All year our elected leaders tell us what a great thing it is to use tax increment financing to boost economic development. Free money. Doesn’t raise your property tax bill. Everybody wins. Money wouldn’t exist but for the TIF.
Then when property tax bills arrive, as they did last week in St. Clair County, there is a small moment of truth. On the back of a little, green paper insert, after the information about monthly payments of your large property tax bill, is that sliver of honesty.
There is a pie chart showing where the $332 million in property taxes collected during 2015 went. No. 1 at $202 million were our schools. No. 3 at $31 million is St. Clair County government — $12 million, or 38 percent, airport subsidy included. No. 4 at $28 million are the municipalities.
So what was No. 2? At $44 million, or 13.4 percent of all property taxes paid in St. Clair County, are tax increment financing districts.
The districts exist for decades and often are renewed for decades more by cities. Their original purpose to combat blight is now a joke as cities compete for businesses by offering a corporate welfare that brings in new challengers to the established merchants. Political leaders, instead of the marketplace, pick winners and losers. Schools lose property taxes to the districts and increase their tax levies to offset the losses.
Even when there’s a deal, as Belleville has done and Collinsville just did, and “the city is willing to work with the district and get us the money that we would have been losing because of the TIF district,” you have to ask where the money’s coming from?
It’s coming from that 13.4 percent of your property tax bill, plus amounts hidden within other levies. It is a shell game.
Next time your city is looking to impose another 23-year economic development tool that “doesn’t cost anyone anything,” pull out that little green piece of paper and wave it under your elected leader’s nose.