On Sunday, if you squinted enough, you got the truth about tax increment financing in Belleville when the annual treasurer’s report was published as a legal notice. We’ve regularly marked the occasion by highlighting the districts’ impact, something you could call “The Running of the TIFs.”
Belleville’s 18 TIF districts collected $19 million in fiscal 2017, which ended in April. That is $425,000 more than the previous year and nearly $8 million more than a decade ago.
The biggest, oldest TIF with the sharpest horns is TIF 3. It covers most of the city and collected $11.3 million — 60 percent of the total and nearly as much as all the districts collected a decade ago.
TIF 3 was started in 1986 and so far has collected $182 million in property taxes. It was supposed to expire after 23 years, but the city extended it out to 35 years. It dies in 2021 and city leaders are already fretting about how to replace it.
That is because TIF 3 is gold to city spending. The funds are not frozen in place for development of blighted land as state law intends. Instead the funds are nice and slushy, able to be plopped about anywhere city leaders want, even when there is no private investment being made for a specific development.
The latest audit of TIF 3 covers expenditures from 1999 to 2016. Of the $30.4 million Belleville invested in 119 projects, $26 million went to projects without any private investment. Park restrooms, bike trails, city hall windows, city office improvements, a salt storage building, street paving, a new bridge, a pond dam, cemetery work and pool improvements all came out of the funds for projects that drew no private investment.
In four years when TIF 3 goes away, it should just go away. If it generates money that the city needs, then the city needs to be honest with taxpayers about those needs and transparent in its collections.
TIF districts deny property taxes to schools, which then seek more property taxes to cover increasing costs. For a city to take those funds and then use them in ways that only a very active imagination could define as “economic development” is just ... bull.