Tuesday, March 17, 2009

TIFs: Hidden in plain view

Posted By on 03.17.09 at 02:44 PM

I was on my best behavior at a panel discussion this morning about tax increment financing.

For one thing, it was at the Union League Club of Chicago, where I was surrounded by a rarefied bunch of downtown movers and shakers. For another I was on a panel with Crain's columnist Greg Hinz and two TIF advocates--a lawyer and a former consultant to the city--and everyone was bending over backward to be really polite.

I only rolled my eyes once, when one of the advocates said the terms of TIF deals are easy to find because they're included in the City Council Journal of Proceedings.

The journal, if you don't know, is a briar patch of information that's nearly impossible to navigate. For years it was only available at the Harold Washington Library in big bound volumes that are probably too heavy for many citizens to hoist.

Last year, to his credit, city clerk Miguel del Valle finished posting all the journals from 1980 onward on the Web. But as del Valle himself acknowledges, there's still no index or any other efficient way to navigate the journals, so it's astoundingly difficult to find any one TIF agreement amid the tens of thousands of pages of resolutions, ordinances, appointments, budgets, and other documents going back three decades. Moreover, it's all in PDFs, which means it's as slow as molasses.

This is classic passive-aggressive City Hall behavior--doing just less than the minimum required, assuring the public that something's been done, actually doing nothing useful at all.

In any event, I was thinking of the panel when I read later today about yesterday's council hearing on a proposal to post TIF contracts in easy-to-find places online. Technology committee chair Margaret Laurino deferred the matter, saying aldermen needed more time to study it.

That's funny. Aldermen Scott Waguespack and Manny Flores have been pushing this proposal since mid-January, which means the council has had two months to discuss it. That's more time than the total they needed to agree to sell Midway Airport, lease city parking meters, set aside $500 million to fund the Olympics, and put up another $85 million to start building the Olympic Village. The difference: Mayor Daley wanted those things done. Stat.

At this rate, by the time aldermen get around to posting TIF documents the city will probably be broke from all the TIF deals they've been passing without debate or discussion.

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