News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Why your tax money keeps going down the TIF portal hole

Mayor Emanuel would rather fire 1,000 teachers than give up his biggest slush fund.



I was all set to give a little love to Mayor Rahm Emanuel for finally getting around to making good on his long-delayed promise to create an easy-to-search TIF portal on the city's website.

That's a place you can go to find all of the 160-something TIF districts in the city and track which ones have doled out how much to whom for what. The hope, of course, is that we can start to track the bang we're getting for the buck—adding up to $5.5 billion over the last 26 years—from the slush fund known as tax increment financing.

As you've probably heard me mention before, if it weren't for the TIF program, more than half that money would go to the public schools—which, the mayor claims, are so broke he had to close 50 of them a few weeks ago.

The mayor sent out a press release Friday morning congratulating himself for creating the portal and claiming it "will help the city focus programs on job creation and economic development."

Right on, Mr. Mayor—jobs are good!

Alas, within hours of the good news, word broke that the mayor was firing about 2,100 CPS employees—including more than 1,000 teachers—in the latest, largest round of budget cuts. That's on top of the 600 teachers he fired last month as part of the school closings.

So much for job creation. You know, Mr. Mayor, you make it hard for anyone to be a cheerleader.

In the meantime, the mayor's moving full steam ahead on his plans to spend $55 million in property tax funds for a basketball arena for DePaul and a new hotel.

So the private university gets the money and the public schools get the pink slips.

My guess is that Mayor Emanuel deliberately timed the release of the TIF portal announcement to gain a little positive PR on the day he was firing a couple thousand of school employees, in part because of the millions of TIF dollars he's hoarding.

It doesn't get much more cynical than that.

Just so you know—it wasn't the mayor who broke the news of the latest firings. No, it seems the mayor's never around when the bad news has to be announced.

He was skiing in Utah when CPS announced which schools were being closed. And he was vacationing in Europe when the early round of budget cuts were announced this summer. For all I know, he was skinny-dipping in the Bahamas when word broke of Friday's firings.

He wasn't seen in public that day. Most of the teachers got the bad news in calls from central office bureaucrats who were reading from scripts.

Now that the cuts are official, Emanuel is blaming them on the teachers—or at least the $400 million contribution he has to make to the teachers' dastardly pension system. Speaking of cynicism.

As pretty much everyone concedes, the major cause of the so-called pension crisis is that neither Mayor Emanuel nor Mayor Daley before him made payments to the pension fund that they're contractually bound to make.

Only Dr. Freud himself can tell us why Mayor Emanuel is so eager to crush the Chicago Teachers Union.

In the good old days, state law required CPS to make its annual contribution by directly depositing property taxes into the pension fund. As part of the school reform law of 1995, though, Mayor Daley convinced the General Assembly to get rid of that requirement. He began spending money that was supposed to go to the pensions for basic obligations.

I'm telling you, we really have to stop using the word "reform" quite so much around here.

Thanks to that version of school reform, Mayor Daley was freed to use pension fund money to "balance" the budget while building new schools and winning praise from civic leaders and editorial writers as a fiduciary wizard.

As you can see, TIFs were not the only scam Mayor Daley got away with.

At some point, to rectify the pension crisis—as opposed to using it as a justification to fire teachers and close schools—Mayor Emanuel is going to have to start negotiating with Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

That would be the same Karen Lewis the mayor hasn't talked to since 2011, when he told her "Fuck you." It's the same Karen Lewis he's tried to intimidate with school closings, teacher firings, charter school investments, and various threats and bluster since he walked into office.

Only Dr. Freud himself can tell us why Mayor Emanuel is so eager to fight Lewis and crush her union. Whatever his motives, it's not only disastrous for public education—it's also bad politics. Unless he wants to alienate every parent in every school—or send the middle class off to the suburbs—he's got to hire back some teachers and restore the classroom cuts.

And that brings us back to the TIF honey pot.

There's so much money flowing into the TIF accounts—$457 million this year alone—that even two all-powerful mayors couldn't spend it all. And so the surplus sits in bank accounts.

I can't say for certain exactly how much is in those accounts because the city's information on the subject is either incomplete, impossible to decipher, or contradictory.

The city prepares an annual report for each TIF district and then posts it online—in a different spot from the TIF portal.

The annual reports include calculations of each district's fund balance. In the Near South TIF district, for instance, the annual report says there's a fund balance of $171 million. You could hire back a lot of teachers with just a fraction of that money.

But just below that line item, the report claims $142 million has been "committed for future redevelopment project costs." It doesn't specify where that total comes from, and the redevelopment projects it lists don't add up to anything near $142 million.

The portal is even less help. It doesn't provide a fund balance for any of the TIF districts. It does say how much each district is committed to spending, but the numbers don't match the ones in the annual reports. For instance, on the portal, the Near South TIF has $49 million in "council approved TIF projects"—a mere $93 million difference from what's "committed" in the report.

Good luck making sense of any of this, Chicago.

I wouldn't say the portal's worthless. But it's certainly no help in ascertaining what most people really want to know: how much money is in the TIF accounts.

In fact, on Monday morning a group of independent aldermen led by Robert Fioretti and Scott Waguespack called on Mayor Emanuel to disclose what the surplus is and release the funds for use by the schools, city, and county. "Stop siphoning it off from investing in our children," Fioretti said.

Look for a big fight on this issue in the coming weeks. Every time parents, teachers, or students demand that Mayor Emanuel tap the TIF reserves, you can expect that he'll claim most of the money is already committed to something else.

As with Mayor Daley, he's come to view TIF money as his precious hoard, and he'll be damned if anyone's going to tell him how to spend it.

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