Information blackout continues on Chicago’s TIF, jobs program

The city has pledged $106 million in taxpayer money to spark economic development and job growth in The Loop. [Photo by Marchello74/Shutterstock]

The city has pledged $106 million in taxpayer money to spark economic development and job growth in The Loop. [Photo by Marchello74/Shutterstock]

Last summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he’d finally made good on one of his campaign promises. For years, the city’s tax increment financing program had been shrouded in secrecy. But through a new on-line portal, anyone could click through to see who was on the receiving end of the billions handed out in the name of economic development.

“This critical reform will strengthen the transparency and accountability involved in TIF projects,” Emanuel promised. The interactive map of all of the city’s special taxing districts, the links to redevelopment agreements and staff reports – it all looks promising. But how many jobs have been created? And who’s collected the cash?

We turned to the site this week to answer those questions after Accretive Health — a medical collections agency that just a couple years ago was in line to receive the “largest single TIF commitment for human capital development” – a.k.a. jobs – announced Jan. 24 that it was laying off up to 170 Loop workers.

Accretive was promised $6 million in exchange for making its “best efforts” to hire 51 percent of its workforce from within the Chicago city limits over a decade. The announcement came as The Reporter published an investigation in 2011 that found Chicagoans were losing out big in the downtown job market despite the hefty public investment. Most of the people who had been laid off from Loop-based jobs at the time — 84 percent — hailed from job-starved neighborhoods south of 41st Street.

It’s been nearly three years since the city inked that agreement with Accretive and not a single report on the company’s progress has been made public. That piqued our interest on how much (or little) disclosure has been made about other TIF projects.

Turns out, not much.

In the LaSalle/Central TIF district, where Accretive is located, the city has pledged $106 million in tax subsidies to help businesses, in part, create or retain nearly 6,000 jobs. There’s not a single report posted documenting the progress made on the jobs front. Not only does this fly in the face of that “transparency” pledge, it violates the law. The TIF Sunshine Ordinance, which was adopted by the City Council 48-0 in July 2009, requires City Hall to post the “employment certification” reports online.

They are conspicuously absent in the neighboring Canal/Congress TIF district, where city officials have committed $40 million to create or retain 1,990 jobs.

“The question is who holds [companies] accountable for meeting those goals?” says Ald. Scott Waguespack, the Northwest Side alderman who spearheaded the TIF transparency measure almost five years ago.

Peter Strazzabosco, a deputy commissioner in the city’s Planning and Development Department, says that his agency is trying to figure out if Accretive is in compliance with its contract. “If the [redevelopment agreement] is determined to be in default,” he added, “the city may terminate the agreement at its discretion.”

By Strazzabosco count, no TIF funds have been paid out to Accretive. That doesn’t mean Accretive has been cut off either, he said.

Chicago’s tax increment financing system has always had a mix of winners and losers. If 8,000 more Chicagoans have access to jobs within these two TIFs alone, there’s an argument to be made that the public is indeed winning. But based on the information that is currently available, we just don’t know.

What is frustrating, Waguespack says, is there’s really no excuse for the blackout. “With technology, it’s easy to get it out there. It’s as easy as scanning a document.”

[Photo by Marchello74/Shutterstock]

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