TIF Transparency… Chicago Style

Steamed bun (preferably Mary Ann), Vienna hot dog, lots of mustard (yellow or brown), raw onions, pickle, celery salt (tomatoes, relish and hot peppers optional – but for god’s sake, no ketchup!). That’s your hot dog, Chicago style. That’s also your TIF, Chicago style. No, silly, not literally—metaphorically. You see your TIF is the hot dog buried under the “toppings” of back room deals and aldermanic privileges, such that you’d have a hard time finding the TIF “dog” much less seeing what went into making it. And our aldermen and mayor, not to mention a whole bevy of developers and private businesses appear to like it that way! Here’s your dog, mister, “everything on it”. You want fries with that? No? Now get outta here. Next…

Next, is the next TIF. And yes they just keep coming like hot dogs over the counter at Super Dawg. You’d think we’d start running out of property the way we’re “paving over” the city with TIF districts—over 30% of the city proper is covered now by TIF’s and growing by the day. In just the first 3 months of 2013 we added SIX more districts http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dcd/provdrs/tif/news.html. Super Dawg indeed! But mine is not to question the validity and applicability of diverting our tax money to these special projects. But it is your responsibility to question the validity and applicability of each TIF project proposed in your ward. And that is the first step of any TIF project. Before we even get to step two, TIF oversight while the TIF is active, and step three, full and complete analysis of a TIF project using a standard set of metrics, there’s step one—determining whether the TIF should be undertaken in the first place. If this sounds familiar, it should. Anyone who has managed a project at work or participated in implementing a project understands these three stages.

Yet, of the three stages, the first is the most important because that’s when it’s determined if a TIF gets funding in the first place and who will be the recipients of the funds. You know it’s always amused me how much we get our shorts all tied up in knots over campaign financing and who gives what to whom, when. We holler for more and more transparency so that we can see who might be trying to gain favors by lavishing contributions on our weak-willed duly elected representatives. Not that this is unimportant, but I think it’s much more important that we know how our elected representatives are spending our money. A few million here and few million there may not seem like much, but hell, it’s our money they’re spending. So if my alderman is going to set up a TIF and redirect some of my tax money into some pet project, then dammit I want a say in whether that project goes forward or not!

Let’s take just one example of how opaque stage one of the TIF planning process happens to be. For brevity of this post, let’s look at one of the TIF projects just approved—the “Bryn Mawr Red Line Station Improvements”… http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dcd/provdrs/tif/news/2013/mar/tif_approved_forbrynmawrredlinestationimprovements.html  Everything you wanted to know is at this link—not! Really? That’s it? Do an online search on the project and you’ll come up with little more. So here we have a TIF project supported by a diversion of $10,000,000 of 48th ward property tax revenue. Now, if I’m a resident of Alderman Osterman’s ward, you can be damn sure that I would like to know how this decision was made. It could be there were the typical “community meetings” for input—you know the one or two or three meetings that are staged so that an alderman can say “the community has spoken”.

I always found this process of having the requisite community meeting rather suspect because so few typically show up and there’s often little effort to try to capture the comments of others outside of these meetings. But that said, and even if there was extensive input from the citizens of the ward, where is it? I may not want to participate, but I sure as hell would like to know how the decisions were arrived upon! That’s part of the transparency in government we should expect but very seldom get… http://www.chicagonow.com/naked-chicago-government/2013/04/transparency-is-seldom-transparent/

It may not be pretty, but we deserve to know “the mechanisms and processes of our government.” When I go to the link for a TIF project I should see everything that went into the decision to create that TIF—community meeting minutes, advisory committee minutes, results of questionnaires, an alderman’s decision tree and logic applied, and of course all the data. All of this is important if we’re to have true transparency in this the first stage, the most important stage, of a TIF. You look at the TIF legislation, the TIF Sunshine Ordinance amendment, the TIF Accountability Ordinance amendment and none of these truly address the transparency issues of stage one.

And here’s the kicker. You don’t even need legislation to get this going. So many so-called “progressive” aldermen in the city council tripping over themselves to claim that ground—The Progressive Caucus and The Paul Douglas Alliance—you’d think there would be at least one alderman who had the balls to simply say: “Here’s what I’m doing to create transparency in the TIF process in my ward. You all do what you want, work on passing legislation, wait for Godot, but I’m taking charge in my ward and doing it right—now!” All those progressives and not a peep from one of them. The silence is indeed deafening.

So here’s my shout out to the city council

I really don’t give a damn how often you vote or don’t vote with the mayor—sorry Dick (Simpson), but it just isn’t that important. What is important is what my alderman does, day to day, to make my community better and to create more transparency in government such that the citizens of the ward can become more engaged in the process of democracy. And whether that is or isn’t in concert with the thinking of the other 49 or the guy “running the show”, I could care less.

And here’s my shout out to any one alderman, progressive or otherwise, who is willing to pick up the gauntlet of TIF transparency… 

First: No TIF gets created in your ward without being fully vetted by the citizens of your ward. Community meetings. Social media. Go to where people typically go—grocery stores, train stations, churches, libraries—and set up shop for an hour or two.

Look, you’ve got 50-60,000 people in your ward, so getting a couple thousand people to comment on a process that could end up spending millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Second: All input and the vetting processes behind the gathering of data gets published before a decision is made. You inform the community using every tool available—email lists, fliers, social media, etc.—to let your constituents know where to find this information online and also to make it available hard copy in your ward office. Then you wait for any additional comments.

Third: You act or don’t act to create the TIF and provide the background as well as the thinking that went into making your decision.

Any takers? I’m not holding my breath.

Next Week: Transparency and stage two of a TIF

Always remember… The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them. — Patrick Henry, June 1788

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