With just a few weeks to go in Mayor Daley's regime, I headed to City Hall to check out one of the last rounds of Tax Increment Financing handouts of the era—that is, the April 12 meeting of the Community Development Commission, which oversees the mayor's $500-million-a-year TIF program.
There are dozens of mayor-appointed boards and bodies in this town dutifully doing whatever Mayor Daley wants. But I have a soft spot in my heart for the CDC, which rubber stamps each of the mayor's proposed TIF deals no matter how ill-conceived, wasteful, or counter-productive. It's hard not to be impressed by such pliability.
This particular meeting had special significance. The incoming mayor—that's you, Rahm!—campaigned as a TIF reformer who would crack down on corporate giveaways and make the program more transparent. If he ends up being true to his word—and I remain exceedingly skeptical, though he deserves the chance to renege in his own manner and time before I write that he has—this would be one of the last chances for the CDC to let the good times roll.
And, man, they didn't disappoint, throwing around roughly $130 million in property tax dollars like it was confetti.
Good thing the city and schools aren't broke.
Oh, wait . . .
This time, actually, I couldn't really complain about most of their recommendations, which get passed on to the City Council for approval (and it always does approve). At least the money's earmarked for deals in truly blighted communities—which, of course, is where TIF dollars are supposed to go, as opposed to the Loop or the near south and west sides, which have soaked up most of the money for years.
The CDC recommended spending more than $3 million on two senior citizen center projects, one in the old Goldblatt's building at 47th and Ashland, the other on 112th Street in Roseland. I can't be against housing for seniors—my god, if all goes well, pretty soon I'll be one.
The CDC also recommended writing down the cost of several city-owned south side lots—appraised for $668,000, to be sold for $10—so the buyer, the Comer Science and Education Foundation, can create a community garden. Comer is part of the rapidly expanding Noble Street Charter School empire, which, as you read here a couple weeks ago, is becoming the Starbucks of high school education in Chicago—there seems to be a new one on every block.
Still, we're talking about turning vacant lots into gardens. Even I would probably vote for that if the mayor appointed me to the CDC, as improbable as that is to imagine.
I couldn't even begrudge the two Big Mama deals of the day: $45 million to Sinai Health System and $21 million to Finkl Steel.
Yes, Sinai probably has enough well-to-do corporate contacts to raise the money on its own. But at least it's anchoring a blighted west side community by building a new ambulatory center at its hospital in North Lawndale. Besides, just about every well-endowed institution in town has fed from the TIF trough, including the University of Chicago, Loyola University, DePaul University, and Rush University Medical Center. Might as well be Sinai's turn.
As for Finkl, at least it's staying in Chicago, moving from Lincoln Park to a new state-of-the-art facility at 1355 E. 93rd Street.
Yes, it's hard to hear big-time operators, like the guys who run Finkl, say how happy they are to remain in the city they love. Hey, if you love it so much, why do we have to pay you $20 million to stick around?
But if they didn't take our money, they'd take the money Canada offered to move their operations to Quebec. And at least the city of Chicago is using the money to bribe—I mean, convince—an industry to transform an abandoned factory into a facility that will bring decent-paying industrial jobs to a poor community. That's just what the TIF program is supposed to do. So I have to say: good job, Mayor Daley, from your favorite TIF writer in town.
Of course, the CDC couldn't finish its business without some little machination. This one involved the budget for the Chicago/Central Park TIF district on the west side. This one's going to take a brief (I promise) primer on how this TIF stuff works.
When the City Council creates a TIF district, its coffers are filled with property taxes diverted from the schools, parks, county, and other taxing bodies. To keep the city from going hog wild with this money, each TIF has a budget, or a ceiling, it's not supposed to exceed. When it created the Chicago/Central Park district in 2002, the council set the ceiling at $16 million. Essentially, the city promised to eliminate the blight in East Garfield Park for $16 million.
Well, apparently the unblighting process costs more than they planned. Though they haven't surpassed the initial budget yet, they now want to raise the ceiling by $57 million.
At the April 12 meeting, city planner Chip Hastings and 28th Ward alderman Jason Ervin said the TIF needs a bigger budget because rising property values have increased the costs of buying land for future TIF-financed deals. So they asked to raise the ceiling from $16 million to $73 million, a 356 percent increase.
I was hoping someone on the CDC might ask: Well, if you haven't spent all the money in the original budget, why do you need more? Or: What particular development deals do you have in mind? Or: Why do you need more TIF money to stimulate growth and development in the area when rising property values suggest it's already growing and developing? Or: How can you ask to set aside even more property tax money when the schools you're taking it from are $820 million in the red?
Good questions—but not, of course, the ones you're likely to hear from a board member appointed by the mayor.
So without questions or discussion, the CDC unanimously voted to recommend that the City Council raise the budget in the Chicago/Central Park district. I suspect the City Council will go along. The City Council has always gone along.
Ironically, the biggest winner out of all this is Mayor-elect Emanuel, Mr. TIF Reformer himself. Thanks to the CDC, he might just wind up with an extra $57 million in the Chicago/Central Park TIF district to play around with.
In other words, lots of good old-fashioned slush—just in case he has some ambitious projects up his sleeves. Think of it as the CDC's house-warming gift to the incoming mayor—right on time for his May 16 coronation.
Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.