Taxing bodies OK Downtown Oak Park TIF extension

? Township Supervisor requests detailed accounting of village's TIF spending, commitment to reduce "overhead" expenses out of fund.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

The Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Joint Review Board, consisting of representatives from each taxing body in Oak Park, voted unanimously Thursday in favor of extending the TIF through 2018.

The vote came after Township Supervisor David Boulanger asked the board to consider deferring a decision until the village could provide more detailed information on TIF expenditures. Ali ElSaffar, an attorney and Township Assessor, raised questions two weeks ago about the legality of some expenses.

"A delay of a reasonable time would bring clarity," Boulanger said. "[Though] the village's sensitivity to legal requirements is clear, all taxing units benefit by clarifying future practices."

Boulanger asked the village to provide a report to members of the Joint Review Board accounting for TIF expenditures. He also requested that the village commit to budget only a certain percentage of TIF funds for administrative costs in the future. 

TIF dollars are used by municipalities to help spur economic development in blighted areas. Oak Park's current Downtown TIF will expire in 2006 unless it is extended.

ElSaffar has questioned various TIF expenditures, which he argues, based on a clause in TIF law, are illegal because the village would have spent the dollars even if there was not a TIF. Specific expenditures he cited include the village's use of $135,000 to pay portions of development staff salaries, as well as $300,000 for the salary of police officers who patrol downtown.

The village's TIF attorney has maintained that all expenses are legal. For instance, he has said if there was not a TIF, police officers wouldn't patrol downtown.

Other than Village President Joanne Trapani, Boulanger was the only elected official to attend the meeting.

After pointing to the low percentage of tax dollars the township receives, Trapani said school districts and the village would further hash out the legal details of expenses.

"It's up to those individuals to meet and discuss these issues," she said.

The village and school districts approved an intergovernmental agreement regarding the TIF in 2002. The agreement calls for the village to "carve out" parcels within the TIF as they are developed. Tax dollars generated by those parcels will then be released back to schools.

Cheryl Witham, chief financial officer of District 200 Oak Park and River Forest High School, said at the meeting that the school is looking into legal issues, but a delay is not necessary.

"We have every reason to believe the village will provide the appropriate documentation," she said, reading from a school board statement. "The board believes questions about [legal issues] are distinct from the issue here before us."

Boulanger ultimately voted for the extension, with the expectation that school districts would review legal issues.

A consulting firm creating a master plan for downtown and neighboring business districts has recommended that the TIF be extended. Expanding the footprint of the district to include three new parcels has also been recommended.

At Thursday's meeting, Lisa Lyon, with the firm responsible for analyzing the TIF, said $105 million is required to implement the current draft of the master plan. The improvements recommended are "weighted toward public projects," she said, including streetscaping, rehab programs and assembling key sites for development. Roughly $70 million is expected to go toward such projects.

She also told the review board that more dollars will ultimately go to taxing bodies if the TIF is extended. The total Equalized Assessed Value of Downtown if the TIF is extended will rise from a 2006 estimate of $63 million to $122 million in 2018, she said.

Prior to a vote, a handful of community members testified on the TIF extension.

Willis Johnson, president of Downtown Oak Park's board of directors and co-owner of the Lake Theater, said DTOP's board has voted to support an extension.

"Downtown's infrastructure still needs investment to maintain a health mix of businesses," he said. "The master plan cannot be brought to fruition without the TIF."

A representative from DTOP votes as a member of the review board.

The four residents who testified opposed the TIF extension.

"There has been no accounting, project by project, of where our TIF dollars have gone," said Kathryn Jonas. "Are incentives needed for developers in Downtown? Incentives are needed in other places in Oak Park."

Extending the TIF is a multi-step process. A public meeting will be held on Feb. 7 to discuss the TIF redevelopment plan.

Contact: kgrayson@wjinc.com

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