Communicating on TIF

Opinion: Editorials

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River Forest officials, elected and appointed, clearly learned lessons from the fumbled rollout of a Tax Increment Finance district along Madison Street a couple of years back. Now, with plans well along to create a TIF on North Avenue, all involved are pledging to do better this time in communicating with both residents and commercial property owners and tenants along the northern border of the village.

We support well drawn, purposefully considered TIFs as an essential local tool for economic development. It is a way to, over two decades, sequester property tax increases above a current baseline and within the TIF and use those "increments" to invest in development projects or the infrastructure to attract such developments. 

The challenge of TIFs in every municipality that creates one is transparency. Transparency in the planning of the TIF. Transparency in the ongoing operation of the TIF.

On the front end, and where River Forest came up short along Madison Street, is the need to overcommunicate to all property owners within the TIF as to the purposes of the district, why properties are included, and why they are carved out — in general, the sort of developments the village seeks to support through the TIF.

The same issues apply to North Avenue, although it is different in terms of the sheer length of the stretch that will be covered. Is the primary purpose the remaking of functionally obsolete commercial buildings on the street, buildings dating to the 1950s, which served that generation's need for retail or office spaces? How will the TIF deal with the fairly shallow commercial lots on the street? Will this TIF take aim at what is a goodly portion of the village's only affordable multifamily residential?

Once a TIF is underway — and River Forest is looking at early 2018 for final approval — the transparency challenges become different. How are the somewhat competing needs for secrecy (as development projects are negotiated) balanced with the reality that public money is being spent? How openly reported are the ongoing finances of the absolutely arcane TIF structure? How do other local taxing bodies, which are giving up short-term property tax gains from within the TIF, being consulted year-by-year?

TIFs are great. And TIFs can be a black hole. We are hopeful that River Forest can thread this needle.

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