Monday, March 19, 2012

Need money? Just take it out of TIF petty cash!

Posted By on 03.19.12 at 10:00 AM

Ben thinks 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly should trade jobs with Mayor Emanuel
  • Ben thinks 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly should trade jobs with Mayor Emanuel
I've been writing about TIFs for so long, you'd think there'd be nothing new for me to learn about the mayor's favorite $500 million-a-year property tax scam.

But, no—when it comes to learning new things about TIFs, every day's a new day, as the song says.

And sweeter than the day before . . .

Great, now I can't get that not-so-classic from the Classics IV out of my mind.

In this case, I owe thanks to Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman, whose accounts of the newly installed wheelchair-accessible ramp at City Hall has introduced me to the concept of the TIF petty cash fund.

As in—need money for something, Mr. Mayor? Just take it out of TIF petty cash.

According to Spielman's article, the new ramp will cost even more than the originally budgeted $485,000 "thanks to a string of contractor mistakes."

Actually, the idea for building the ramp came from the previous administration—the one led by Mayor Richard M. Daley, in case you forgot his name.

Like that whole 22-year reign was just a bad dream.

A couple of years ago, Daley administration officials came to 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly to notify him that they were getting ready to spend upwards of $8 million in tax increment financing dollars to build the new ramp and make various other City Hall renovations.

According to Reilly, he raised a stink. Told the officials he didn't see that spending so many millions was justified, what with all the budget cuts hitting schools, parks, libraries, etc.

So they backed off and came back with a scaled-down plan. When he complained about that, Reilly says the officials told him that they were only notifying him as a courtesy because they were spending money from one of his TIFs.

And that, in reality, they didn't need anyone's approval to rebuild City Hall with TIF dollars. Because state TIF law specifically empowers them to spend what they want in TIF dollars when they want to so long as it's on city-owned property.

Hence, the concept—take it out of petty cash.

In February, Mayor Emanuel signed off on building the new ramp, which was recently completed.

For the record, I'm all for making City Hall accessible to wheelchairs. But, I do have a few TIF-related questions . . .

Why were city officials going to Alderman Reilly, as opposed to any of the other 49 aldermen in the City Council?

Excellent question, if I say so myself.

That's because the money was coming from the LaSalle/Central TIF District, most of which, like City Hall itself, is in Reilly's 42nd Ward.

Hence the notion that it's Alderman Reilly's TIF.

In his defense, Reilly says he’s never signed on to the concept that TIF money is, as I like to say, a wholly owned subsidiary of the aldermen in whose ward it's spent.

As all Reader readers know by now, TIF dollars are diverted from property taxes that everyone everywhere pays to the schools, parks, county, etc. In short, TIFs are a citywide tax. Therefore, the TIF slush fund belongs to everyone since everyone pays into it, no matter where or how the money’s ultimately spent.

If you learn nothing else about this scam—at least learn that.

Well, that and TIFs give to the wealthiest in the name of giving to the poor.

But, let me stay focused . . .

It caught me by surprise that mayors Daley and Emanuel claimed the right to dip into the TIF petty cash without anyone’s approval.

Silly me. I thought any expenditure required approval from at least one flunky oversight entity or another—like the Community Development Commission, or the City Council, or the Joint Review Board, my all-time favorite rubber stamp.

Alderman Reilly shares my outrage. "I believe that with any amount of TIF funds used for a project, the City Council should be given an opportunity to deliberate over that expenditure publicly," says Reilly. "These dollars are the people's dollars and the people deserve to know ahead of time how they're spent."

Hear, hear! Let’s make the switch right now. Alderman Reilly, you’re now the mayor and Mayor Emanuel, you get to be the alderman of the 42nd Ward!

For a second opinion—on TIF expenditures, not substituting Reilly for Rahm—I contacted the office of Inspector General Joe Ferguson. That’s the one oversight body that’s actually done any legitimate oversight. As opposed to saying—have it your way, boss.

The spokesman promised to get back to me after he talked to the appropriate experts. I'll let you know, when he lets me know.

For what it's worth, I went to Mayor Transparency's TIF web page to see if they'd budgeted any money for the wheelchair-ramp project. Sure enough—they'd set aside $605,000.

Nice of them to tell us.

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