The good old TIF mayonnaise jar | On Politics | Chicago Reader

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The good old TIF mayonnaise jar

To settle the teachers’ strike Mayor Lightfoot should scrape some more “mayonnaise” from the TIF slush fund.

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Striking Chicago teachers march through downtown on October 17. - CHARLES EDWARD MILLER
  • Charles Edward Miller
  • Striking Chicago teachers march through downtown on October 17.

If Mayor Lightfoot wants to end the teachers' strike, I know where she can find the money to settle the union's demands about class size and hiring nurses, librarians, and counselors.

She should just look in the mayonnaise jar.

I use that term to tip my Bulls cap to the unnamed mayoral aide who coined it as a clever way to refer to the TIF slush fund.

That would be the fund that fills up every year with hundreds of millions of property tax dollars that you, the property taxpayer, pay whether you realize it or not.

Over the years, I've called the TIF slush fund everything from a honey pot to the banana stand, a nod to a line from Arrested Development, one of my favorite sitcoms.

But mayonnaise jar? Not bad. Hey, unnamed adviser—when your City Hall days are over, you might want to give column writing a try.

Having said that, I must disagree with the essential point the aide was making. The comment appeared in the Sun-Times soon after Mayor Lightfoot withdrew about $300 million from the tax increment financing slush fund to help pay city and school bills.

"This is, in essence, scraping the mayonnaise jar," the aide told the Sun-Times. "We went through and aggressively surplussed every single TIF."

Yeah, well, with all due respect—that's what mayoral aides have been telling reporters since Mayor Richard M. Daley invented the TIF scam in the 90s.

My guess is there's a lot more mayonnaise in that TIF jar. Just how much, I can't say, because the mayor—taking a page from Daley and Mayor Rahm—won't tell us. An outrage for another column.

The bottom line is that each year more property tax dollars pour into the TIF accounts. Last year, they collected $841 million, an all-time high.

The unnamed aide reminds me of a kid who picks up a chicken leg and throws it away after taking one bite. Man, there's a lot more chicken on that bone.

Hey, there's another new nickname for you—the TIF chicken bone.

Tom Tresser—the north-side activist who founded the TIF Illumination Project—estimates there's about $1.5 billion in the TIF slush fund. He gets that number by going through the city's annual TIF reports and tallying up the reserves that are itemized in 145 different PDFs.

It's possible that the city has obligated some of that $1.5 billion for projects since the annual reports were filed this summer. But the slush fund has got to be more plentiful than a scraped-out mayonnaise jar.

I understand why the mayor and her mayonnaise-loving aides might be reluctant to dip into TIF reserves to settle the teachers' strike.

They may not want to set a precedent—the police and fire department unions may be eyeing the mayonnaise jar to settle their contract demands as well.

Or she might have plans for the money. Or maybe she just wants to spite the leadership of CTU.

But the money's there. The kids need more nurses and librarians, and lower class sizes. Plus Chicago Public Schools should have dibs on more than half of the cash stashed in the slush fund. And here's why . . .

When the City Council and the mayor create a TIF district, they freeze the amount of property in that district CPS can tax for 23 years.

Take the controversial Lincoln Yards TIF, for example. Located in a booming north-side neighborhood, the area would undoubtedly be the site of new homes and projects even without the TIF handout.

Without the TIF district, CPS could raise millions in property taxes from new development in the Lincoln Yards area. How many millions, I don't know—the city never does an adequate analysis of any TIF proposal.

But it's a helluva lot more tax dollars than CPS will get from Lincoln Yards, as big as it is, now that the schools' property tax yield is frozen for 23 years thanks to the TIF.

What does CPS get for giving up property tax dollars in the Lincoln Yards TIF district? Well, umm, nothing.

Actually, it's worse than nothing. They could lose money on the deal. If kids who live in Lincoln Yards go to public schools, CPS will have to hire more teachers to teach them. And these are going to be wealthier kids—so CPS can't get away with packing 40 of them into a classroom like they do with students in the poor parts of town.

From CPS's perspective, it would have made more financial sense if the city—then led by Mayor Rahm—had exempted the schools from the Lincoln Yards TIF (and the 78 TIF, for that matter).

That means the schools would get to fully tax the area, even as it's developed. It would mean less of a handout for the developer, but more money to hire librarians, social workers, and counselors over the next 23 years.

There's a precedent for exempting CPS from a TIF district. Mayor Rahm did it with the transit TIF that runs along the Red Line.

But the two TIF districts symbolize different eras in Rahm's reign. In 2016, when he pushed through the transit TIF, Rahm was facing protests over the Laquan McDonald shooting.

By exempting CPS from the transit TIF, he minimized protests over it. He also allowed CPS to continue to reap the full property tax yield from upscale north-side property.

So good for you, Mayor Rahm. On the other hand . . .

He strong-armed the City Council into passing Lincoln Yards and the 78 at his last meeting before he left office. He didn't have to worry about the public outcry. You might say he left City Hall as he entered it—with both middle fingers raised high.

Well, enough about Mayor Rahm. Back to Mayor Lightfoot. Fair is fair, Madame Mayor. The time's come to end this strike with the mayonnaise the city took from the schools in the first place.

I hope by the time you read this column, she will have done just that.   v

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