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With just days to go before the City Council will likely vote on the proposed tax-increment financing district, a group of residents who have long opposed the TIF is intensifying its efforts to persuade Council members to vote against it.
The TIF, and an accompanying resolution describing how funds would be spent, were discussed at the Sept. 13 City Council meeting, but no vote was taken at that meeting.
Mary Rosinski, a local real estate agent and frequent speaker at Council meetings, was one of several members of the group who gave a presentation on TIFs earlier this week. About 40 people attended the Sept. 22 presentation, held via Zoom.
In a TIF district, the tax increment – the difference between the property tax revenues in the district as the land went into the TIF (the base) and as improved – is placed in a fund that can be used to pay for certain infrastructure projects and other uses within the TIF. That increment remains in the fund for the life of the TIF, typically 23 years. During that period, the taxing bodies receive their share of the base property tax revenues.
A potential TIF district must meet certain eligibility requirements and be approved by all taxing bodies that have a stake in the property tax revenues of the area. Representatives of each taxing body meet at least annually as a Joint Review Board.
Earlier this year, Kane, McKenna and Associates, the City’s TIF consultant, found that the area met a sufficient number of the requirements to qualify as a conservation TIF district – not, as some have suggested, a “blighted” area. In June, the Joint Review Board unanimously approved the District. The next steps are for City Council to approve the TIF and then file it with Cook County for final approval.
Details of proposed district
The boundary of the proposed TIF begins at the Morton Civic Center, minus adjacent Ingraham Park, goes south to the new high-rise at Emerson Street and Green Bay Road, then north to Central Street and finally west to include Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, Foster Field, the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus building and surrounding properties – in all, 284 tax parcels.
The name Five-Fifths TIF, an allusion to the constitutional marginalization of enslaved Black residents, is meant to emphasize the purpose of the TIF, City officials have said: to boost Black-owned businesses in this historically Black ward as one means of addressing the historic discrimination against Black people.
Many Black residents, however, strongly opposed the name, so City officials suggested referring to it as “TIF No. 9.”
Although the TIF was proposed nearly two years ago by then-Fifth Ward Council member Robin Rue Simmons, Delores Holmes, who preceded her in that role, said discussion about a second TIF in the Fifth Ward began nearly a decade ago.
At the Sept. 22 presentation, Tom Tresser, co-founder of the CivicLab, and Paul Vallas, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools and a former budget director for the city of Chicago, presented information on TIFs and then focused specifically on Evanston’s TIFs. CivicLab’s website calls it “a ‘do tank’ [presumably, as opposed to ‘think tank’] dedicated to research, training, fabrication, activation, and leadership development to advance government.”
Tresser was direct and unapologetic about his opposition to TIFs. He termed the use of the increment for construction within the TIF an “extraction” of taxes. He also said a TIF provides a “back door” to increasing taxes.
Because the increment is put into a TIF fund and generally used to pay for infrastructure within the TIF, some other taxing bodies may increase their rates to make up for that “loss,” he said. The City of Evanston, Cook County, Oakton Community College and the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District may increase taxes. The two School Districts, however, whose aggregate share of the property tax bill is 67%, are limited by tax caps. Each school district may increase its levy on existing property by either 5% or the rate of inflation in the consumer price index, whichever is lower.
TIF funds have been used in Evanston for public projects as well as some private ones – for example, to pay for the rehab of Fountain Square, the two large parking garages downtown and new awnings on businesses at Church Street and Dodge Avenue.
Concerns about the proposed TIF
Inclusion of certain properties: Some people have questioned the reasons for including certain properties, such as the 1815 Ridge Ave. building and the Morton Civic Center, in the TIF and the need for the TIF itself. They have also voiced concerns that the TIF would bring gentrification and that rising property taxes would force some to leave Evanston.
Rosinski says she does not believe there is need for the TIF. The private properties, she told the RoundTable, are “hot” – some of them selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Further, “There are 14 acres of public property in the [proposed] TIF,” she said.
One parcel of public property, Ingraham Park, which abuts the Civic Center, was excluded by a resolution approved by City Council on Sept. 13.
Many residents have also expressed fears that the City plans to sell the Civic Center building. Paul Zalmezak, senior economic development manager for the City, said the City would not sell the property without a public process.
Rosinski says she is troubled by the inclusion of the 1815 Ridge Ave. property, which City officials have said would help increase the TIF increment. Although the high-rise development for seniors has been completed and is partially occupied, the Cook County assessor’s office lists it as vacant land, she said.
If the property were listed as “vacant” when it went into the TIF, then the increment of property tax revenues on the property as improved would go into the TIF – even though the improvements would have been completed or mostly completed before the TIF was created, Rosinski said.
Eminent domain: Tresser said the power of eminent domain has been exercised within some TIF districts to purchase property from otherwise unwilling owners. However, the City of Evanston has never used that power in any of its TIFs, Zalmezak said at an earlier meeting. Even through TIF legislation bestows that right, City officials have said they will not exercise that power.
Gentrification, taxes and surplus: Most people who have publicly expressed an opinion on the proposed TIF have conceded that the Fifth Ward in general and the proposed TIF area in particular are ripe for gentrification – or a continuation of it.
Gentrification is already occurring, said Bobby Burns, Council member for the Fifth Ward. In his mind, the TIF would allow gentrification to continue at an orderly pace; without the TIF, development would be haphazard, he said.
Taxes increase as property values increase, and some residents of the Fifth Ward have said they fear the increase in taxes will force them out of Evanston. Several TIF opponents have said that, despite a commitment to affordable housing within the TIF, they fear that City officials may not carry through on that promise or that any affordable housing created will not be for current Fifth Ward residents – or both.
When a TIF is retired, typically after 23 years, any surplus in the TIF fund must be divided proportionally among the affected taxing bodies. At times, though, to avoid having a surplus, ad-hoc projects have been suggested to spend those funds within the TIF.
Vallas told audience members they should be vigilant about how the surplus is spent.
The meeting ended with exhortations to contact each Council member to “ask to slow this down.”
Ninth Ward Council Member Cicely Fleming said in her most recent newsletter that she plans to vote against it.
Three ordinances to establish the TIF district and the resolution as to how the TIF funds would be spent are on the agenda for the next City Council meeting.
The City Committee meetings are scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 27, with the Council meeting at 6 p.m.