Long abused, seldom transparent, frequently misunderstood and sometimes litigated, the downtown Oak Park TIF will soon be dead. 2018 for certain. But this old bird, neutered in 2011 as the only way out of a stupid lawsuit between the village and the two local school districts, seems to have one final fix left in it.

By Wednesday morning, both the District 97 elementary school and the District 200 high school boards are expected to have OK’d an amendment to that legal settlement. The expected outcome will be the result of determined village board lobbying and will rightly be promoted as an actual example of the intergovernmental collaboration that is much touted but seldom realized around here.

The deal will allow village government to hang onto a portion of incoming TIF tax revenues to solve a particular short-term problem: the soil contamination discovered early this year at the site of the now-rising mixed-use project on Lake Street near Harlem. 

Now why no one knew the soil under longtime village-owned parking lots was laced with fuel from rotted oil tanks is a very good question. Since the village had been plotting a big-time development project for a parcel it had earnestly assembled from many smaller parcels, you’d think there would have been soil borings along the way.

But no. Instead, with a deal done and construction of a property and sales tax-infusing project imminent, Oak Park had to take on debt to clean the soil so it could transfer ownership to the developer.

Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb immediately argued that the village was broke, the high school had a pot of gold and that the two school districts would be the main beneficiaries of the property tax streams about to flow from the Elevate retail and apartment complex. It took a while, but Abu-Taleb and other village trustees gradually cajoled and won over/wore down the school boards.

It was back in 2011 that the village capitulated to demands and pricey litigation from District 200 and agreed to castrate its sorry, aging TIF by funneling all the incoming cash straight to the schools rather than retain it to invest in development opportunities. Given that Oak Park’s elected and appointed officials had often botched and delayed development projects through micro-managing and petty ego squabbles, the TIF frustration of District 200 was not off base. Though it is worth recalling that, at the same time the village government was squandering development chances, OPRF was beginning a decade of gaming its own tax referendum victory to pile up excess taxpayer cash. 

There are no innocents here. 

All that said, the school boards have made the right decision to give up some short-term cash from the TIF to guarantee that the tax boon of new development starts paying out pronto and for decades to come. 

Strip away the odd TIF history and this is, in microcosm, how the concept is supposed to work. Defer limited short-term tax benefits to allow investment that will secure long-term, sustained new tax streams. Odd that it took until the very end of this TIF’s long complicated life to accomplish it.  

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...

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