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Showdown vote on TIF reform averted as progressive aldermen seek compromise

Ald. John Arena (45th) | Sun-Times file photo

A showdown vote over a proposal to rein in tax-increment-financing was averted this week after progressive aldermen agreed to try to forge a compromise with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

On Monday, progressive aldermen appeared to have the votes to push through a TIF reform ordinance that could thwart Emanuel’s plan for $1.5 billion in TIF subsidies to unlock the development potential of four massive projects in and around downtown Chicago.

What would have been a most embarrassing defeat for the outgoing mayor was averted only after Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) suggested a “quorum call.” The meeting was abruptly adjourned Monday after attendance was taken, and the toal came up three aldermen short of a majority.

More than an hour before the Finance Committee reconvened on Tuesday, progressive aldermen could be seen huddling privately with Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman in at times heated discussions.

Ald. John Arena (45th) emerged from those meetings to declare the legislative equivalent of a time-out.

The City Council’s Progressive Caucus will spend the next month trying to find common ground with Emanuel’s lame-duck administration.

And if a compromise can’t be reached, Arena (45th) said he and his colleagues will push for an up-or-down vote in January on an ordinance that’s been languishing in committee for two years.

It would limit the use of TIF to redevelopment projects in “blighted areas” and those involving property that is either “vacant and/or obsolete.” Subsidies would be confined to projects that would be unable to move forward “but for” TIF support.

The ordinance would not apply to “those projects currently in existence.” But an earlier plan to include the words “or the development stages” were stricken.

“This goes back to the fundamental use of TIF and, historically, the flaws that we . . . have seen exhibited . . . This administration has a different philosophical view of the TIF program. So, we need to see if we can find a way to bring those two things together. We may or may not,” Arena said.

“This is just us saying, ‘We’re reasonable and want to find common ground. But there’s limits.’ If they’re continuing to drag their feet — if these meetings are not productive and it’s just the same rote arguments without open mindedness, then we’ll come back in January and we’ll call the vote and see if we can win.”

Arena was asked whether Tuesday’s delay was an admission that the Progressive Caucus had the votes on Monday but clearly did not on Tuesday, when more aldermen allied with the administration were present.

“I’m not whipping votes. I’m talking about policy here. If my colleagues feel like the TIF program is perfect the way it is, then they should run on that in February,” Arena said.

Reifman branded the so-called “Back-to-Basics” ordinance “fundamentally flawed,” arguing that it “doesn’t align with the state statute” and has “a lot of ambiguity.”

Given that assessment, Reifman said he’s “not sure what the middle ground” could possibly be.

Even so, Reifman was emphatic about one thing.

If not for the $1.5 billion in infrastructure improvements bankrolled by TIF subsidies, four mega projects in and around downtown — the 78, Lincoln Yards, the Chicago River district owned by Tribune Media site and the old Michael Reese Hospital site — would be stuck in neutral.

“I believe that the statutory, `but, for’ requirements and the way we use TIF will be 100 percent satisfied by those projects. Unambiguously,” Reifman said.

“These projects are not stalled because the market is afraid to handle them. These projects are stalled because the market demand requires a little bit of help from the city like we always do in terms of infrastructure. It is too big a burden when we’re talking about bridges and public roads that are regional and the Armitage-Elston-Ashland intersections for a single developer to handle that. These are regional improvements enabling billions and billions in private investment and thousands of jobs.”