By Ben Meyerson
As the clock on River Forest's economic development fund ticks closer towards its expiration at the end of the year, the village is scrambling to line up spending projects before time runs out.
There's $5 million in property taxes that have been diverted from local schools and parks along the Lake Street corridor for nearly 20 years through a measure called tax increment financing. Now there is less than two months left to use it for village government purposes or to redistribute it to other taxing bodies.
That TIF money's targeted for economic development along Lake Street, and over the years it's done a good deal of that by financing aspects of River Forest's retail hub at River Forest Town Center.
But TIF money also paid for River Forest's shiny new village hall.
As village trustees debate whether a new high-profile development at Lake and Lathrop would benefit River Forest's bottom line, village staff is considering using the funds to pay for upgrades to village hall.
New Village Administrator Eric Palm, who officially started on the job Nov. 1, asked the village board Monday night to use TIF dollars for two new copy machines, as well as an online document storage system.
"We have some copiers in desperate need of replacement," Palm told the board Monday night. "I was looking at one of our printers the other day, and there's a pencil inside one of the printers propping up a piece. I don't say that to be comical, but to make clear that staff has made do with whatever it can."
But Village Trustee Steve Hoke questioned whether a copy machine provided economic benefit to the village.
"Maybe I just don't understand," Hoke said. "I thought that if we used TIF funds, it had to nominally benefit the TIF. So how could we buy a copier and have it benefit the TIF?"
While the copy machines might not provide a direct increase to River Forest's tax base, according to Lance Malina, village attorney, it does benefit a building in the TIF district to buy the copiers — that building being village hall.
"You have a rather unique TIF here," Malina said. "You've got a bit more flexibility to do things here at village hall than you would otherwise — it benefits the TIF because it was set up that way. That's part of the house that Jack built."
Since village hall is part of the TIF district, buying copiers or other equipment for village hall — even if it doesn't provide direct economic benefit — isn't a problem, Malina said.
The board never approved the copiers Monday night, shifting the discussion without a clear decision being made, so Palm isn't moving on the copiers yet. He'll bring the matter back to the board at another meeting, he said.
Nevertheless, he said the copy machines can still be used for economic development in the village.
"I would say it's an appropriate expense," Palm said via phone Tuesday morning. "As we go forward and try to do a better job of marketing the village, certainly that could be a tool going forward."
Trustee Mike Gibbs said he's OK with spending TIF dollars on the copy machines, since Malina has given it legal approval.
"That's where I would let Lance earn his pay," Gibbs said Tuesday. "If he thinks it's not in violation of the rules, I'll trust him on that."
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