The village of River Forest is sitting on a huge pile of cash. About $6 million, to be exact.

That may seem surprising, given discussions that the village is facing a massive budget crisis next year, and the year after that. But this is no ordinary money – this is TIF money, money meant for development projects in the village.

This pile of cash has a catch, though – it’s got to be spent or committed by the end of this year, and it’s burning a hole in the village’s pocket.

According to members of the River Forest village board, River Forest’s TIF fund has about $6 million left in it, with Keystone Development’s twin projects at Lake Street and Lathrop Avenue and Lake Street and Park Avenue the leading – and perhaps only – contenders for the cash.

The clock is ticking on the project, though, and many of its details are still up in the air. The Lake and Lathrop site has chemical contamination from dry cleaning chemicals that needs to be resolved – a major sticking point in the project’s development that could yet derail it.

That chemical contamination, which originated from longtime Lake Street tenant River Forest Cleaners, is still very much an issue. It’s the subject of ongoing investigations by both the Illinois and federal divisions of the Environmental Protection Agency. The dry cleaner is also being sued by Forest Park National Bank

But River Forest Village President John Rigas said the contamination problem could be the very place that the village steps in to provide cash.

The village could use TIF dollars to bridge the monetary gap between current property owners and Keystone over a property purchase, Rigas said.

“The only part that we would play, most likely is if there’s a gap between the value of the property as the owners see it and the value that the buyers see it,” Rigas said.

The main rift could be in the degree to which the site needs to be cleaned – which affects the site’s value. Keystone might not be willing to pay as much as the property owners would like, if the site is contaminated.

Village Trustee Steve Hoke has frequently assailed the village’s plans to pour money into a site that’s chemically contaminated, but Rigas said this type of project is exactly what TIF districts were created for.

“TIFs are for blighted properties, and this is a blighted property,” Rigas said. “That’s the whole reason you have a TIF.”

While the village board has actively discussed the site, at this point, most of the burden is on Keystone. With village staff severely depleted, River Forest will take a step back and allow Keystone to negotiate with the block’s multiple property owners.

That’s all right, though, because the village board won’t do anything more at this point, Rigas said, until Keystone comes to it with a proposal.

“The village can’t do anything until the parties come back from negotiating,” Trustee Jim Winikates said. “They know TIF funds are available – the burden’s on them to come back before they expire at the end of the year.”

Regardless of what happens, Rigas said the village is unlikely to use all of the TIF money. Not much of the cash will be put into the actual development of the site, he said, and making up for the difference in property values won’t exhaust the TIF coffers.

“It’s not going to be close to all of it – there’s not going to be $5 million worth of work there,” Rigas said.

According to state law, whatever money isn’t spent or committed when the TIF expires at the end of 2010 will be redistributed to River Forest’s taxing bodies, including District 90, District 200, the River Forest Park District and the township of River Forest.

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Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...