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TIFs Thu Jan 10 2013

Chicago's TIFs Have a New Watchdog

The TIF Illumination Project is a new crowd-sourcing effort dedicated to investigating Chicago's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts. Tom Tresser, a Chicagoan and veteran civic organizer, is leading the project.

The goal of the TIF Illumination Project is to give local residents a better idea of how TIF funds are used. "You have to force the city to explain themselves, and I don't think they're going to be able to do it in a really convincing manner," said Tresser in an interview earlier this week. "I don't think this program is going to hold up to scrutiny."

Chicago began using TIF districts as an economic development tool in 1984. A TIF freezes the amount of property taxes schools and local government take in from a set district for a 23-year period. New tax revenue generated from increased property values is diverted into funds used by the city. Those funds must be used within the district or a bordering district.

The TIF Illumination Project has started examining the TIF districts in the 27th Ward. They research how much revenue the TIF received and where the money went. Then volunteers will call each recipient and ask how the money was spent. "I'm imaging that most people are going to hang up on them," Tresser said, but added, "I'd like to get people up on the balls of their feet about this." Tresser emphasized that the project is not only about research. "We're not just building an app or running a program and letting it go. We want to take our findings into the community."

Tresser will be speaking in a town meeting organized by the Tax Integrity and Fairness (TIF) Alliance on Tuesday, February 12th from 7-9pm. He will be speaking alongside Ben Joravsky and Dr. Richard Dry. The evening will include time for break out sessions, including one lead by Tresser titled "Become a TIF Illuminator."

The TIF Illumination Project also plans to run a flier insert in AREA magazine's housing issue in early March. The inserts will explain TIF districts and the revenue they generate in the neighborhood, and invite the public to take part in the project.

Tresser sees a potential for the project to grow, but emphasized the importance of it being a local effort. "This is where you live. This is your house. This is your property tax bill. Let's start with that."

 

Paolo Cisneros / January 11, 2013 10:54 AM

It’s so great to see that people are finally paying attention to TIF and how it’s been corrupted. For too many years the city has gotten away with diverting money from schools and other necessary taxing bodies and using it to fund development in areas of the city that don’t need the help.

TIF systems aren’t necessarily a bad thing in and of themselves, but when there’s so little public dialogue about how the money is actually spent, it’s far too easy for city officials to use them as slush funds that benefit very few people in the long run. What’s worse is that they’ll then go on to fire librarians and vilify teachers while making the case that there simply isn’t enough money to maintain essential services.

The city relies on people not understanding how the system works, so I’m all for any effort that aims to make it a little clearer. For his part, Ben Joravsky deserves a commendation for all the years he’s spent trying to shine a light on this. Here’s hoping this project takes off.

Tom Tresser / January 12, 2013 6:52 AM

Paolo - I agree. But since we are all volunteers, we could use your help on the TIF Illumination Project. Can you email us at info@civiclab.us?

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