Emanuel hypes reform of TIF program

August 29, 2011

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he wants to reform the city's tax increment financing program. The mayor called for transparency and accountability in the program, and for TIF dollars to only be spent as part of a larger, long-term economic plan. The mayor said he would be working with World Business Chicago, his economic council, non-profit leaders and the city council to craft that plan.

The mayor responded Monday to a list of suggested reforms put together by a panel that he hand-selected back in May. Emanuel said the program is "shrouded in secrecy."

"This report allows TIFs to be what I think it can be and all that it could be, and it hasn't been in the past," he said. "We'll get the trust by being fully transparent and up front with the public, we'll have a strategy, we'll be accountable for making sure that individual projects -- as well as the overall TIF -- will be achieving what it was set out to achieve."

Tax increment financing uses taxpayer funds for city-selected projects meant to promote private or public investment. The funds are generated after the city declares a certain area a TIF district--the amount of property tax the area usually generates is frozen as a base amount for 23 years, and any growth above that amount counts as TIF dollars.

The 10 member panel suggested that any and all information about TIF projects should be posted online. The group says each project--both those already planned and potential projects--should have a dashboard online that details how long the project has left, how much it costs, etc. They suggest a system that shows the progress pf each project.

The group also suggested that a government body be charged with overseeing TIFs. The group would be set thresholds to judge the success of the project, and would hold the city accountable for meeting these thresholds. They suggest five year reviews of TIFs, as well as annual reports of each project.

Member Laurence Msall, director of the Civic Federation, said this could mean the closing of some TIF projects.

"There are plenty of TIF districts out there that are going to fall under the five year review that are going to [have] a hard time justifying that they're having the impact that they intended to," Msall said. "And then the city can make the decision by closing down those projects or closing down those districts because the funds are better spent at higher priority areas."

David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform said the plan could shed light on an area that's been kept in the dark for a long time, but he's unsure it will be fleshed out completely.

"This looks to be a step forward, but I don't understand yet how far that's gonna go, how thorough it's gonna be, how much the public's really gonna learn before decisions are made," Morrison said.