by Ben Joravsky
Upon hearing the news that Mayor Rahm plans to close seven downtown TIF districts sometime in the near future, I got almost as excited as a hockey fan on the night the Hawks clinched the Stanley Cup.
I raced over to Wrigley Field with a beer can in my hand. Then I headed over to Rush Street, where I overturned a cab. And I wound up singing "We Are the Champions" in my one-man victory parade through Grant Park.
In my imagination, anyway.
Then I got a call from Tom Tresser calling me to my senses.
Tresser is the north-side activist who formed the TIF Illumination Project, a local watchdog group that holds public meetings where, among other things, he shows locals what the city would never show them in a million years.
Namely, how the mayor's spending tens of millions of property tax dollars, year after year, courtesy of the tax increment financing program, which, as we all know, is the mayor's unofficial slush fund.
A fund that, I should add, is generously stocked by up to $400 million a year in property tax dollars, most of it diverted from our destitute public schools.
Basically, Tresser was telling me that the TIF fight is far from over: there's still the not-so-little matter of the $1.7 billion the mayor's already got sitting in TIF reserves.
Ah, yes, the good old $1.7 billion, speaking of things Mayor Emanuel would never, ever tell you about—if he didn't have to.
The only reason we know about this secret hoard is—like everything else connected with this program—a long story.
Every year the city conducts a state-mandated audit of each TIF district—there are more than 150—to determine how much in property tax dollars each one took in, spent, and has left over.
Last year, Tresser and his colleagues—a dedicated band of TIF geeks—went through each and every report to tally up the total.
That's how we learned that the mayor was sitting on a huge chunk of change even as he was claiming the city was too broke to adequately finance the schools.
Tresser's discovery left the mayor in a quandary.
On the one hand, he didn't want up to upset parents who were demanding that he return the TIF slush to the schools from which it was diverted in the first place.
As I may have mentioned.
On the other hand, he didn't want to give up his slush.
So he pulled off a brilliant move of political jujitsu.
Yes, it's true, he declared, there's $1.7 billion in reserve.
But, he added, almost all of that money is already allocated for projects not mentioned in the annual reports.
So on top of everything else that's wrong with this scam, he was now basically telling us that the official TIF district audits are at best incomplete, if not outright phony.
Well, Tresser, as Marvin Gaye might say, is a stubborn kind of fella.
Last year, he asked that the city specify exactly what projects the TIF reserves were obligated to.
To get that information, he filed an official request under the state's Freedom of Information Act, the law intended to force government to turn over information it should have turned over from the start.
The city said, Sorry, Tom—this is too much information for us to get together. So you're just going to have to take our word when we say most of the $1.7 billion is obligated.
Undeterred, Tresser is back with another FOIA request, again seeking a detailed accounting of the TIF reserves.
Parents, students, teachers, principals, taxpayers: This is important information. Without it, we won't know if the mayor is hoarding money he could be spending to offset school cuts.
Did I mention that the TIF money is diverted from the schools? I don't believe I can mention that enough.
Anyway, I'll keep you posted on the city's response.