Watchdog group: Chicago's TIF 'shell game' proves reform, probe required
A fiasco involving Chicago officials and the funneling of tax increment financing (TIF) district money away from where it was intended is proof that reforms and even an investigation are needed, the president of the Better Government Association (BGA) contends.
Crain’s Chicago Business and the BGA conducted an investigation into Chicago’s TIF program that showed $55 million was diverted to fund Navy Pier renovations rather than going to construction of a hotel near McCormick Place.
“Time and time again we’re finding the lack of oversight leads to a cavalier expenditure of taxpayer revenue,” Cook County Clerk David Orr said, according to the BGA. “Transparency is at the heart of the matter. If the city handled its transparency issues in a fundamental way neither aldermen nor investigative journalists would be calling.”
The city had originally agreed that the $55 million would be used by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (known as McPier) for acquisition and construction, including tyhe hotel near McCormick Place. Later, the same amount was given to Navy Pier, which draws 9 million visitors a year and provides jobs for hundreds of people.
“The public deserves to debate how tax dollars are used, and that discussion would be most productive during the budgetary process so priorities can be set for the city as a whole,” Orr said, according to the BGA.
According to officials, the hotel project ended up not needing the money, so it was moved to Navy Pier.
The BGA is calling for an investigation by Chicago's inspector general and also reprimanded aldermen who say they were conned into agreeing to the TIF money diversion, arguing that they need to do their homework before casting votes.
It also suggested trying to get the $55 million back from Navy Pier, instituting more transparency from the City Council on TIF projects as well as any other new projects, and calling a hearing utilizing experts who can tell the council how to prevent this from happening again.
"Officials at City Hall and McPier, the agency that controls the McCormick Place complex, refused to answer our questions while we were researching the story, but now they’re claiming the TIF money the City Council approved for the hotel project didn’t actually end up at Navy Pier," the BGA said on its website. "At best that’s disingenuous accounting gimmickry. McPier earmarked several hundred million dollars, including the city’s TIF money, for a mega-development that included the new hotel. The pot was big enough to build the hotel without the TIF dollars, so $55 million was transferred to the underfunded Navy Pier construction account without public disclosure."