The last bastion | On Politics | Chicago Reader

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The last bastion

Maria Pappas reveals the dirty not-so-secret inequity of TIFs.

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For years, I’ve been really trying to bring the TIF program to life in an often-futile attempt to make this abstract concept tangible and real.

And now, in one fell swoop, Cook County treasurer Maria Pappas has accomplished what, alas, I could not do no matter how hard I tried.

She’s put a human face on this abomination. Or to be exact—17 human faces. One for every commissioner on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

Pappas has also done what officials in the Daley and Emanuel administrations told me couldn’t be done—even as I had a feeling they knew, that I knew, what they were saying wasn’t true.

Pappas had her office’s computers sift through last year’s tax data to determine which TIF districts in Cook County got how much in property tax dollars.

’Cause that’s what feeds TIF districts, people: your property tax dollars.

My bet is that Chicago’s planning department could get their computers to do the same thing for aldermen on a ward-by-ward basis. But why enlighten the citizenry when an unenlightened citizenry is much easier to bamboozle?

Before I get to the “winners” and “losers,” let me remind you—for, like, the one billionth time . . .

Tax increment financing is the economic development program intended to spur development in blighted, low-income communities. 

But it’s become a reverse Robin Hood program, thanks to a flaw in the law that makes almost any area, no matter how rich, TIF eligible. So the program intended to help the poor largely helps the rich. 

As if to prove that point, along comes Treasurer Pappas with her commissioner-by-commissioner breakdown.

Let’s start by comparing the districts of Commissioners Dennis Deer and Stanley Moore.

Deer’s Second District took in about $348 million in TIF dollars. Moore’s Fourth District took in about $29.3 million, according to the treasurer’s office.

That discrepancy has nothing to do with one commissioner having more clout or moxie than the other. It’s not like one commissioner did something right and the other did something wrong.

No, it’s that freaking flaw in the program. The one that makes parts of the Loop and South Loop (in Deer’s district) as eligible for TIF money as portions of Roseland and South Chicago (in Moore’s district).

One more time . . .

As long as all communities are eligible for TIFs, the rich will always benefit over the poor.

Because the communities with the most economic growth generate the most TIF money.

And so it’s as indisputable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west that the rich will get more TIF dollars than the poor. Even though the program was created to help the poor. Ahhh!!!

Sorry, I may have lost my mind as I wrote that last sentence. Repeating this basic point over and over in column after column is a little like banging your head against a wall. After a while, you start to lose your mind.

I sort of feel like Ronny Chieng, the comedian, in that bit he does where he tries to explain to Donald Trump the difference between weather and climate. He holds up a cardboard sign showing the earth’s rapidly rising temperatures in an effort to illustrate the difference between weather and climate. That is: just because there’s a cold spell in Cincinnati doesn’t mean the earth’s temperature is not rising.

And he gets so exasperated that he smashes that cardboard sign over his head. God, I love that bit.

Where was I? Oh, yes, losers and winners in the TIF game . . .

Commissioner Bridget Gainer’s district took in $135 million in TIF dollars. Deborah Sims’s got about $30 million.

Gainer’s area includes North Center and Lakeview on the north side. Sims’s includes portions of Roseland and Morgan Park on the south side.

I think we’ll all agree that the latter is more in need of TIF dollars than the former. And yet . . .

Don’t worry—I won’t hit my head with my printout of Treasurer Pappas’s reports.

Some portions of several districts straddle the city and suburbs. But Pappas breaks out all the TIF districts in each commissioner’s district. So you can see which TIF district is in the city and which is in the suburbs.

And the pattern’s the same. The rich get richer and the poor get bubkes. Relatively speaking.

For her part, Pappas says she’s agnostic about TIFs. “I’m not saying they’re bad or good,” she says. “I just want people to know the information.”

Still, you keep this up, Treasurer Pappas, and the mayor’s people will pin your face on a dartboard—right next to mine.

“There are things people need to know,” says Pappas. “TIFs are the last bastion of the unexplained.”

Coincidentally, Pappas sent me her report at roughly the same time a coalition of Chicago business leaders took out a full-page ad in the Sun-Times pledging their support for Mayor Lightfoot’s Together We Rise initiative.

“While the task ahead is daunting, Chicago has a unique opportunity to rebuild in a way that ensures we emerge stronger, fairer and more resilient,” they wrote in their ad. “Investing in our schools, healthcare system, and small businesses in key neighborhoods will not only lay a solid foundation for job growth, innovation and economic expansion. It will also help deep-rooted racial and socioeconomic inequities plaguing our community.”

Well said, business leaders—now check out Treasurer Pappas’s report.

Then call the mayor’s office and ask what can be done about—just to pick another example—Bridget Degnen’s north-side district getting $126.4 million and Brandon Johnson’s west side one getting $56 million.

We’ve got to figure out how to get some of the money from Deer, Degnen, and Gainer’s districts over to Sims, Moore, and Johnson if we want to overcome those “deep-rooted racial and socioeconomic inequities plaguing our community.”

In the meantime, thank you, Maria Pappas, for doing what staffers for Mayors Daley and Rahm said could not be done.

Apparently, where there’s a will, there really is a way.  v

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