Whenever my ex-dentist used to say that, I cringed and prepared for an excruciating pain. And oh did it hurt! I learned later, after that dentist had left for “other opportunities”, that he had been doing the procedure wrong the entire time, and the new dentist demonstrated the same procedure with me hardly noticing anything. Still I was scarred, and those false words of promise buried themselves deep inside me.
You can hear the same empty mantra from elected officials. Taxes go up and “its for the kids”. Surely every single tax dollar that is sucked out of our wallets is used for mutually beneficial and good things. Right? Why are you looking at me like that?
While I will focus mostly on the schools, I am going to blame two distinct groups of people; 1) officials, leaders, legislators, policy-makers and every other cherry chum that sees taxes as free money, and 2) you and me and everyone else who lets them get away with this inexcusable atrocity.
Let us take a little spin down TIF lane. TIF, Tax-Increment Financing, sounds innocuous enough – or perhaps, more realistically, vapid and vacuous, as it doesn’t really say much of what it is doing. I think whomever came up with this little tool in the first place might have had good intentions (maybe – let us give the benefit of the doubt in this case). Leaving aside for the moment the nasty scandals in Chicago, let us focus on what we have here in Champaign. Right now, we have 3 TIF districts with a 4th pending (Kraft and north Mattis). A TIF district takes all property taxes that are collected within that district for levying bodies and saves them into a special TIF fund, which is then spent to build up, improve or otherwise incentivize “development” (or read the “official” definition from the City of Champaign). Let’s break that down a little.
A levying body is any number of publicly funded “services”. Take a look at your property tax bill – schools get a huge percentage of our property taxes, but there are a number of other groups on there (County government, forest preserve, sewer, etc etc). All these entities “levy” a tax against our property values as a source of revenue. I have no intention to go into Tax Caps at this point, but they play a role as well. Since the public schools take the largest cut from property taxes, the TIF district in essence has the biggest direct effect on school revenue. And then whomever administrates the TIF fund gets to decide where those monies go. No vote, no need to get approval from you or me (or even the levying bodies for that matter) – the north Mattis TIF is going to be used to help finance a warehouse for Kraft, because, well… I’ll leave the narrative out for now. But don’t worry, it’s not like its your dollar that is funding the TIF.
The tricky part with TIF is whether or not the development would have happened without the TIF in the first place, or how to tell if the TIF really has that much of a positive impact on future revenue streams. It is all a gamble. A TIF has a amazingly long 23-year life (unless extended, like the Champaign Midtown TIF recently was). How do you calculate the difference between what “would have happened” and “what did happen”? (Yes, Pattsi, I know) What guarantees that whomever receives TIF funds will still be going strong after the TIF ends?
The City of Champaign sweetens the “pinch” by offering a sliding scale of reimbursements back to levying bodies from surplus in the TIF fund; the “sliding scale” phases out the reimbursement over a period of several years (keep in mind, the TIF is a 23-year agreement). I mention that because it helps explain why local levying bodies even agree to this in the first place; the City seems to do a pretty good job at engaging representatives of effected parties and getting everyone on the same page. When I started asking questions in an effort to learn more, I was overwhelmed with all the reports, documentation and resources that are “available” to the public. I put “available” in quotes for two reasons. One, “the public” probably has no clue what is going on, as all this “openness” and “transparency” happens in meetings with the comptroller and the Joint Review Board. Two, even if you did happen to go visit the City’s website and find all these documents online, good luck trying to make sense out of it. The City has not the time nor the inclination to make sure the common man can follow along. And I might add, the citizenry has not the time nor inclination to do the homework to hold city leaders accountable.
As an aside, when I asked Bondville if they had any TIF districts, the one and only response I received was a terse “why do you want to know?” I later found out from the Champaign County Clerk that Bondville does not have a TIF district. Bondville, I’m not feeling the love.
Let us circle back to the saga with the high school. Yes, I know the Board and Unit 4 administration are groaning because they want us all to “move on”. I get that. “This might pinch a little”.
On the one hand, it is fascinating to see the fire of complaints get flamed by “social media”, in which I also include the many folks who have opined via the News-Gazette. Lot’s of people saying they don’t like the idea, but so few offering any kind of suggestion, constructive criticism or alternative whatsoever. And yes, to avoid being a hypocrite (*cough cough* to a degree – in some ways, we are all hypocrites and I am not any better), I will again offer my own thoughts and constructive criticism shortly (below). Yet, this body of subjective writing from mostly anonymous handles tells us that at least a small number of people are not happy at all. Many have said they will vote “no” on the proposed referendum later this year. One “yes” vote admits she sees that the inexorable machine will just push forward and ultimately will get a referendum passed, even if it has to come back next year with a slightly smaller number. There is not a resoundingly strong public voice in favor of the proposed referendum or the high school site location.
What do I suggest? Assuming the land purchase on north Neil is a done deal (ie, no chance of a suit or any other legal maneuvering that would reverse the current direction of “intent to purchase”), I would want us to continuing thinking about three high schools. Just because we have tons of land doesn’t mean we need to put a super huge high school on it. I would want us to conduct at least 5 charrettes within the next 6 months (prior to the vote on the referendum) that has two goals; 1) educate the public what the school district truly needs (not wants), and 2) listen to the public to hear what they need AND want. Such charrettes would have lots of maps, both digitally and in paper form, for participants to manipulate and mark up. Experts would be on hand to answer questions, but I would not want them indoctrinating others. I would want the Board (and by proxy, the Administration) to put aside the mentality of only having one possible solution (DeJong-Richter’s High School option 3b) and foster an open climate of creative thinking. In my opinion, this has not yet happened. I would suggest that charrettes be held in low-income areas, to offset the disadvantages of travel options and child-care; and perhaps one or two “central” locations (maybe the library, maybe Central HS).
My charge to the “common person” is that we must be willing to participate. If we offer any type of complaint or gripe, we must elaborate more fully and spell out what we think the viable alternatives are.
The big deal is that tax dollars are flying out of pockets, and most of us have no clue where those dollars are going or what they are accomplishing. For all intents and purposes, taxes never go down (if you know of an example, please PLEASE let me know). Taxes go up, but we still have a huge population under the poverty line, we still have significant areas of crime, we still have cycles where a child born into high-poverty and/or high-crime areas is extremely challenged to rise above. I am thankful that some roses do grow from concrete, but why do we persist in laying down so much proverbial concrete in the first place? Why not fertile, nitrogen-rich soil?
To take “what’s in your wallet” a step further, “what has your wallet done?”
There is a board meeting on Monday, February 10th (
hopefully the agenda will be available soon now available). I encourage you to make your thoughts known to the board during public comment. Unfortunately, I already know I cannot attend, thus if someone is willing to share the things I have posted above (within a 3-minute window), I would appreciate it.
If you hear “this might pinch a little”, be wary.
One of the reasons I wanted to write this post was because I keep hearing about the notorious scams, not only in Chicago about the controversial no-bid contract with a IT firm in collusion with Michigan, but even at the Federal level with the infamous flop of the Obamacare website, and now even NASA and their IT contract (if this is even true, the $2.5 billion pricetag is an expensive oops). It really really bothers me that we pay a significant chunk of change into taxes, but have so very little say in where it goes or what it does. It seems to me that our capitalistic mind-set has created this monster, and now we are living with the unintended consequences. “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us”.
Also, The Great American Job Scam didn’t make me feel any better. 😦 I need to start hanging out with people that don’t get depressed about this stuff.