Monday night Oak Park’s village board marked the expiration, final gasps, or for their few fans, the heroic conclusion of the village’s two major Tax Increment Finance districts.
Often suspect, TIF districts in Oak Park, and everywhere else, have earned a share of derision. The venom comes from taxpayers convinced that higher property taxes are tied to the redistribution of rising tax dollars within the districts from schools and libraries into the pockets of developers. Schools and libraries get steamed because they get blamed for hiking taxes on everyone outside the TIFs because their share gets skimmed. Opponents of new development get into a spin as they see TIFs as the chief culprit in tall buildings rising. And good government folks too often are right in declaring that TIF monies are inappropriately spent on gimmicks, doodads or things that local government should pay for out of the general fund.
We get it. We’ve heard all these arguments, and made a few of them ourselves, over the course of the 30 years there has been a Downtown Oak Park TIF and the 23 years there has been one in place along Madison Street.
Oak Park’s village government has basically failed in being transparent about complex TIF financial matters. There was a period going way back when the village paid for downtown beat cops and some marketing costs out of the TIF which was a decided overreach.
We’d argue the TIF also allowed multiple village boards to willy-nilly purchase properties downtown and strung out along Madison for too much money and without a plan for development. All the arguments that government should be the purchaser of last resort have been proven true repeatedly in Oak Park.
A lot of good years were wasted, a couple of major recessions were endured with development options shriveled because of the lack of a worthy plan or the personnel to execute the modicum of a plan. We’ve also wound up with some overdone streetscapes because it was one thing government officials knew how to do.
That said, both downtown Oak Park and Madison Street met the definition of blight after decades ago the department stores shuttered on Lake Street and the car dealers abandoned Madison Street.
Downtown Oak Park, like it or not, is transformed because of the TIF. And Madison Street, where the TIF was nearly squandered, closed strong over the past six years with a clear focus on East Avenue to Home and a more reasonable definition that development had to include new residential properties.
Now it is time for the two school districts, the park district, the township, the library to acknowledge that a new revenue stream is opening and that it must be used to mitigate new property taxes rather than just be absorbed as a cash infusion into their already rich blood streams.