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Chicago's 'hidden tax increase'
County commissioner's TIF tiff with Daley in the spotlight

Thursday, October 11, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times
by MARK BROWN Sun-Times Columnist

Mayor Daley's record $108 million property tax hike was bad news in a lot of quarters, but it could actually turn out to be good news for Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley.
Finally, maybe somebody will start listening to him.
"I don't think the city has any more right to raise property taxes than does the county," Quigley said Wednesday, and if you're wondering why anybody should care what a county commissioner has to say about it, hear him out.
While best known for knocking heads with the Strogers and others over his ideas on how to reform county government, Quigley has been risking Daley's ire for more than a year now by trying to focus the taxpaying public's attention on what he and many others consider a growing problem in city government.
Unfortunately, it's a problem that is arcane, obscure and downright boring -- until you understand it. So let's get started.
The issue is the $400 million a year in property taxes that the city collects and spends from tax increment financing districts, sometimes known as TIFs.
This is money that has been siphoned off from much of the new development you have seen going up around the city in the past two decades.
Instead of flowing though the normal channels, where the money would be split among the city, Board of Education, Park District, City Colleges and Cook County, the city gets to keep the TIF funds in a separate pile that can be spent at the mayor's direction and without even showing up in the city's budget.
The money goes for a variety of purposes, some undoubtedly worthwhile, some questionable. Much of the money goes toward subsidies for the developers within the ever-expanding TIF districts.
Quigley thinks we're long overdue on pulling back the curtain on this practice, which he calls a "hidden tax increase."
The mayor's call Wednesday for a not-so-hidden tax increase plays right into his hands.
"Now is the time to say what else is wrong with our property tax system and decisions about how our money is being spent," Quigley said.
Quigley has been buttonholing me on this for so long that all I had to do Wednesday was wind him up, turn him loose and then try to keep up as he zigged and zagged.
"TIFs are the poster boy for growth and expenditures behind the scenes," said Quigley, whose district runs along the north lakefront. "The underlying issue is the city's poor financial state. It's all starting to catch up with us because of the economy. Now we're in real serious trouble at the state, city and county level."
"Tax bills are higher because of TIFs," Quigley says, because other taxing bodies don't get the normal benefit from the increase of property values inside the TIF districts. "It shrinks their base."
Without the money generated inside the TIFs, the taxing bodies have to make up the revenue from the rest of us to meet their operating needs.
"And it's a bit of a rigged game," Quigley adds, noting that TIFs are approved by aldermen who never defy the mayor and go unchallenged by other agencies under his control. "Everybody hurt by TIFs is afraid of the mayor or dependent on the mayor."
The city argues the property tax base wouldn't be expanding if it couldn't use TIF money to lure developers. Quigley says the perceived benefit has been exaggerated.
"They capture more growth than they create," he says.
"We've now TIFed 30 percent of the land area of the city," he continues, pointing out that the $400 million in TIF spending exceeds the entire budget of the Department of Streets and Sanitation.
I looked it up. He's right. Daley's new budget proposes spending $367 million on Streets and Sanitation.
The $400 million is also more money than the oft-maligned Cook County government receives in total annually from property taxes.
Quigley doesn't aim all of his TIF criticism at the city. TIFs are very popular with suburban mayors, as well. Practically the entire village of Rosemont is in a TIF district.
The guy who really knows how to explain TIFs is Ben Joravsky, the columnist from the Chicago Reader who has made it a personal crusade. Check out his past columns on the subject if you're interested in learning more right away. I promise I'll try to do more.
In the meantime, say a prayer for Quigley. The mayor is going to be really mad at him.

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