I'm sitting in a restaurant across the table from Ron Ernst, an indefatigable community activist from the northwest side. On the table before us are computer printouts showing dozens of parcels of property in the Jefferson Park tax increment financing district.
That's right: as we eat our eggs, toast, and potatoes we're talking TIFs, the way other guys talk fantasy football. Clearly, I have no life.
And neither, apparently, does Ernst, who's about to show me another dark corner of this municipal scam—one that even I didn't know about.
As you probably know by now, a TIF freezes the amount that the schools, city, parks, and county get to tax for 24 years in a designated district. As the property rises in value, the extra taxes paid by property owners go into TIF bank accounts, which the mayor is pretty much free to dip into as he sees fit.
Which, of course, is why Mayors Daley and Emanuel have loved TIFs almost as much as I love the Bulls.
But, Ernst asks, what happens if the value of property in a TIF district goes down?
Well, I assume the TIF account loses out on tax money.
"Not necessarily," says Ernst, pointing to the printouts to show what he's discovered. "They can change the tax code."
And it turns out he's right. What this means is that the TIF program is even more deceptive and costly than I knew before.
The city regularly takes underachieving parcels of land out of TIF districts so they don't bring down the overall haul of taxes. And it does it with the help of the Cook County clerk's office.
That's where things get truly weird: Clerk David Orr is one of the few elected officials in town who has dared to criticize the city's TIF program. Why is he of all people helping to perpetuate a scam within the scam?
Well, like everything else in the TIF program, it gets complicated.
So hang with me, loyal readers. You too, Mayor Emanuel—though I realize you have a lot of distractions, what with all the fund-raising and everything.
Every parcel of property in Cook County—about 1.8 million total—is given a property index number. And PINs are bundled into larger groups that are given tax codes.
The setup was intended to make it easier to keep track of properties, because our county's computer system is apparently about as outdated as my flip phone.
On the computer, a TIF district is a collection of these tax codes. So if you reassign a piece of property to a new tax code, you can move it out of the TIF district.
It can have a significant effect on the flow of money into the TIF program.
Imagine I have my own TIF district consisting of parcel A and parcel B, each worth $100 when the TIF is created. If parcel A goes up in value to $200 but parcel B falls in value to $0, then there's no overall growth in the Ben TIF.
As the public clamors for more TIF transparency, officials offer less.
But if you segregate parcel B—that is, change its tax code—then the Ben TIF gets the full $100 growth of parcel A. And the mayor gets a little more slush to spend on something he really wants, regardless of whether anybody else wants it—like that basketball arena for DePaul in the South Loop.
None of this is covered by any rules or regulations. It's sort of like a gentlemen's agreement. According to the clerk's office, someone in the city's planning office calls someone in the clerk's office and the deed is done. Sort of like a courtesy the clerk provides the mayor.
Keep in mind, if Mayor Emanuel wanted to adjust a TIF's boundaries under the process laid out by state law, there would be a hearing and a City Council vote on it.
Undoubtedly, the council would rubber-stamp the process. But at least there would be a paper trail and the changes would be relatively out in the open—as opposed to a guy in planning calling a guy in the clerk's office.
Emanuel isn't the only mayor asking Orr to segregate parcels of land. Last year Orr segregated 543 parcels of land in the suburbs and 196 in the city.
None of the segregation is publicly tracked—there's no city or county website you can check. As the public clamors for more TIF transparency, officials offer less.
To his credit, Orr has taken a few steps to shine more light on the TIF program. But he and his aides tell me they feel they have to help the segregation process because the tax code system usually undercounts the amount of money that should go into a TIF account.
"While imperfect, this practice offers a way to work around the antiquated property tax computer system, which is not flexible enough to meet the needs of the complicated TIF calculations," Orr said.
Well, that's true. But with all due respect, Clerk Orr, who cares? I mean, this is the least of all the unfair things about the TIF program.
It's certainly not the clerk's fault that mayors sign on to this cockamamie Rube Goldberg scheme that robs the taxpayers and schools in the name of eradicating blight, which rarely gets eradicated by the TIF program.
Moreover, in Chicago it's obvious that City Hall often seeks to segregate property because of its own boneheaded planning. Such is the case with the Jefferson Park TIF.
In the early 2000s Mayor Daley signed a deal to tear down property there before he had the community's support. When residents voiced their opposition, the deal fell apart. Now there's nothing but vacant lots east of Milwaukee on Lawrence.
In 2004, Orr segregated these properties at Daley's request.
Orr says he's not swapping parcels in exchange for political support from suburban or Chicago mayors.
He also says he restricts segregation so that the city can't come back and ask that a parcel be put back into a TIF as it develops.
Still, these behind-the-scenes machinations are something no self-proclaimed reformer would want anything to do with.
So, here's my advice, Clerk Orr: the next time a mayor asks you to segregate some property, tell him no.
If I know Mayor Emanuel, he'll be on the horn hurling F-bombs.
If so, put him on speaker and let the staff listen. It'll be the day's entertainment.