Activist: City's "not broke," prove I'm wrong

Mayor Rahm Emanuel: Where's our money?

That was the question that activist Tom Tresser posed to the mayor on August 31, 2015, when Emanuel and his staff held the first of three public hearings on the mayor's proposed 2016 budget.

Prior to the hearings, Emanuel warned Chicagoans of a revenue shortfall, which he proposed to address in part by raising property taxes to the tune of a half-billion dollars.

Tresser, who heads a citizen group called the TIF Illumination Project, scoffs at the need for higher taxes. Rather, he thinks that the city is sitting on a boatload of cash.

That's what he told the mayor during public comments at the August 31 hearing: "We found 1.4 billion dollars sitting in the TIF funds on Jan. 1st of 2015," Tresser said amid audience cheers. "You say they're committed to projects. We want a list . . . Prove to us that the money is committed and cannot be used for schools, mental health clinics, our essential services."

TIF means tax-increment financing: a scheme that diverts a portion of Chicagoans' property taxes away from taxing bodies (such as parks, schools, and water reclamation) and sends it to special land-development funds controlled by the mayor.

Back in 2008, Tresser and other activists got curious about all the TIF money that the city was siphoning off of property taxes, then spending on construction and corporate relocations all over town.

He and fellow activists began examining reports from city government, available on-line, that showed how it allocated TIF funds.

"We opened them all up, and simply counted the amount of money that was in their balances," Tresser said in an interview. "There's a page in every report: money out, money in, and the money left over. We added it all up, and it was $1.4 billion" in 2009. The number has fluctuated annually—but this year it exceeds $1.4 billion.

City officials claim that the unspent TIF dollars it has socked away is "obligated"—in other words, already committed to building and infrastructure projects. But nowhere, say Tresser and others, does the city show how or why the unspent funds are obligated.

"At the end of every TIF report," said Tresser, "there are usually some words that say 'reserved for future development'. So whatever number that is, that's the number they're reserving. There's no other detail. That's the language we're questioning."

And Tresser's been questioning it for over a year. He has, for example, submitted records requests to the city under the state's Freedom of Information Act—requests that often lead to time-consuming exchanges with government officials. But the city hasn't answered his basic challenge: Show how unspent funds are committed.

So it came as a surprise to some when budget director Alex Holt recently said that she'd satisfied Tresser's requests.

In an October 8 interview on Chicago Newsroom, Holt said, "I actually sat down with Tom a couple of weeks ago to walk him through where you can find the data."

Tresser said the meeting did, in fact, happen on September 16 at City Hall. There, he and a colleague met with Holt, one of her deputies, and a couple of city attorneys.

"I naively thought that someone inside the city could come up with a very big spreadsheet, with back-up documents," said Tresser. "It would simply list the projects that are in the ground, that are paid off, and the projects that are soon to be announced."

Instead, Tresser said, Holt and her deputy "proceeded to walk me through some different reports" via a computer display projected onto a screen.

"At one point," he said, "there were five Web pages open on this screen. And [Holt] was saying, 'OK, take us over to this page . . . jump down there . . . .' She's, like, driving the bus. 'Now, here we go to a PDF file, the file is 200 pages . . . look in there, you'll get what you want.' And so forth."

Though he asked lots of questions and took notes, Tresser said he "couldn't follow what she was doing."

Tresser maintains that Holt didn't provide the supporting material that shows how unspent TIF funds are actually committed. Rather, she stated her own insights into reports that routinely appear on the city's Web site. (Holt didn't respond to a request for comment.)

While his City Hall meeting didn't produce the results he wanted, it did help Tresser devise even more detailed city-record requests—the answers to which might eventually support the belief he's held for years:

"We are not broke."

More: Activist warns of uncontrolled TIF borrowing