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Rahm Emanuel Wants Cops, More Transparency From Chicago TIF Districts

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Chicago mayor candidate Rahm Emanuel is planning some key changes to Chicago's use and management of its infamous Tax Increment Financing districts, changes that will be welcomed by both city residents and good government types.

Emanuel says reducing the violent crime rate in neighborhoods is the key to their economic turnaround, and on Sunday he announced that he will add 250 police officers to focus on crime in and around TIF areas of the city if he becomes mayor.

The ex-U.S. congressman said deployment of police officers in these new squads will be determined based on the type and level of violent crime as well as the geographic boundaries of the TIF area. The plan will cost about $25 million. There is currently approximately $900 million in available TIF money.

Tax Increment Financing is a special funding tool used by the City of Chicago to promote public and private investment across the city. Funds, a portion of neighborhood property taxes diverted from other local taxing bodies, like the Chicago Public Schools, are typically used to build and repair roads and other infrastructure projects.

In addition beefing up the Chicago Police Department's depleted ranks, which are short by 2,000 officers, Emanuel is pledging to beef up the TIF program's financial transparency, which has been notoriously opaque during Mayor Richard Daley's six terms in office.

"Chicagoans need to be more informed about where their tax dollars are going, especially funds that are being diverted from schools, libraries, and other taxing districts to go into TIFs," said Emanuel in statement issued on Sunday.

To increase transparency, Emanuel is promising to post online maps, plans, budgets, and redevelopment contracts in a searchable and easy-to-use format. Additionally, Emanuel says he will include TIF information on property tax bills and in the annual City of Chicago Budget.

Daley has kept TIF budget information out of the city's regular budget without any meaningful oversight by the city's aldermen. The city had more than $1 billion in TIF funds on hand, or one-sixth of the entire budget outside the oversight of the city council, at the beginning of 2009.

The basic TIF budget in recent years:

* 2008 TIF revenue collections $570 million
* 2009 projected TIF revenue collections $495 million
* 2009 projected TIF obligations $519.9 million
* 2009 had projected uncommitted funds of $483.5 million

That's a whole lot of dough without oversight.

Over the years, $762 million has been used to rehabilitate and construct new public schools and $560 million has been directed for improvements for streets, alleys, and other neighborhood infrastructure since 1997, according to the Mayor's office.

Despite Daley's laudable investments, the lack of TIF transparency over 20 years has generated enormous criticism and raised endless questions regarding the money's management.

Grudgingly, Daley, pushed by the city council in 2009, has started publishing more information regarding TIF financing, which has earned equally grudging praise from the Civic Federation with an equal call for more.

[T]he City has taken the initial steps towards improving the transparency of the use of TIF in Chicago. However, it will need to go further to create a truly transparent system. The financial data on the website could be greatly improved through the implementation of a user-friendly database of each TIF district's financial data...

Emanuel's plan for a more robust use of TIF funds to address neighborhood crime and to expand transparency of the money's use are welcome and long overdue steps.