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Chicagoans wonder if tax money is being flushed down the toilet

Floating cash

Jeremy Hobson: Chicago's new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has only been in office for a week but he's already trying to tackle an old controversy. He wants to change the way the city doles out money from special taxing districts. They're called "tiffs" for short and they're meant to give blighted neighborhoods a boost. But some Chicagoans say it's mostly money down the drain.

Alex Keefe of Chicago Public Radio explains.


Alex Keefe: Visit the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade on a busy morning like this, and you'll hear the sounds of one of the world's largest futures markets in action.

But lately, it's got some Chicagoans hearing something else.

Toilet flushing

The Board of Trade's parent company recently landed $15 million in TIF money from the city for building improvements -- including, yes, a bit of bathroom remodeling.

TIF stands for "tax increment financing," which is a wonky term for diverting extra revenue away from things like school districts and piping it into economic development. The city has spent tens of millions of TIF dollars to keep companies like MillerCoors and United Airlines downtown. Some community groups say that's an abuse of a program that's supposed to benefit needy neighborhoods. Now, Mayor Emanuel says it's the TIF system that needs some remodeling.

Rahm Emanuel: It is for, as originally stated, blighted economic communities. It's not for downtown.

That could be good news for activists like Amisha Patel.

Amisha Patel: Had they not gotten a little bit of extra money from the taxpayers to renovate their bathrooms, would they be in trouble? I don't think so. I think we have to really look at, 'Are we getting the best bang for our buck?'

Yes, says Jerry Roper, who heads up the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

Jerry Roper: So you want to feed the heartbeat of the city, and make sure that we continue to, not only attract, but retain the companies that are in the central business district.

Emanuel says he'll release more concrete TIF reforms in a few months, so maybe hold off on picking tile samples.

In Chicago, I'm Alex Keefe for Marketplace.

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