BRIDGEPORT — Some who gathered in the small church hall were surprised to learn the city gives hundreds of millions of dollars to developers and corporations in the form of tax increment financing.
"Every time you hear [the city is] broke ... I'm hear to tell you we're not," said Tom Tresser of the Civic Lab, a nonprofit group geared toward government transparency and accountability.
Tresser's "TIF Illumination" workshop made a pitstop at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, 643 W. 31st St. on Thursday, aiming to demystify how tax money is collected and spent in the complicated world of TIFs.
Here's how it works:
When an area is declared a TIF district — by law it's supposed to be in a "blighted" area — the county sets a "base value" by totaling the property values within the district.
Then the amount of property tax money that public agencies like schools and parks can take from that area is calculated using that base value for 23 years. Any additional property tax money generated from an increase in property values within the TIF district is instead sent to the TIF fund overseen by the city.
It's all meant to spur economic development, but critics have blasted TIFs as a shadowy slush fund for Downtown projects and private companies, including the city's plans to divert $55 million to build a new McCormick Place hotel and a $29 million contribution for a riverfront office building.
Powered by public data, Tresser's presentation showed:
• Combined, the city's unused TIF balance is a whopping $1.7 billion.
• $422 million in Chicago property tax money was diverted into TIFs in 2013. Combine that with TIFs in suburban Cook County and the figure swells to $683 million.
• The 14 TIF districts located in or touching the new 11th Ward — redrawn to include parts of Pilsen and University Village — extracted $16 million in 2013.
• Roughly $46 million of ward property taxes were sent to private companies since the districts were created.
Historically, the distributions include $5 million for Vienna Beef's move from Bucktown to a former Sara Lee factory on Pershing Road; $2.25 million for Cedar Concepts, a Stockyards chemical manufacturer; and $1.1 million to Marina Cartage, a controversial Bridgeport trucking outfit owned by Daley pal Michael Tadin, a central figure in the Hired Truck scandal and the resignation of former 11th Ward alderman Patrick Huels.
The distributions also include money for public projects, including two Chicago Park District renovations at Bronzeville's Dunbar Park and Canaryville's Taylor Lauridsen Park.
Were the TIF program to end today, the 11th Ward's cut would be $69.5 million, a figure that jumped out in a crowd whose schools have been hit hard by city budget cuts.
Tresser urged anyone frustrated with the TIF program to sign an online petition urging Mayor Rahm Emanuel to empty the TIF funds and send the money back to the local government agencies that should've received the property tax cash in the first place.
Thursday's event was partially paid for by Friends of Maureen Sullivan, a political organization supporting the candidate for 11th Ward alderman, along with a handful of neighbors.
Sullivan, who's led the charge to restore the shuttered, city-owned Ramova Theatre near 35th and Halsted — located smack in the middle of the 35th and Halsted TIF — said Bridgeport's business district is desperate for a leg up.
But so far the area surrounding the theater, with its boarded-up and vacant buildings, hasn't gotten much love from Mayor Rahm Emanuel or Ald. James Balcer, who are both instrumental in doling out the TIF dollars that Sullivan said could help revitalize Halsted Street.
"It's just mind boggling" that TIF money isn't helping the area, Sullivan said.
Balcer did not return a message seeking comment.
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