Once upon a time, many years ago, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell liked me.
At one point in the early 1980s he actually drove me around his ward, showing me the parks and schools and explaining how things worked in this town. It was like he was my favorite uncle.
Back then I was a rookie writer stringing a story for a local paper. Maybe he figured I couldn't do him much harm.
But somewhere along the way his attitude changed. Maybe it had something to do with all the articles I wrote about his powerful ward organization—filled with city, county, and state patronage workers—beating up on the hapless opposition. By the 1990s he was no longer returning my calls, and that's pretty much the way things have been ever since.
So imagine my surprise when out of the blue one of Mell's legislative aides called to invite me to speak at the April meeting of the 33rd Ward zoning advisory committee.
My topic? What else: tax increment financing.
I couldn't get there fast enough. With this coming on the heels of an invitation by Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Schools, to come downtown for my own private briefing (where she and other top CPS officials patiently explained to me why pay increases aren't "raises") it was like I'd suddenly become the most popular man in town. It wouldn't have surprised me to get a call from City Hall letting me know the mayor wanted his own private TIF tutorial. Hey, based on what he's said publicly about the program, he could use one.
Anyway, my meeting with the Mell gang took place in the basement of the Horner Park field house, at California and Montrose. About 50 people showed up. From the questions they asked, it was clear they got the gist of how the program works—and shared my views about it.
I sat at a table at the front of the room between Alderman Mell and his daughter, state rep Deb Mell, who also never returns my calls.
I called the TIF program wasteful and inefficient, because it is. And I said it was designed to develop poor, blighted communities but mostly succeeds in sending money to the richer parts of town, because it does.
I pulled out the tax bill of a property owner who lives in a TIF district to show how money diverted into TIF funds is not itemized on ordinary tax bills, which tricks people into thinking it costs them nothing—though in fact it sucks up about half a billion dollars a year in property taxes that would otherwise go to the schools, parks, county, and other local agencies and causes those bodies to raise their levies. In essence it's an extra $500 million-a-year tax on local property owners.
I talked about the errors, half-truths, and evasions that riddle the city's official statements on the program, most notably "The ABC's of TIF" on the Department of Community Development's website.
Every so often Alderman Mell rolled his eyes or shook his head or even interjected to say the program wasn't so bad. But he stopped defending the program after I pulled out a fact sheet I'd put together with my colleague Mick Dumke showing that the Second Ward, led by rookie Alderman Robert Fioretti, was the city leader in reaping TIF money while the 33rd Ward, led by the loyal 35-year veteran, was in the bottom half, a difference of tens of millions of dollars a year. While I talked, Mell scoured the numbers with the intensity of a bookie reading a tip sheet.
Someone in the audience asked me to get a little more specific about what should be done about the TIF program, so I suggested we start with Representative Mell. The program is governed by state law, which means the General Assembly could reform it if legislators wanted to.
Representative Mell said she wanted to do something about it, and asked me what I'd suggest.
Wow—next thing you know they'll be asking me for advice on election-law reform.
So I threw out two ideas. One, tighten up regulations so only truly blighted communities—like Englewood or Lawndale—get to create TIF districts. That way wealthier areas like the central business district don't siphon off tax money.And two, limit the amount that each TIF district collects. It's one thing for the City Council to approve a TIF district to fund a specific project—say, a new shopping mall that won't be built without a $1 million subsidy. But it's another to let that district collect millions of taxpayer dollars on top of its original purpose. All that extra property tax money ends up as a slush fund Mayor Daley can pretty much manipulate however he likes. So if you really want to crack down on TIF abuses, pass a law that slaps a cap on the program, limiting each TIF district to the amount it will cost to fund the project or projects it was designed for.
Voila—problem solved. Let's break for dinner.