By Dan Haley
Taxpayer updates as Santa readies the coal to put into your poor broke stockings:
First we head to nearby River Forest, where a majority of the village board is ready to play a mighty good Christmas trick with the nearly $5 million left in the TIF fund.
Now remember, boys and girls, the TIF fund croaks along with Father Time at midnight on New Year's Eve. Croaks as in totally cooked, done — pass out the remaining funds as door prizes to the local schools, parks and library.
River Forest, which has been slogging through molasses trying to find a way to park this money safely out of the hands of school children, has come up with a creative legal maneuver. If, says their lawyer, before the witching hour comes, they enter into contracts promising they will spend the TIF money some day, and kind of, sort of for these things, then they can put the money in a special satchel and sit on it.
Thursday night, they'll take up the last TIF project that didn't get passed on Monday, setting aside $100,000 in TIF money to work on the heating and air-conditioning system over at the still-shiny-new village hall. You might recall, though public officials always hope you won't, that TIFs are a special economic development tool designed to collect a portion of property taxes in blighted areas so the money can be reinvested to attract wonderful new commercial development so the area is no longer blighted.
HVAC in a public building? Computes how? Explain this to a poor River Forest second grader still doing his factoring on a chalkboard and not a laptop. Explain this to a sad-sack River Forest high school student diligently studying for her SAT using the raggedy 1987 World Book Encyclopedia set at the library.
Oh, that's right, the schools and library are pretty well set also. But still, it's the principle of the thing. The village, through its own political nuttiness of recent years, the incompetence of staff quaking because of the nuttiness, and this darned recession, has run out the clock on the TIF and is now putting money into handy pockets and projects.
Some $340,000 was set aside Monday night to subsidize the buildout of a future phantom tenant in the long vacant Linens 'n' Things store in the Town Center. Beats the AC at village hall as an economic development tool but might prove annoying to Whole Foods, which isn't getting those perks.
In Oak Park, meanwhile, the elementary school super has put into writing what the school board president has been saying for months: Namely, it would be easier to sell an April tax hike referendum if teachers would agree to freeze their salaries for a year.
A behind-the-scenes discussion is reportedly going on as the parties assess their best, limited options. If the referendum fails, and this is going to be one tough sell at this moment, then more teacher jobs may be lost because District 97's financial problems are actively real.
As in any school district, municipal government, and most private businesses, salaries are the only place to look for conspicuous cost savings. That makes this discussion realistic, so let's skip the usual charges of teacher bashing.
And even if teachers do the right, smart thing and offer up a one-year pay freeze, the real test comes a year later when the overall contract comes due for negotiation. Will our school board leaders, both at the elementary and high school level, demand much more modest contracts than have been the norm back in the days when there was a norm?