Chicago's never been known for independent politics. Even in the late 60s and early 70s, at the height of the local independent political movement, there were only five or six aldermen willing to take a stand against Mayor Richard J. Daley.
But even those small numbers sound like a luxury today to Cook County Board commissioner Mike Quigley, who's trying to cobble together support for reforms on tax increment financing, the development tool beloved by Mayor Richard M. Daley. "I know it's an important issue, but I realize I have to be patient," says Quigley. "I have to let this issue grow."
Quigley made his name leading the fight to cut the County Board's budget by consolidating departments, eliminating waste in the sheriff's department, and cleaning up the fiduciary mess at the forest preserves. But those fights are simple compared to the battle over TIFs. "I'd have to say this is the biggest challenge of my career," he says.
As readers of this column are well aware, TIFs are districts created by the City Council in which all property taxes that go to the schools, parks, and other taxing bodies--including the county--are capped for 23 years. All the rest of the revenue created by rising assessments and new development gets diverted to the TIFs, which amount to slush funds controlled by Daley, his planning department, and the local alderman. (My articles on TIFs are posted in a free archive at chicagoreader.com.)
TIFs are supposed to be reserved for blighted communities starving for investment. Instead they cover a third of the city, including affluent neighborhoods like Lakeview, the Loop, and Lincoln Park. They're supposed to be scrutinized and monitored by local and state overseers. Instead they're off the books, unlisted in any budget, and not even itemized on property tax bills. There are now more than 140 TIFs, up 100 or so over the last decade.
Daley and his planners pretend that the TIFs are magical money pots that pay for themselves. In fact, they soak up about $400 million a year in property taxes at a time when the city, county, and public schools are all staring down huge budget deficits. What's this mean in practical terms? It means your property taxes go up as the Park District, the Board of Education, the county, and all the other taxing bodies raise taxes to compensate for the property tax revenues they're losing to the TIFs. Quigley figures they've already hiked up property taxes by as much as 10 percent.
This summer Daley proposed creating a new downtown TIF, the LaSalle Central, and he's talking about extending the Central Loop TIF when it expires next year. "It was the proposed LaSalle TIF that put me over the top," Quigley says. "I started looking at it and I'm thinking, 'My god, they're trying to wall off the whole Loop for themselves.' I didn't go into this thing thinking, 'How can I piss off Mayor Daley?' But with these TIFs Daley's saying arrogantly, 'I'm going to TIF the whole Loop. I don't need your authority. I'm not going to advise you. My needs are more important than yours.'"
Yet the two new TIF deals, not to mention the program in general, have hardly stirred a word of debate. No alderman has opposed them. None of the mayoral candidates--whether announced (circuit court clerk Dorothy Brown and former Harold Washington aide William Walls) or unannounced (congressmen Luis Gutierrez and Jesse Jackson Jr.)--has raised the subject.
Why the silence? Different politicians will tell you different things--and generally not on the record. Some clearly don't want to challenge the mayor. Others seem unaware of the issue. And many others, particularly aldermen, are as culpable as the mayor in the rapid spread of TIFs. Almost every ward--including those of reform-minded aldermen like Toni Preckwinkle, Helen Shiller, and Joe Moore--has at least one TIF, if not more. They're approved by the City Council as freely as minor zoning changes, with the attitude "You vote for mine and I'll vote for yours--no questions asked."
"This is the first time I've really criticized the city," Quigley says. "In the past I was reluctant to do so--I'm not an alderman. But TIFs are different. The city is using the county to raise taxes for TIFs. It's a tax issue as much as anything else. We're trying to cut property taxes, and, frankly, we can't do that if TIFs are adding all the money to the county's tax bills."
Running for the County Board unopposed in the November election, Quigley has a safe seat, a luxury that allows him to wage this fight. He's calling for a moratorium on all TIFs until the state investigates to see whether the existing districts are truly beneficial to the city. And he wants to require the county to start listing TIF expenditures on property tax bills.
So far only three commissioners (Jerry Butler, Carl Hanson, and Tony Peraica, the Republican candidate for board president) have signed on to Quigley's proposals, which have been buried in the finance committee, chaired by the mayor's brother, commissioner John Daley. And so far only one of Quigley's north-side allies--state rep John Fritchey--says he'll back the measures. Commissioner Forrest Claypool says he's studying the matter. Forty-Fourth Ward alderman Tom Tunney, with whom Quigley shares an office, and state senator John Cullerton, Quigley's rep, did not return calls for comment.
At Mayor Daley's budget hearing at Falconer Elementary School last month, a resident mentioned the support that Quigley had given locals in their efforts to restore Jonquil Park. "Did he give you money?" Daley interrupted the speaker. "Excuse me?" said the speaker. "Quigley," the mayor said. "Anyone can write a letter."
Quigley says he's received calls from friends warning him that his proposals have irked the mayor. "I understand you don't want to upset the mayor, and I don't want to go down in a flaming ball of martyrdom," he says. "But am I supposed to say nothing because it's the mayor's program? He's powerful and popular, and it gives him a pass. It's Shakespearean--the seeds of his problems come from his strengths. If you give someone a pass when they do something wrong, they'll never change."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.