Englewood rumbles for TIF reform

By Meredith Wilson

Voters in the 30th precinct in Englewood on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative urging citizen oversight for how tax increment financing  dollars are used  in their district.

Asiaha Butler, president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, said the non-binding initiative in the 30th precinct was a “soft launch” of a wider campaign for reform of the special financing program throughout the 16th ward.

“To see that the voters actually agreed that we should have a council confirms what we already thought as an association,” Butler said. “Now we can really work towards that.”

Over 85 percent of residents voted for the initiative. The Englewood Neighborhood TIF District has generated $32.6 million in incremental property tax revenue from 2001 to 2011, according to a city report published in 2013. Residents have no mechanism to to decide where those funds go.

TIF-funded projects often begin with a developer, according to Tom Tesser, co-founder of the Civic Lab, a research group. The developer pitches a project to a number of city commissions, and finally to the mayor and city council for approval, leaving residents out of the process.

“That’s kind of what happened with the Whole Foods,” Butler said. “We were told after that $10 million was being taken out of the Englewood Mall TIF fund.”

With Tuesday’s positive vote, Butler believes the process will change. “The need is really so that the residents who are actually paying will have a say and help develop plans for how the money is being spent. They’re paying into the fund for 23 years, they should have some say in how it’s spent,” she said.

Butler said that the next step after a “great small victory” is to focus on the community and the next alderman, which will be decided in an April 7 runoff.

“We will up our ground game…we need to let it be known it was on the ballot, and whoever’s in office, have a civil conversation with them on how to get it done. If it’s not done in an easy way, we might have to go a different route. It’s not something we mind doing,” Butler said.

Butler and the residential association pushed to get the initiative on the ballot. She described the effort as a campaign to introduce the issue to the community and educate residents.

With about 90 percent of precincts reporting, it appeared that the 16th Ward aldermanic race will go to a runoff between former 15th Ward Alderman Toni Foulkes and Stephanie Coleman, the daughter of former 16th Ward Alderman Shirley Coleman. Coleman and Foulkes will run for JoAnn Thompson’s seat, which was left open after she died of heart failure Feb. 9.

The runoff elections will take place April 7. Regardless of who wins, Butler thinks there’s a very good chance of forming a resident advisory council to oversee the Englewood Neighborhood TIF District.

“We’re going to hold their feet to the fire. R.A.G.E has always been an association known to hold people accountable,” Butler said.

Photo at top: Residents of Ward 16th Precinct 30 were the only voters asked about tax increment funding on their election ballot.  (Meredith Wilson/Medill)