Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Murder off the Mag Mile

In the news this week was the report of a murder at the upscale Whitehall Hotel (105 E. Delaware Pl.) just off the Magnificent Mile.  A young woman identified as Brianna Gardner, 22 was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head at 10 am on Monday.  Housekeeping found her body in the 7th floor room and immediately called the police.  Research conducted on the victim's background suggests that she was working as a prostitute.  Gardner had previous arrests on August 8 in Chicago for solicitation and back in April she was arrested for the same crime in Harris County, Texas.

Gardner is not the first woman working as a prostitute to be killed in this tony area of Chicago.  Back in October of last year a woman was killed at the boutique hotel Felix in the River North area.  Although these crimes aren't related, the killer in the October incident is currently behind bars, both murders open a window on the sex trafficking business in Chicago.

Here in the windy city the streetwalker is largely a thing of the past.  Replacing this 70's era figure, made iconic in such classic films as Taxi Driver and the blaxploitation picture Coffy, is an entrepreneur modelling herself on the much earlier madames of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  She will invest her money in the right places and know when the time is right to get out of the business.  

Of course, most never do get out of the business and the whole equation changes when drugs and organized crime enter the mix.  Suddenly the cannily self-employed (or independent contractor if you will) becomes simply another worker in the heartbreaking game of capitalism.

Eventually we may learn what happened to Brianna Gardner.  At the moment what is interesting to consider, however, is how reality can sometimes put a damper on our fantasies  Who hasn't dreamed at some point in their life of a sugar daddy or sugar momma?  At some time all you good girls and boys must have considered what sex is like on the darker side of town or else E.L. James (a.k.a. Fifty Shades of Grey lady) would still be a relative unknown.  Stripper inspired exercises and burlesque classes would not have taken off either.

And yet....  Sometimes you can't have your cake and eat it too.  Unless a culture can be honest with itself about sex and sexual desires, women on the fringe are more likely to die.

Update:  A suspect is now in custody for the murder.  His cell phone was found in Gardner's room.  Although police have not yet released his name, news sources indicate that he has prior convictions for theft, aggravated assault, and possession of illegal drugs.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Chicago's Secret Tax Hike

This Saturday at The College of Complexes I had the pleasure of hearing Ben Joravsky speak on the topic of Tax Increment Financing or TIFs.  Anyone who has been a regular reader of his columns in the Chicago Reader knows that this topic has become something of a white whale for Joravsky, obsessing him for nearly 8 years.  What they might not realize, however, is that Chicago has reached a pivotal moment in the use of TIFs as a development tool.

Tax Increment Financing has been around for a long time.  In Illinois, TIFs trace their origins to enabling legislation passed in 1977.  The shift from direct state aid to TIFs was made in response to several factors.  First there was the growing reality of urban blight that accompanied the movement of industry overseas and the flight of the middle class from inner cities to outer neighborhoods and suburbs.  Then there was the growing distaste for direct government programs of the Great Society or New Deal type.  Finally, the growth of TIFs reflected the empty coffers of most government agencies at the time, especially at the local level.

In an ideal world, TIFs work in a relatively predicable way.  Local government creates what is known as a TIF zone.  The creation of this zone is supposed to be done in consultation with residents and businesses in the area.  Following the creation of a TIF zone, property taxes are frozen at an agreed upon level for a set number of years.  Local schools and other municipal agencies that receive funding through property taxes will continue to collect revenue at this fixed rate.  Any additional revenue created by property improvement in a TIF zone is placed into a special account.  That money is intended for use in the TIF zone on projects that will improve the quality of life for its residents.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that is far from ideal.  As Joravsky has pointed out in numerous Reader articles on the subject, TIF funds have little or no oversight and TIF zones are often created in areas that are far from blighted without residents even being aware of their creation.  For the curious Chicago-area reader, here is a map of the current TIF zones in Chicago from the county clerk.  This has led to the use of TIF funds to add planters in the middle of loop area roadways or to create tourist attractions such as Millennium Park.  Although these changes do make the center city more attractive to locals as well as visitors, the loop hardly qualifies as a blighted area.  Nor do these projects add much in the way of property tax revenue to the TIF zone let alone the city--the avowed purpose of TIF legislation in the first place.

For those who have followed the scandalous progress of TIFs in Chicago, most of this is old news. What many may not realize, however, is that TIFs in the Chicago area operate like a secret property tax hike.

In order to maintain stable funding in municipal services, property taxes in non-TIF zones must raise over time to fill the deficit caused by what is essentially a development subsidy given to TIF zones.  These rises in the tax rate are not discussed or voted upon.  They simply appear on your tax bill.  And the gap only gets worse as inflation and added demand upon city services are both taken into account.

Thanks in large part to Joravsky's investigative journalism, area tax payers are becoming aware of this scandalous backdoor revenue generating scheme.  Yet they haven't been angry enough to vote in their own best interest and bring the TIF program to a swift end.  The current financial climate, however, may change that.

In 2010, Cook County Clerk David Orr called for a six-month moratorium on the creation of TIF districts in Chicago.  He was largely ignored.  Now in 2012, Orr's report for 2011 has come out and shows that TIFs are no longer earning revenue.  Daley's cash cow appears to have run dry and our newly crowned King Emanuel is left holding the bag.

With TIFs no longer serving their intended purpose, one can only hope that local government will come to its senses and disband the program.  Voters and taxpayers need to watch out, however, to make sure that Emanuel's City Trust doesn't simply slide in to take the TIFs place.  You can't have improved city services without higher taxes.  No amount of creative financing or public/private partnerships can hide that unpalatable fact.

It's time for Chicago to set a clear and responsible budget that meets our short term needs while at the same time placing remaining TIF funds in a long-term development fund with clear goals and strict oversight.

Is this a pipe dream?  Perhaps.  But I imagine many felt the same way about air travel.  It's up to you Chicago.  Tell your leaders what you want.  Both in the ballet box and out on the streets.