Business Council backs TIF, but calls for accountability

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A group of local business leaders issued a position paper Monday strongly endorsing extension of the downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district while at the same time criticizing village officials for a "lack of accountability" in their management of TIF funds.

The Business and Civic Council (BCC) report comes a week before the village board is set to vote on extending the TIF to 2018, a measure officials argue is necessary to implement a recently-completed master plan for the downtown area.

The council, which retained a municipal finance expert to analyze the TIF, maintains that the TIF has made a "crucial difference" in increased economic growth, is a necessary tool for Oak Park to remain competitive with surrounding communities and will help the village create a more vibrant downtown.

The statement also rebuffs claims that the extension will harm school districts or other local taxing bodies, said BCC member Marty Noll, who is also president of Community Bank and chair of the Oak Park Development Corporation board.

"We are not convinced by any argument that Oak Park schools will suffer from the extension of the TIF," he said, specifically pointing to the "carve out" agreement supported by both school districts. "If everybody's in agreement, what's the problem?"

However, after offering support for several paragraphs, the BCC paper goes on to state the organization's disappointment "in the lack of public accountability associated with administration of the TIF."

Noll said the organization doesn't believe the village has mishandled the funds, but feels officials should make a better effort at publicly explaining specifically where dollars have already gone, and where they'll go next. 

"This is not to say that there's any accusation of wrongdoing. What we're suggesting is that there should be more public accountability of how funds are used, where they're going, and what success the collection of TIF funds has resulted in," he said. "Tell me the last time you even remotely heard 'here's the 1998 or the 2004 annual report for the downtown TIF.'"

Noll added that this issue has also cast a shadow on the Crandall Arambula redevelopment plan. The BCC argues that because village officials haven't "articulated how/what they are prepared to do with the plan," "?many rightfully argue [the plan] appears made-to-order to justify the extension of the TIF."

"If they were small plans, an argument could be made, why do we need the TIF to do it? If we've got large plans, we need some kind of significant funding mechanism," he said. "So, we don't know, but we suspect, that Crandall Arambula may be a little more grandiose than it needs to be."

Beyond accounting for past and future expenditures, the BCC also voices concern that village government has become "overly reliant" on TIF monies?#34;particularly to fund portions of development services staff salaries?#34;to the "extent that other non-downtown TIF areas in the village are ignored."

"I believe, and others believe, that the reason village government development services spends as much time as it does in downtown is not only because it's important, but because that department is rather fully funded by the downtown TIF," said Noll, adding that he's not "alleging anything unethical."

"If downtown is paying the development services department staff, they have to justify it by time being spent almost exclusively downtown."

To specifically address some of its concerns, the BCC recommended: Accounting specifically for the use of funds provided to other taxing bodies benefiting from TIF proceeds and reporting them regularly; Reporting annually on policies to evaluate how funds were used for private development; Mandating abatement of debt service in bond ordinances for TIF finances because of the potential impact on intergovernmental agreements; and updating the amounts spent to date on an annual basis, compared with what is budgeted in each line item.

The village board will vote on extension of the TIF, as well as the Crandall Arambula master plan, Monday night.

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