Wheeling to use $1 million in TIF funds to build bridge to nowhere

Wheeling to use $1 million in TIF funds to build bridge to nowhere

Wheeling village trustees have voted for a plan to use tax increment financing to build a bridge to a vacant piece of land.

The Wheeling Board of Trustees has approved a plan to use tax increment financing, or TIF, dollars to build a bridge to a vacant piece of land, according to the Daily Herald.

The village board members who supported the measure hope the bridge – expected to cost about $1.2 million and take a year to plan and build – will attract development to the 17-acre parcel at the southwest corner of Lake-Cook Road and Milwaukee Avenue. A flood prevention channel currently impedes access to the land, which Wheeling annexed in 1979.

When a locality designates a TIF district, it defines an area and collects incremental property taxes for the district above a threshold amount, which it diverts to a special fund. As tax revenues rise due to increased property values in the district, the additional money goes into the TIF fund, rather than to the district’s taxing bodies, such as schools and parks.

In Illinois, TIF districts can last for up to 23 years. Originally conceived to entice and pay for development in otherwise unmarketable, “blighted” areas, local governments throughout the state now use TIF funds for development and redevelopment of “vacant and underutilized properties,” as well as for “improving aesthetics” and transportation.

Problems with TIF abound. The districts siphon property tax money from other taxing bodies such as schools and park districts, which can lead to tax hikes when budgets are strained. Wheeling homeowners – the vast majority of whom reside in Cook County – are no stranger to some of the nation’s highest property taxes.

While Cook County property taxes are often less than those in the collar counties, Cook was still among the top 2 percent of counties in the U.S. for its median property tax bill from 2011-2015, at more than $4,500.

TIF funds and processes are notoriously opaque and make it difficult for taxpayers to oversee the use of their money. TIF also puts government officials in the position of handpicking (often well-connected) developers and development projects at taxpayer expense, and to the detriment of businesses that don’t get taxpayer money.

The Daily Herald reported that Wheeling Trustee Mary Papantos noted the uncertain success of the TIF-funded bridge project: “You’re asking us to put in a bridge, plow it and maintain it, and we don’t know what’s going to happen past that point?” Village President Pat Horcher said, “I can’t get past it’s a bridge to nowhere.”

Yet despite their risks for taxpayers, drain on other taxing bodies, frequent lack of transparency, and overinvolvement of politicians in private economic development, TIF projects are often tempting – both for government officials and select businesses that stand to benefit from them. Wheeling Trustee David Vogel, who cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the measure, explained his support in a statement reported by the Herald: “The bridge is the future path for that piece of property and it’s going to end up being a great benefit to the village of Wheeling.”

And property owners and developers of a condominium complex near the site have urged the village to build the bridge, claiming that a now-expired agreement from when Wheeling annexed the land obligates the village to do so, according to the Herald. Vivian and Mark Smith developed condominiums south of the 17-acre site and themselves received more than $10 million in TIF funds to finish that project. They want Wheeling to build the bridge with TIF money before the TIF district in which their condominiums and the 17-acre site are located expires in 2023.

But TIF is bad policy and a crummy deal for taxpayers. Wheeling residents will now have to pick up the tab for a project that will cost more than $1 million and will take about a year to design and build, when there aren’t even development plans in the works for what lies on the other side of the bridge. Illinois governments need to end this wasteful practice.

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