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Lightfoot’s TIF reforms criticized as too little, too late

Particularly offensive to the Chicago Teachers Union and the Grassroots Collaborative is Lightfoot’s decision to lift a ban on new TIF projects downtown instituted five years ago by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Sarah Chambers wears a sign during a rally in front of the Jenner Academy of the Arts, 1119 N. Cleveland Ave., in 2011
Public anger over tax increment financing and how the money generated by TIF districts is used is nothing new. This protest was held in 2011.
Sun-Times file photo

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel couldn’t win no matter what he did when it came to the political pinata otherwise known as tax increment financing.

Neither can Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

One day after the mayor unveiled what she promised will be a first round of TIF reforms, the same groups that branded Emanuel’s changes “too little, too late” said essentially the same thing about what Lightfoot is proposing.

Particularly offensive to the Chicago Teachers Union and the Grassroots Collaborative, which the CTU supports, is their concern that Lightfoot is somehow relaxing Emanuel’s five-year-old ban on new TIF projects in the downtown area.

Mayoral spokesperson Lauren Huffman maintained that, even under Emanuel’s downtown spending freeze, there were exceptions made in the LaSalle-Central TIF for critical infrastructure projects, including CTA stations.

“There has been no change in the LaSalle Street TIF spending policy. The City will continue funding critical public infrastructure projects based on needs, which would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the [new committee]. However, we will not fund downtown private developments from the LaSalle Street TIF,” Huffman wrote in an email.

Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, was not appeased.

“Downtown is not blighted. LaSalle Street TIF district covers one of the wealthiest parts of the city. To loosen restrictions on spending that money is a real problem,” Patel said.

“Those dollars shouldn’t be spent for economic development downtown. That is a violation of TIF statute and the goals and intention of the program. Money should be spend in low-income communities. And the LaSalle Central TIF districts and other downtown TIF’s should be sunset instead of actually having the spigot re-opened.”

CTU Vice-President Stacy Davis-Gates argued that “hundreds of millions of dollars” need to be “re-deployed to neighborhoods that have not received resources in years.”

Lightfoot has promised to do just that with an Invest South/West program that targets 10 inner-city neighborhoods for an unprecedented $250 million city investment and $500 million more from other government agencies.

But, Davis-Gates said: “Saying that you are open on a case-by-case basis to explore downtown again receiving more of what they don’t need is completely tone-deaf — and opposite of what she said she was going to do when she was a candidate.”

Equally troubling to Patel is Lightfoot’s decision to hire the multinational firm AECOM to put what deputy mayor for economic development Samir Mayekar has called “much more quantitative rigor behind” the so-called “but for” TIF subsidy standards.

That refers to the part of the TIF statute stating that TIF money should go only to projects that, “but for” the TIF subsidy, would not move forward.

For years, critics have accused the city of violating the “but for” clause.

Last year, the lame-duck City Council voted 38-to-8 to approve an $85 million contract with AECOM to design and build the two-building complex in West Garfield Park slated to become Chicago’s new police academy. It’s a project that Lightfoot has promised to make bigger and better.

AECOM is a design, engineering, construction and consulting firm specializing in infrastructure projects; Patel was upset that TIF reform was being “handed over” to them.

“That goes totally against the spirit of saying that we’re gonna make this more equitable and more fair. How is that possible if the entity that is going to be driving those decisions is an entity like AECOM?” Patel said.

“They’re a multi-national corporation that is not rooted in neighborhoods and communities. They are the entity that is building the cop academy against the wishes of residents in the neighborhood where it’s being built.”

The mayor’s office had no immediate response to the critics.

Lightfoot’s plan also calls for creating a new TIF Investment Committee charged with making “equity” the central focus of TIF subsidy decisions.

The city also plans to: publish TIF spending decisions on a monthly basis; release annual reports; develop a new user friendly-version of its existing TIF portal; and update the TIF program guide annually to give taxpayers and developers alike a better idea how the city operates the program.

During his 2015 re-election campaign, Emanuel was accused of doling out subsidies to clout-heavy developers in a thriving downtown area and ridiculed for initially proposing a $55 million TIF subsidy to build a basketball arena near McCormick Place for DePaul University.

After the 2015 election, Emanuel froze spending in seven downtown TIFs and vowed to shut down those districts when existing projects were paid off. Critics complained that was too little, too late.