pay zero dollars to the TIF, as in no money at all. When, of course, that is not the case. Think, people—if no one paid money into the TIF district, there would be no money to subsidize River Point.

When I first reported this—approximately ten billion light years ago—the city blamed it on the county and the county blamed it on the city. And off the record everyone told me that it's better to let the tax bills lie, because if they told the truth about where tax dollars go, the peasants might revolt.

Let's face it: Chicago's peasants are just too sleepy to revolt.

Still, give Cook County clerk David Orr some credit. He set up a system on his website that enables you to see how tax dollars in TIF districts are actually allocated. As opposed to how the "official" tax bill says they're allocated.

For example, let's look at the property tax bill for the South Loop townhouse once owned by Mayor Daley, who pretty much invented Chicago's TIF program. According to the bill, that property—now owned by Mayor Daley's daughter—was responsible for $12,889 in taxes this year. Of that, $6,804 went to the Chicago Public Schools.

But if you plug the address into Orr's converter, you'll discover that in fact only $506 went to the schools. Instead, about $11,922, or 92 percent of the total, went to something called the Near South TIF. Which, interestingly enough, helped finance the development of the very townhouse community where the property's located.

To compensate for the $6,298 it's not getting out of the Daleys' bill, CPS increases the amount the rest of us pay, even if we don't live in that TIF. Because the money's got to come from somewhere.

It's that way for all of the roughly 150 TIFs in Chicago. And you wonder why you pay so much in taxes while the schools stay broke.

As always when I write about this, I have a feeling that many readers, lost in the swirl of numbers, have long since turned the page, so to speak. And that's the central reason city officials get away with this: it's confusing and hard to follow. Like all great scams.

You may recall that Mayor Emanuel came to office vowing to reform the TIF program.

But don't expect him to join Tresser's crusade anytime soon. As any politician will tell you, money is power. And the TIF program gives Mayor Emanuel control of another $500 million a year in property taxes on top of the billions in the regular city budget.

That's a lot of power. He'd be a fool to give it up. And the mayor's a lot of things—most of which are unprintable in a family newspaper—but a fool he's not.

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