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Chicago property tax 101

What to tell an alderman who fibs to you about TIFs


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In the last few weeks, officials with the teachers union have been meeting with aldermen, trying to get them to convince Mayor Emanuel to return some of the hundreds of millions in unused TIF dollars to the schools.

So far, they've had mixed results.

On the upside, 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack agreed to sponsor a proposal that would return as much as $250 million to the schools, and several of his colleagues have expressed support.

On the downside, in the budget he unveiled last week, Mayor Emanuel only proposed turning over about $30 million to the schools.

Interestingly enough, the mayor's floor leader, Alderman Patrick O'Connor, initially took a hard line—as in, don't give the schools any money from the tax increment financing reserves, which have been estimated at anywhere between $500 million and $850 million, depending on how the numbers are added up.

"Quite frankly, I don't think they understand they've gotten every dime that they put forth in a tax levy," O'Connor told Rebecca Vevea of the Chicago News Cooperative after meeting with union officials on October 4. "They've never been deprived of any money, so it's kind of an argument that, for me, falls on deaf ears."

Wow, that's pretty cold, especially coming from a sidekick of the mayor who's pledged to do whatever he can on behalf of the kids. But cold or otherwise, the real question is whether O'Connor is telling the truth.

And the real answer is not that simple. Like most other things in the exceedingly complicated world of TIFs, there's enough of a kernel of truth in O'Connor's statement to keep me from calling him a flat-out liar. So let's just say it's a very, well, creative interpretation of how the TIF program works.

All of which made me realize something: since everyone—even aldermen—is talking about TIFs right now, it's probably time for another TIF primer.

Okay, take a deep breath—you can get through this.

It all starts with the property tax. Basically, your property tax is the product of the value of your property times the tax rate. So if your property's assessable value is $100 and the tax rate is 10 percent, then you pay $10 a year in property taxes.

Now, that wasn't so hard.

Next, that $10 is divided among the various taxing bodies—the city, schools, parks, county, etc. Their portions are itemized on your property tax bill—which, coincidentally, just arrived in the mail.

For taxpayers in the city, the Chicago Public Schools take roughly 50 percent of the property tax. So, if you pay $10, the schools get $5. Appropriately, on your property tax bill, it will say: Board of Education: $5.

This is when it gets tricky, guys, so stay with me.

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