TIF FOIA Fight
The biggest single finding from our TIF Illumination research is discovering the HUGE amount of property taxes sitting in the TIF funds at the end of the year. At the end of 2013 there was $1.7 BILLION in TIF accounts. At the end of 2014 there was $1.4 BILLION.
The mayor has acknowledged our findings but he says most of this money is “committed” for projects and future development.
So we have tried to secure definitive PROOF of where all this money is and why it is not IMMEDIATELY available to fund needed essential public services for the people of Chicago – such as – neighborhood public school, public health clinics and public transportation – to name just a few basics of urban life.
In August of 2013 we advised the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) on filing a Freedom of Information Act request to the city to get all documents that would prove out the status of the TIF reserves.Learn about the FOIA law here.
Here is the city’s unhelpful response-> City response to CTU FOIA-8-12-13.
In early September of 2014 we tried again, only this time it was the CivicLab that made the FOIA request. Here is the city’s unhelpful reply-> City FOIA repsonse-9-18-14.
In July of 2015 we tried again – this time sending a FOIA request to the Department of Planning and Development AND to the Office of Budget and Management. Request to DPD 7/14/15->TIF Surplus FOIA 7-14-15. Request to OBM 7/30/15-> OBM TIF Surplus FOIA 7-30-15.
The responses were not helpful.
DPD-> DPD response 7-28-15
OBM-> OBM response 8-13-15
They also included this wonderful spreadsheet with numbers stretching out to 2036! So when they say these funds are “committed” – they are not fooling around! -> OBM -TIF – AFA 2014 Spreadsheet
So on August 27 we tried again – modifying the language of the FOIA to the OBM. OBM 8-27-15->OBM TIF Surplus FOIA 8-27-15
On September 8 the Department of Planning & Development replied – amazingly – that they had NO documents relating to our request. DPD 9-8-15->DPD Response-8-8-15
Tom Meets With Budget Director Alex Holt
On August 31, 2015 Tom attended the first of three budget town hall meetings called by the mayor to discuss his 2016 budget. The first was at Malcolm X College. Because he got there early he was the second to speak. He asked the mayor to come clean on the status of the $1.4 billion in property taxes held by TIF districts. Amazingly, the mayor answered! Hear the encounter here (3:23):
So, on September 16 I went to City Hall with our FOIA counsel Matt Topic of Loevy and Loevy. We met with Alex Holt and Deputy Director David Miller. Also present were Molly Poppe, the FOIA Officer for the Office of Budget and Management and Amber Ritter from the Law Department.
It was Director Holt’s position that all the information we were after was available online at the City’s main TIF portal and through the 191 page document called “Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District Programming 2015-2019.”
Mr. Miller was operating a computer hooked up to an LCD projector and as Holt described the various web pages where data was located he would show that page. At one point there were five web pages open and he was jumping back and forth trying to follow here lead. At one point they opened the 2015-2019 document to describe the various line items.
I tried to follow along but really could not. Director Holt told us some things about debt and school bonds that need further investigation. She maintained that all our information is online and one only has to go there to see that most of the $1.4 billion in TIF funds are encumbered and therefore NOT available to use now to solve our financial problems or needs.
After over an hour Matt and I left and we discussed next steps as walked south along Dearborn Avenue.
On October 8 Holt appeared on “Chicago Newsroom” with Ken Davis and said she met with me. The impression is that my questions were answered. “Reminded that her office has been excoriated by Tom Tresser and the TIF Illumination Project for not responding to their requests (and FOIAs) for detailed lists of the projects, she responded that all the data is now publicly available.” [Go to “Chicago Newsroom” for videos and summaries of shows]
We Try Again
It’s taken us a few weeks to be able to return to the missing $1.4 billion. But on October 23 we filed a NEW Freedom of Information Act request with the Office of Budget and Management. OBM 10/23/15 -> OBM TIF Surplus FOIA 10-23-15.
The FOIA has 15 new requests. 14 interrogate specific line items from the 191 page 2015-2109 report. One item requests documents relating to debt incurred from the Modern Schools Across Chicago Program.
Here is just one example of what we are asking for:
From page 7, under the “24th/Michigan Avenue TIF.” Under the section “Proposed Projects” we see a line item called “Proposed redevelopment project – other TIF(s)” for a total of $17,000,000 which seems to be paid out in 2018. What is that? Who ordered it? Is it part of the payment to build a new Marriott’s Hotel as part of the stadium and hotel expansion at McCormick Place?
In fact, as you cruise through the 191 pages of the 2015-2019 report you see quite a few projects listed under “Proposed Projects.” Why are those so locked in? Why not cancel ALL of them in order to free money to be used for our pressing financial needs? Why not review ALL of these so-called commitments?
The City Responds – “It’s confidential!”
On November 9, 2015 the Office of Budget and Management sent this response -> OBM-TIF Funds Status FOIA – Response-11-9-15
Details on eight items were withheld by the city claiming they were “being discussed.” Huh?
Other responses in the November 9th letter directed us to PDF documents of 556 pages, 172 pages and 70 pages. Good luck wading through hundreds of pages of documents to find proof of “commitments.”
We called your bluff, Mr. Mayor. You say the TIF funds are all “committed” but your Budget Director apparently can’t supply proof, claiming a number of so-called commitments are “being discussed.”
Which is it?
Until these questions are well and publicly answered there should be NO new fees or property tax hikes in the city of Chicago. The entire TIF program should FROZEN and no new property taxes collected or disbursed by it. We clearly need an independent forensic audit of this program. Sign our petition.