Todd Stroger's inadequacies weren't the only topics of discussion at yesterday's forum for the Democrats vying for Cook County Board president. Two of Stroger's rivals also weighed in against one of Mayor Daley's: his resistance to full disclosure of how hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money is spent every year.
It was a striking example of how mainstream it's suddenly become to call for reform in the mayor's $500 million-a-year tax increment financing program.
Tax increment financing is typically seen as a city issue since the Daley administration has so aggressively expanded the reach and purpose of its TIF program over the last two decades; the 160 or so TIF districts in Chicago now generate about half a billion dollars a year that are officially dedicated to economic development but are actually used however the mayor and his aides see fit. And yesterday forum moderator Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association was almost apologetic for bringing the subject up with politicians running for a county office.
"I know that a lot of people believe that the TIF budget should be not only transparent but online for everyone to see," Shaw said, crediting the Reader's coverage with helping to spur the debate. "Now I know you're not running for mayor of Chicago, but how are you going to handle this as it comes up [on the board]?"
"This isn't exactly what I'd call a Cook County question," said candidate Toni Preckwinkle, currently alderman of the Fourth Ward.
"Very true," Shaw said. "But you know, it speaks to who you are as a public official."
No argument there—but both Shaw and Preckwinkle were a bit off in portraying this as simply a city of Chicago matter. For starters, many suburban municipalities have their own TIF programs. Plus, as candidate Terry O'Brien subsequently pointed out, the revenue streams of the county, water reclamation district, forest preserve, and other taxing bodies that extend beyond the city limits are continually strained as city and suburban TIF districts gobble up an ever-increasing sum of cash from area taxpayers.
Regardless, Preckwinkle and O'Brien, president of the water reclamation district board, proceeded to answer the question—and both answered by saying yes without hesitation, even though Preckwinkle has openly sought Daley's endorsement and O'Brien is a longtime mayoral ally who's never really rocked the boat. (Contender Dorothy Brown, clerk of the circuit court, had already left for another commitment.)
Preckwinkle noted that she had supported the TIF sunshine ordinance passed by the City Council earlier this year. "I strongly support the idea of making all of this transparent, where the money goes, what the allocations are."
"The TIFs were originally set up for blighted property," O'Brien noted. "I don't know if the south Loop or the north Loop are blighted areas, to tell you the truth. But what those TIFs do also has impacts on local units of government because it freezes the taxes for 23 years.... But yeah, I think it should be transparent—there's no question about it. We've got to see where these dollars are going and where they're being spent."
Not so long ago that would have been an audacious statement, particularly from politicians with a strong interest in not alienating the mayor during election season. Yet Preckwinkle suggested that questions about the TIF program shouldn't shouldn't stop there. "The reason we have so many TIFs in the city is because there's an unwillingness in the city to make tough decisions about the allocation of resources," she said. "Because what makes sense is that all the tax money comes in, we decide where the need is, and we distribute it accordingly. But there's been an unwillingness to do that.
"And as a result, for an elected official like me who's trying to do affordable housing in my ward, the only resource we have is the TIF—and most of what my TIFs are used for is affordable housing. And I'm sorry, but this is about race and class and how you allocate resources. What aldermen are told, basically, is that if you want to do economic development in your ward, create a TIF."